By Matt Morris EBS Guest Columnist
As I wake up this morning, I can’t help but smile for many of the same reasons we all share: the pure beauty of the mountains, the freestone rivers, and the endless opportunities to explore. Today’s smile is different though. It comes from a place deeply rooted inside me.
For many years I, along with my wife Heather, came to Big Sky in order to escape the daily grind of life from real world USA. Every October I couldn’t wait to leave behind the chaotic nature of being a Major League Baseball pitcher. Big Sky was my place to unwind, relax, reflect and ski. It was a place to forget about baseball; a place where no one cared who you were or what you did; a place that made us feel at home, one that made me smile.
After hanging up my cleats and raising a family here it has been nothing short of exceptional. What brought me here was the idea of what life after baseball could be: how I could ski and fish; how I could feel free and unconfined; how the spotlight would dim and a life could begin.
What was not part of the equation was the sense of community I stumbled upon–the village it takes to raise kids the right way. It’s the friendly wave, the well-timed tow strap and the unwavering support from neighbors. I guess, they’re the same things that make us all smile.
In my professional days I mostly smiled too. I was lucky enough to play 12 years of Major League Baseball as a starting pitcher. In my opinion, the greatest life in sports, except for the actual games, is difficult. Most of my career was spent with the St. Louis Cardinals before becoming a free agent and signing with the San Francisco Giants. Then, feeling the business side of sports, I was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
To compete at the highest level in sports is both exhilarating and terrifying. To put your talent to the test against the best in the world is an opportunity to measure your true character. How you deal with the adversity while in the spotlight is more than just baseball. It is who you are, not what you are, that makes you great.
Baseball, like life, is a game of failure. It tests your patience. It shines a spotlight on you for just a second to see if you decide to do the right thing. Baseball finds you when you are not looking for it. It humbles you when you think you have it.
My smile this morning comes from yet another baseball memory. In a sport that has given me so much, it continues to be a gift in my life. Even though I tried to move far away from baseball, it has found me once again. Never did I think these memories would come on a dusty field in small town Montana.
I have had the great privilege of coaching a group of young baseball stars for the last four years. Together, we have learned America’s game, our game. It has come with some highs and many lows. It has come with a little blood, some broken bones and a lot of tears. It has been filled with slumps and bad hops.
There were beanballs on cold nights and bruised egos on warm ones. It was the doctor’s kid to the plumber’s boy to the son of a rancher completing a 6-4-3 double play. It’s a blazing fastball thrown by the mechanic’s boy after years of catch in the backyard; the frozen rope hit by the math teacher’s son to send the game into extra innings; the fireman’s youngest blocking home plate for the final out. It’s a community coming together to create pure magic on a field in the shape of a diamond. There is no clock in baseball, only time. Enough time to break your heart and enough time to fill it back up.
Well, this season, my team of a dozen 12-year-old boys recently played their hearts out on a scorching hot weekend in Miles City. It was more of a perfect mediocrity than a flawed brilliance but nonetheless we persevered. As their coach, mentor and sometimes babysitter I am proud to call this team the Montana State Champions.
I will never forget what this team has done for this old washed-up ex-player. I will remember their teamwork, sacrifice and unselfish play. They will remember the ice cream after the games. I will replay the final out as if it was the seventh game of the world series, as they play whiffle ball on a side field. It’s innocent and it’s pure. I can only hope they will look back on this magical season with the same love and joy it gave me. Maybe one day while having a catch in the backyard with their own child, they can tell them about the summer of 2021.
Now, it’s on to the Pacific Northwest Regionals in Meridian, Idaho, to compete against teams twice our size with cities triple the population.
It’s a level of baseball that is far beyond waiting for the snow to melt, a level where turf fields replace lawn mowers and batting cages are the norm. But maybe, just maybe, the baseball gods will look down on us and reward us for all the hard work we put in. Win, lose or draw, my heart is full once again.
Matt Morris is the head coach of the Belgrade Bandits All-Star baseball team which won the 12U Montana State Championship on July 11. The team also competed in the Pacific Northwest Regional Tournament at Meridian, Idaho on July 22 – 25.