By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editor
As I sat at Legion Field the other day watching the Havre Northstars take on the Fort MacLeod Royals, I realized something. I was jealous.
I was jealous of the beautiful field they were playing on and the massive lights that made the field look brighter than a sunny day even though it was 10 at night. I was jealous of the raucous crowds that filled the stands and lived and died on every play. I was jealous of the success on the field as the Northstars were pounding the Royals en route to a pair of wins.
The next day, as I watched the Havre Comets take on the Royals in their own doubleheader, my jealousy didn't subside. It grew.
Jealous, jealous, jealous. The more I thought about it, the more envious I got.
But as I sit and write this, I begin to understand that I am not alone in my jealousy. Every player who ever wore a Northstar uniform before 1995, every kid who ever wanted to wear a Northstar uniform but didn't get the chance, every opposing player, every opposing coach, every out-of-town fan feels a little resentment.
Because all of us, every single one of us, wishes they could have been a part of the powerhouse that has become the Havre American Legion Baseball program.
A solid foundation
It isn't as if the Northstars suddenly became successful in the last five or six years. On the contrary, since its inception in the late '60s, the program has been one of the best in its respective divisions. And it only seems like Northstar head coach Mickey Williams has been around for all of them.
He's played on and coached a state champion Northstar team. He's only threatened to retire 1,750 times during a coaching career that has spanned 27 years. Yet, he is still here working on the field, working on the umpires and guiding the Northstars.
Williams played on some of the finest Northstars teams and coached on more. He has been associated with the program since 1970 and in that time there's been peaks for every valley - down years for every outstanding year.
But beginning in 1995, the program has maintained a consistent level of success.
"Right now, the program is stronger than ever," Williams said. "It just isn't on the field; it's in the facilities, budget and support from the community. We're at the point where other programs are trying to emulate the things we have done."
What the program has done is not only maintain a high level of success, but also offer the opportunity for plenty of perspective players to participate.
Everyone doesn't get to play
As a 16-year-old on the Havre Northstars, I once sat on the bench for 97 consecutive innings before getting into a game. And that wasn't even the most on our team. My buddy sat 108 consecutive innings to hold the team record. And you know what? That wasn't even close to the all-time record, which was about 200 innings.
No, I didn't have any splinters in my backside, because I had enough time to get them out after I got one. Was I disappointed to be more attached to the bench than the water cooler? Not really. After all, I wasn't blind. I was barely 5 foot 6 and weighed about 130 pounds. Most teams thought I was the bat boy, not the back-up second baseman.
Coming out of Babe Ruth, I was like many kids - nowhere near ready to play legion baseball, at least not with the Northstars, who had eight 18-year-olds and five 17-year-olds returning. We had guys on our team who were shaving every day. I wasn't shaving every six months.
There was an at-bat here or a couple of innings there. That's all I could really hope for. We called ourselves 10-run players because we only got in if we were winning or losing by 10.
We carried about 18 players on the roster and simple math tells you that some kids aren't going to play as much as others. Most of us understood it. We practiced and hoped for playing time, all the while counting down the days until we would be 17 or 18 and play more.
"There were plenty of kids that sat at least 10 or 12 games without playing," Williams said. "They would sit 100 to 115 innings without seeing so much as an at-bat. They had to be patient and stick it out and know they would get their playing time in the future."
But there were plenty of kids who weren't that patient. They decided that practicing every day and giving up basically the entire summer wasn't worth a few innings here or a couple of at-bats there.
They quit before they ever really started. The first day of tryouts had about 30 kids and by the end of the week there were barely 20. They didn't get cut by Williams or the other coaches. They cut themselves.
With summer camps for almost every sport and other distractions, they could look elsewhere for competition or entertainment.
"Some kids started not even bothering to try out," Williams said. "They would look at who was returning on the team and who would be trying out and they figured they wouldn't be good enough to play."
Said current Comet coach Bob Evans: "Once you lose a kid, they very rarely come back. With the extra team, we weren't losing kids as easily."
The birth of the Comets
It started out pretty innocently about eight years ago. Perry Miller, a local parent, approached Williams about borrowing some of his younger players to team with his son and some other players to play in a legion tournament in Williston, N.D., that Miller's friend ran.
"I thought it was a good way for some of those kids to get some more games in," Williams said.
It worked out pretty well. Williams' younger players got to play in four more games than they would have on the season. And the Comets were born, sort of.
They called them "the B team" and they were still a part of the Northstars. But Williams set up games and tournaments specifically for the B squad. Maybe 15 to 20, not a ton, but they were still games. And that was important.
"You can't replace game experience," Williams said. "It is so much better than practice and it offers incentive for all the practice."
It still wasn't easy in those first few years. Scheduling was tough since the team didn't have a set conference schedule. Instead, the B team was forced to travel across the state and into Canada in search of games.
And as the first coach of the B team, I was there for just about every mile. We won a few games, lost a few more. But the opportunity to just play in games was more important to the kids than wins and losses.
After two years , the number of kids wanting to play on the B team increased. Kids told other kids, "hey, this isn't so bad."
Slowly the numbers increased to the point where the squad became independent of the Northstars for the most part. Once summer began we even went to separate practices.
But the big step came in 1999 when the Northern A District reconfigured, adding the two Great Falls A squads and Malta. Williams convinced members of the Northern A District to allow the Comets to join the conference.
"They were pretty skeptical at first," Williams said. "They thought we wouldn't be able to keep it going. I assured them that we would be in the league longer than Malta."
With the step into the league, the Comets were officially born. The determining factor in putting the Comets in the league wasn't about wins and losses but about a set schedule.
"With a conference schedule, you know you will get a certain amount of home games," Williams said. "When we weren't in the conference, we constantly had to travel and go to tournaments to get games. That got really expensive after awhile."
It was a perfect year to join the conference. In terms of numbers and talent, the Comets had plenty of both. We had a good year, winning more games than I expected. We even qualified for the Northern A District tournament. Any thoughts that the Comets weren't ready for being in a conference were quickly erased.
Direct effects of success
The emphasis of the Comets was always about participation - to give as many kids who wanted to play baseball the opportunity. But telling a 16-year-old boy that winning and losing aren't important and just playing the game is, is like telling the same kid that someday he will actually miss going to school. By playing in the conference, the young players on the Comets were forced to learn to play at a higher level at an accelerated pace. They really had no choice. It was learn to play with the big boys or endure loss after loss, which never sits well with most kids playing any type of sport.
At the beginning of every season, I would say to myself, "We're going to lose every game." But after each practice, things would get a little better. With every game, they hit the ball a little harder, threw the ball a little more accurately and fielded the ball a little more consistently.
Kids at that age are like sponges. They soak up information and instruction so quickly and easily because they are totally raw in terms of the skills needed to play at that level.
But what Williams and I both knew was the real benefits wouldn't be at the end of the year for the Comets. It would be seen in the next year and the year after that. All of those at-bats, all of those pitches thrown, all of those balls fielded - all of those games - were building a foundation for the coming years.
Instead of sitting for 100 innings in a row, kids were now playing 100 in a row.
"You can't simulate game experience in practice," Williams said. "All of those games that kids were playing with the Comets was starting to show when they became Northstars."
Indeed, one of the first full B squads was in 1996. The team had 16 players and played close to 50 games. It wasn't the most talented, but it had enough to win plenty of games and more importantly play competitively with most teams it came across. Two years later, eight of the players from that team were the core for a squad that won the Class A state championship and placed third at the Northwest Regional.
Evans was an assistant on that state championship team and he saw firsthand the benefits of playing on the B squad that first year.
"Since we've had the second team, the Northstars have become a consistent power in Class A baseball," Evans said. "There is no rebuilding process really. We just kind of reload. In the past with just one team, there were years when teams were really young and struggled, and then be better the next year and even better the next. With the Comets, there isn't that gap in between. It has made the Northstars more consistent."
Consistency might be what defines the Northstar program best. Since 1995, the Northstars have finished in the top three in the Northern District every year and have made appearances at the Class A State Tournament each year.
The future is now
The success of the Northstars and Comets has far exceeded anyone's vision when this whole idea of two teams began eight years ago. People within Havre's baseball community knew that they would always be competitive, but not this competitive.
Perhaps the sign that this odyssey has come full circle came on May 31. On a crisp Havre spring night, the Comets defeated the Northstars for the first time ever with a stunning 8-4 upset.
"I think that has to be the worst thing out of all of this," Williams said. "I hate it when we have to play each other. We're in a no-win situation and there are always some hard feelings. And we don't want that. After all, we are still one program."
Evans concurred: "It was a big win for the Comets because they have never beaten them. But at the same time, you don't want to create a rivalry or anything like that. The main focus for the Comets isn't about trying to beat the Northstars, but prepare kids to become Northstars."
The Northstars currently sit in second place in the Northern Division with a 22-6 record in the conference and a 38-17 record overall. The Comets are lingering near fifth place in the conference with an 11-17 conference record and a 19-34 record overall.
Williams gets nervous about the possibility of playing the Comets in next weekend's district tournament in Medicine Hat.
"We don't want to play the Comets," Williams said. "Not because of winning and losing, but that means that either way a Havre team loses and we don't want that."
The ultimate goal for the program would be to see both teams advance to the state tournament. While it isn't unattainable, it certainly would be difficult.
Instead, Williams likes to keep the goals a little more simple and directed to the overall picture.
"The best thing would be to get three teams instead of two," Williams said. "We almost did that a couple years ago because we had that many kids. It would mean more chances for kids to play."
And more chances is all Evans wants for Havre youths.
"I love baseball," Evans said. "There isn't a better game and I want to give as many kids that want to the opportunity to play. That's what really is important in all of this."
As I finish writing this, my jealousy still really hasn't subsided. Evans gave the perfect example when describing the success of the Havre program.
"When the Northstars played the AA Stallions about a month back, I looked around and saw about 200 young people at the ballpark," Evans said. "The place was packed, but it wasn't just parents. There were young kids and teenagers all there watching and hanging out at the ballpark. What better place to hang out with friends. We didn't have that a few years back."
That's where my envy reaches its peak. It's not that I am jealous of the current players' success. Rather, I am jealous of the opportunity they have. There isn't a guy that wore a Northstar uniform before this baseball renaissance who wouldn't jump at the chance to have their baseball career begin during these best of times.
The feeling I get more and more as I watch the two squads play is pride. It was nice to know that I was around when this golden age of American Legion baseball began and maybe played a little part in help building it.
But the real pride comes from seeing a program that lets kids have the chance to play baseball, have fun, compete and fulfill their dreams of playing baseball.