Raising the Boys of Summer 

Photos by Chad Harder

The resurrection of professional baseball in Missoula occurred on a less than perfect day in the valley. The threat of rain seemed imminent.

The windy, overcast morning—chilly even for June in Montana—must have seemed doubly imposing to the 20-odd young men who gathered quietly in the dugout at Lindborg-Cregg Legion Field. Most of them were a long way from home, experiencing their first day as pro athletes in a town they'd never heard of two weeks ago. They had come to play for a team that didn't yet have a working roster or proper uniforms, let alone a permanent home.

They were just learning each other's names with two weeks to make themselves into a workable, game-ready unit. Most looked scared, but ready to play. First, they had to sit through these opening remarks and instructions from Field Manager Joe Almaraz and a handful of big league representatives who had come to oversee the beginning of mini-camp in Montana. Finally, when the talking was finished, they took the field to stretch. For the first time since 1960, Missoula had a professional baseball team.

Osprey catcher Joe Kalczynski swats a ball to left field during batting practice last week.

"This is a very exciting time for us," Almaraz said, after the players had broken up into their position groups. "We have all these new faces, new bodies. We've scouted them, and now we get to groom them into big league players."

The moment wasn't spectacular, coming and going without fanfare. It was witnessed by only a handful of locals and a dozen construction workers who were busy putting the finishing touches of the grandstand behind home plate. But this moment marked the realization of months of work by the organization's tiny front office. General Manager Joe Easton and his full-time staff of three had been working since December to make sure that the players who had become the Missoula Osprey could jog onto the diamond to begin their careers here.

"Each player that comes here has always been the best player on every team he's ever been on," said Easton, whose responsibilities in the O's downtown office allowed him to witness little of mini-camp. "These guys are used to being the MVP of every league they play in. Now they're one of 26 guys who've all had that same kind of success. It's a big adjustment, and I love to see how the kids respond to that. They're scared. They're nervous. They're polite. The big league money and egos haven't hit them yet."

Long-time baseball fans Art and Betty Busse take in the Osprey during mini-camp. "It's gonna be a lotta fun," says Betty. "We never missed a game when we lived in Billings, and we're looking forward to a good season."

Easton, who graduated from Sentinel High School in 1986, was the first staffer hired onto the Osprey organization. Before coming back to Missoula last year, Easton completed stints as general manager for the Northern League's Thunder Bay Whiskey Jacks and the Pioneer League's Helena Brewers, where he was named league executive of the year in 1992.

But the Missoula job, Easton said, has been his first look at what it takes to starting a franchise from ground zero.

"This is my first experience with starting from scratch," Easton said. "When I opened the office on Dec. 1, it was four walls, carpet, ceiling, light switches, and a couple of desks in the middle of the room in a pile."

A week after opening the office Easton attended winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn., and returned to Montana with a '99 Pioneer League schedule, as well as ticket and advertising prices. It would be a month before the team would come to life, but Easton was already busy hiring his support staff and running ideas for team names and logos through licensing committees.

With the fight over projected stadium sites hogging the headlines, Easton was kept busy making sure the business side of baseball was running smoothly. Filling the gaps in the Osprey's front office, he said, became a formidable task.

"We eventually found our assistant GM with an Internet job search," Easton said. "Trent (Durgosh) was working for a CBA team is Sioux Falls, South Dakota. That was a hard process, finding people who had previous sports experience."

And now that the pre-production has ended and the team's new players are a week deep in the summer season, the traffic at the Osprey office has only increased. The stadium question remains unanswered, and the lobby is clogged with folks trying to buy up remaining tickets for the home games at Lindborg-Cregg. The level of activity sometimes forces Easton to conduct interviews in the parking lot out back.

"All our efforts right now are going into getting ready for Lindborg-Cregg," Easton said. "What that means, very broadly, is advertising, season ticket sales, concessions, souvenir and merchandise operations, and then what we call our show."

And the show is on, so far with positive results.

Only two players with minor league experience remain on the team that was once the Lethbridge Black Diamonds: third baseman Jeff Brooks and outfielder/lead-off hitter Darryl Conyer. Both are in their second Pioneer League season, which gives them the edge of experience over most of their teammates and foes. But experience in the Pioneer League is a double-edged sword, because of tight age restrictions that are written into league rules.

Young players, meanwhile, have only a short time to showcase their skills in the rookie leagues.

"I've been through the whole Pioneer League thing," said the 19-year-old Brooks, who at 6 feet 5 inches and 225 pounds is giant in the infield. "I hope it gives me a leg up. I want to succeed, we all do. I know I've got some things to work on while I'm here. I just hope to get better."

Mini-camp, full of instruction, drills and the selection of a starting roster, ended as quietly as it began. Following an in-store style reception thrown by the team in which the players personally greeted a throng of their new fans, the Osprey were thrust into their first season. Missoula's first chance to showcase its real-time skills was a road game against Northern Division competitor, the Great Falls Dodgers.

With the hatred of the local sporting community fixed vehemently on towns like Bozeman, Cheney, and Flagstaff, it's a stretch to paint Great Falls and Missoula as rivals. But when the Osprey arrived in the Electric City for the first game of their inaugural campaign, it was clear that whatever smoldering feelings of animosity existing in the minds of hard-core fans had been duly stoked.

"Is it true that the Osprey are going to play in sandals and socks?" Quipped one Dodger fan while filing through the ticket gate. "I heard they're going to sip tea between innings. Isn't that the Missoula way?"

But the overall attitude of the hometown crowd at American Legion Park was anything but electric. The official attendance, announced at 2,926, appeared to be a figure reached largely through wishful thinking. Great Falls failed to fill its stadium on opening day, and most people in attendance seemed to be more interested in cheesy prize giveaways and watching Tommy Lasorda one-hop the ceremonial first pitch than the actual game.

When the teams took the field—the Dodgers looking like red, white and blue clones of their parent organization, the O's in black tops with blue lettering and gold trim—it was the group of 40-plus Missoula fans, shipped in by special charter, that made the most racket. These boosters, after all, had a near 40-year thirst for pro ball to quench. It seemed that the 160-mile bus trip had only given them a few more hours to stew.

Still, G. Falls drew first blood. With two men on in the bottom of the opening inning, catcher Dane Tamaszewski slapped a stinging shot off Brooks' glove at third. Both base runners scored. Missoula's birds of prey would have to play the first few innings in franchise history in the hole by a pair.

But in the top of the fourth, the uneasy silence that had fallen on the Osprey faithful was shattered with an explosion of offensive might. Brooks, winning some retribution for the fielding miscue that put the Dodgers on the board, had two base runners to work with when he stepped to the plate and responded by zipping a double into the stadium's right corner to notch the fledgling team's first RBI. The Missoula fans erupted with a thunderous ovation, waving blue and black plastic noise makers that had been distributed on the ride over. A prominent local businessman crept forward in the stands and tossed a plastic trout onto the field.

Second baseman Hector Cruz would later drive Brooks home and then score himself. Conyer scored from third on a squeeze play that seemed to dumbfound the Great Falls infield. When runs by catcher J.D. Closser and designated hitter Kevin Burns put Missoula up 8-2, the Dodgers changed pitchers. Adam Williams, Great Falls' David Wellsian middle reliever, trotted to the bullpen to face shortstop Corey Myers.

Myers, the Diamondbacks' first round draft selection, who netted a reported seven-figure signing bonus, dominated most of the preview stories in both the Great Falls and Missoula media. The coverage, along with some solid play in the field had made Osprey fans eager to make the million-dollar kid their hero. Myers simply obliged them.

The high school standout from Scottsdale, Ariz., used his third pro at bat to crush the first-ever home run in Osprey history. The ball left the stadium over the left field fence, somewhere between the scoreboard and the pink caricature of the jolly Italian chef that advertises a local pizzeria 335 feet from home plate.

Myers rounded the bases and a few minutes later, when the fans were through chanting his name, the lights came on at Legion Field and the sky turned at eerie sea-green color. Easton, who had run to retrieve the home run ball, now paraded in front of the rabid Missoula crowd. They cheered and lifted their microbrews and it was clear that the new era of Missoula baseball had anointed its first superstar.

Later, Closser and outfielder Doug Devore would also go yard. Every Missoula player who saw action tallied at least one hit their first game. A ninth-inning flurry from the Dodgers sputtered out in front of a most empty stadium. Only the Missoula fans remained en masse. The PA continued to pump canned organ music and the Great Falls mascot, a blue, bipedal bunny named Dodger Rabbit handed out high-fives among the scattered G. Falls supporters that remained. But this night would clearly be remembered as a coming out party for the O's and their fans.

When Osprey pitcher Jim Wollschied caught Dodger batter Thomari Harden snoozing for a third strike to end the game, the Missoula crowd clustered close to the dugout to congratulate the team, and each other, on a successful beginning. The Osprey had triumphed 17-9 in the first game of a road swing that wouldn't allow them to see home turf for six more days.

The crew of happy, glass-eyed Missoula fans boarded the home-bound bus moments later. Their squad had shown offensive productivity seldom seen on opening day at any level on their way to posting a score worthy of a turn-of-the-century football team. For the team, General Manager Joe Easton, and the Osprey staff, things were just getting started. For these fans, the wait was over.

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