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Mont. town's minor love affair


BILLINGS, Mont. - Today is "Fan Appreciation Day" at Cobb Field, the last regular season game for the Billings Mustangs and an emblem of the end of summer. Weather permitting, the Mustangs will take on the Ogden, Utah, Raptors in a rickety, 60-year-old baseball stadium named for a man and his salad.

It's a crucial weekend: The Mustangs need to defeat Ogden in this season finale to advance to the Pioneer League playoffs this week against the Idaho Falls Padres, winners of the first half of the 2000 season. The Medicine Hat Blue Jays are also in the playoffs, leaving behind also-rans such as the Butte Copper Kings in a league that sprawls across three states and a Canadian province.

The Weber family - Gail, Ed and 16-year-old Jeff - will be rooting especially hard for Billings shortstop Bryan Anderson, a Texan who is lodging this summer in the Webers' spare bedroom. Jeff Weber plays basketball at Billings Central High School and hangs around with the Mustangs, four of whom the Webers billeted last summer.

"It's our social life," Gail Weber says of the 40-game home season. She tenses each time Anderson, a 22-year-old with just a hint of a Texas drawl, handles a grounder. "He's having a fair year," she says, "but then there's his injury" - the hip that Anderson injured at mid-season in a hard slide.

Anderson is a rookie in the Rookie League, the primary port of entry to professional baseball, and Billings is one of its remote stations. Anderson and the other Mustangs are young men in their late teens and early 20s who are, at best, years away from the Major Leagues and multi-year, multimillion-dollar salaries. Each Mustang earns $850 a month for the pleasure of competing in a league in which eight-hour bus rides between ballparks are the norm.

"They're all so young," says Ed Weber, 46, an electrical engineer. "Not that they don't have egos."

Robert Wilson, the Mustangs' president and general manager, likes their hustle. "They run out ground balls. They do high fives all around when one of them does well. They hang together."

From Billings, if all goes well, these young men advance to Cincinnati farm teams in Dayton, Ohio; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Louisville, Ky. Then if the stars are aligned, it's the Cincinnati Reds, the Mustangs' parent club since 1974.

That longtime relationship, unusual in the world of professional baseball, isn't the only sign of stability in Billings, a city of 80,000 with a rich history of baseball. Billings fields two American Legion teams that have won a string of championships, and the city's sandlots are chockablock with young players in the long summer twilight. And this summer - with wildfires burning across the sate and acrid smoke filling the air - baseball seems an especially welcome respite.

The Mustangs have stuck to their name since they played their first game against Pocatello, Idaho, 52 years ago last April. And Mustangs stalwarts stood as one against a state legislator's suggestion that the team sell naming rights for Cobb Field to a regional bank.

That was sacrilege. "The Mustangs and Cobb are important names in Billings," says Wilson, 61, who sold a truck dealership in 1985 to become the team's general manager. "We're proud of them."

Cobb Field and the Mustangs are the same age, although the central wooden grandstand is older by eight years.

The club was organized not by the legendary baseball great Ty Cobb, but by the somewhat less legendary Hollywood restaurateur Robert Cobb, owner at mid-century of the Pacific Coast League's Hollywood Stars, proprietor of the famous Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood and originator of the Cobb salad.

Mustang historian Alan Rice says Cobb put up $20,000 for park construction, but most of the team's original capital came from a stock offering at $10 a share. Among the early investors were H. L. Crosby (better known as Bing), Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck and Cecil B. DeMille, all friends of Cobb.

Wilson, one of two full-time employees, says about 250 stockholders today hold some 900 shares. "I own 100, just to make sure I don't fire myself," he says. "But in all seriousness, nobody's in it to make money. The purpose since the beginning has been to keep baseball in Billings." This is a community-owned team, just like the Green Bay Packers of the National Football League.

Wilson says the team made about $30,000 last year and will earn about the same this year, with general admission tickets tagged at $4.50 and general admission season tickets at $80.

Against rival Idaho Falls - on a warm, smoky evening last month - the Mustangs attract a crowd of about 1,000, a fourth of capacity at Cobb. With adept fielding and timely hitting, the home team wins the game on a walk with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 10th.

Cobb Field lies a few blocks from downtown Billings and in the shadows of the "Rims," a line of cliffs carved out by the meandering Yellowstone River.

Rice describes Cobb Field as "basically primitive." Built on the base of an old American Legion park and remodeled in 1981, it puts fans close to the playing field. "Part of it dates back to 1940 and 1941," Rice says. "Few ballparks can trace their lineage back that far. It has the feel of an old-time park. I grew up with Fenway in Boston. Cobb has the same general style, charm and configuration."

The Webers are in the grandstands, along with Carol Schladweiler, former president of the Mustangs fan group, an organization that uses the proceeds from nightly raffles to treat the players to barbecues, picnics, fishing trips and other entertainment, home and away.

Schladweiler, 49, has been a Mustangs fan since 1979 and likes the intimacy of the field: "You're close to the field wherever your seats are. You can get to know these kids over the course of a season."

Separate from the fan club is the 42-member Mustang Boosters, a group of civic leaders ranging from bank presidents to hod carriers. The boosters are in charge of the Cobb Field beer concession, working as volunteers and turning over all the profits to the club for big-ticket items such as uniforms. (Money left over at the end of the season goes to the Billings Little League and other youth activities.)

On this night, Randy Ruiz, the club's top hitter, has been designated the game's "Beer Batter." When Ruiz gets a hit, even if it's a scratch infield single, beer sells at four for $5 until the end of the inning. "The Beer Batter has to be the best deal in professional baseball," says Jim Iverson, the boosters' leader. "Even at our regular price of $2, beer at Cobb Field is a bargain."

Ruiz doesn't disappoint; he goes two for four, each hit prompting a stampede to the beer line. (None is sold in the stands.) But the Mustangs cut off beer sales after the seventh inning. (And Ruiz didn't last the season: He and five other Mustangs were sent home late last month for violating a curfew while on a road trip in Butte.)

The best seats in the house at Cobb Field are a pair of recliners beside the third-base dugout. In a promotion sponsored by a Billings furniture store, winners of a drawing sit in the recliners at each game. They also get free pizza, soft drinks and an autographed baseball. The recliners will be auctioned off after today's final game.

The first Mustangs game at Cobb was played May 4, 1948, with the Mustangs under the direction of manager Charlie Root, the victim of Babe Ruth's "called" home run in the third game of the 1932 World Series. Since then, numerous major leaguers, among them Chris Canizzaro, Jamie Quirk, Gary Redus, Skeeter Barnes, Joe Oliver, Dick Stuart, Tracy Stallard and George Brett, have got their start as Mustangs at Cobb. Brett, a shortstop-turned-third baseman who played for the 1971 team, is the only Mustang to have made it to baseball's Hall of Fame.

"This is the innocent part of baseball," says Wilson, the general manager. "It's a different world from the big leagues. The kids sign autographs after every game. They do appearances at malls for no fee, or maybe for a free lunch.

"What I like most about it is that people down here aren't that impressed with themselves."

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