Major League baseball is more than a third of a way through its season, but professional baseball in Billings started Friday night.
Watching games on television is a lot more enjoyable these days than when I first started 50 years ago, but no major sport has a bigger gap between the game as viewed and the game as actually seen than baseball. The dimensions are all wrong on TV: Baseball is not a rectangular game, and even the biggest screen gives only a constrained sense of the dimensions of the field.
My wife and I have had season tickets since Dehler Park opened, and it always takes a few innings to adjust to the games in person. So much more is going on, and I don’t just mean the crowd. The coaches are giving signals, the infield is whipping the ball around the diamond, baserunners tempt the pitchers, bullpen catchers and pitchers flow by in a steady stream.
We are particularly drawn each year to third base because that’s the position closest to our seats. This year, the spot is occupied by Nick Senzel, a top draft choice who at age 20 already has made more money than I ever will.
He demonstrated he might be worth it when he dove into the stands to come up with a foul ball landing about six feet from where we were sitting. If we had been watching him on TV, it would have been like he dove right out of the screen onto our living room floor.
Then, of course, there are the fans, all the familiar faces in our section from seasons gone by with updates on who is gone, who has been ill, who never seems to change. There’s the guy a couple of rows behind us who, whenever the Mustangs blow a play, invariably hollers, “That’s why they call it the developmental league.” And there are the guys wearing the T-shirts saying, “If found, return to Section 117.”
Last night, people kept talking about the absence of a designated beer batter, the first time without one I’ve seen in the 24 years I’ve been watching Mustangs baseball. In the seventh inning, with the game salted away, a Mustang hit a foul ball and that knocked the lights out of the neon “Beer” sign on the first-base concourse. Around the stadium, people were shouting, “It’s the no-beer batter!”
One other thing TV can’t duplicate: Baseball is so finely honed a game that it can easily get out of hand. When that happens on TV, boredom ensues. But in the ballpark, win or lose, a blowout relaxes the tension of the game and awakens the humorists. One of my favorite enduring memories is of seeing former Gazette sportswriter Fritz Neighbor, late in a dismal Mustang performance, applauding some futile success stolidly but loudly, Citizen Kane style.
Last night, the blowout was all on the Mustangs’ side, 10-1. Not only did Senzel play well, but so did speedy center fielder Taylor Trammell, 6-5 first baseman Montrell Marshall and right fielder Jose Siri, who finished a home run short of hitting for the cycle. Pitcher Tony Santillan, with a fastball hitting 97 mph, carried a one-hitter into the fifth before fading.
One home game down, 37 to go. Turn that TV off.