HELENA — Helena Senators first baseman Chase Nielsen had to rush back to Montana after spending all of April visiting family in Virginia so that he could complete his 14-day quarantine and play Legion baseball when the season started Thursday.
He finally joined his teammates Monday, got in just three practices — his first times swinging the bat since December — but still came through with an RBI and a pair of runs to help the Senators earn a 10-5 win over the Missoula Mavericks at Kindrick Legion Field. It was the first team sporting event in Montana since the state basketball tournaments were canceled 69 days ago on March 13 and quite possibly the first such event at the high school level or higher in the country during a similar time frame.
“It all happened so fast,” said Nielsen, the team’s No. 3 hitter. “From going from Virginia to coach texting me to getting back here to practicing, it was a whirlwind. Then to come out here and play some real baseball, it was awesome.”
The return of sports to the state came with a literal bang as the sound of the bat and ball and the fans' cheers of the players and boos of the umps signaled somewhat of a return to normalcy amid the coronavirus pandemic. The Mavs toughed out eight hits to the Senators seven, but Helena managed more runs by using a seven-run sixth inning and taking advantage of walks, hit by pitches and three errors.
Approximately 300 fans gathered in the stands, about double what the Senators typically get for a home game, despite intermittent rain and temperatures dropping from the 60s to the 50s. They ranged in age from toddlers to the elderly, the vast majority of them weren't wearing face masks, but they appeared to largely be keeping the requested space between one another in the stands.
There was a postgame hand wave from teams across the field instead of a handshake line, but players on the same team shared some high-fives and stood shoulder to shoulder on the top step of the dugout leaning on the railing during the game. Signs about social distancing were plastered around the park, bottles of hand sanitizer were spread everywhere and everyone was reminded about both of those during each half-inning by public address announcer Jeff Wald, who was excited to get baseball back.
“I missed baseball,” said Wald, who’s beginning his seventh season as Helena’s PA announcer. “I missed people. I missed everybody cheering together. I missed the camaraderie. I couldn’t be more delighted baseball is back in Montana. I was surprised how much enthusiasm there was. I think people miss rooting for something.”
Missoula left fielder Bridger Johnson, who drove in the first run of the season and scored a run later, was among those who was excited to finally take the field after about two months of delays and not finishing up tryouts until less than two weeks ago.
“It was really fun to get back out here,” he said. “Everybody, the whole team, looked excited. We’ve been practicing hard for this. This is what we want. Yeah, we had a couple mess-ups, but I thought we played really well for the time we had to get ready.”
For Mavs right fielder Charlie Kirgan, the return of baseball meant the opportunity to begin his first full season with the AA team after playing mainly on the A team last season before getting called up for the state tournament, where he played every game.
“Oh man, we were just so happy to get back out here,” he said. “I feel bad for all the kids across the country who don’t get to play. We’re just fortunate to be out here playing baseball.”
Like any season opener, there were bound to be mistakes, especially with a shortened preseason, but getting back on the field was a win of its own for the teams. Mavs third baseman Dane Fraser, an age-eligible college freshman, led the team by going 3-4 with a run but struggled with control when he moved to pitcher, allowing Helena to get back in the game.
For Missoula manager Brent Hathaway, now in his 30th season at the helm, the goal is to continue to improve as the team heads toward conference play, when the season truly begins in the chase for the state title.
“It’s great to finally get started,” Hathaway said. “This is our spring training. We just need to get reps in. We’ll be fine. We’ve got to get rid of the jitters, let the guys relax and we’ll see our true skills come out. They were a little nervous tonight, just couldn’t find the strike zone.”
For the coaches and players, there was much excitement Thursday. Now they’ll try to find ways to carry over that enthusiasm for the daily grind of baseball for as long as they can this season.
“Regardless of how tonight went or how the season goes, it’s just a success to be out here,” Helena manager Jon Burnett said. “We just got to get out here and get on the field and get the kinks worked out. Just being out here today, all the work that we put in to get here, it was definitely worth it.”
The Mavs will continue their season at their Memorial Day tournament, which runs from Friday through Monday. However, the AA games will take place in Bozeman and A games will be in Florence because Missoula County declined the Mavs’ proposal, saying that there’s “no athletic events at this time,” according to Hathaway.
Gallatin County, where Bozeman plays, has the most reported coronavirus cases in the state with 149. Yellowstone County is the next closest with 87, and Missoula has just 39.
Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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