My first year working in baseball found me in south east Idaho working as an intern for the Idaho Falls Chukars (it’s a bird a sort of pheasant that prefers to walk, is apt at being shot and, in India, is said to be in love with the moon.) They are a short season, rookie-leauge affiliate of the Kansas City Royals. I ended up going back to the team for a second season, but was promoted to the Assistant to the Traveling Secretary.
Even as the Assistant to the Traveling Secretary, I didn’t get to travel too much. I did get to Ogden, Utah, which is home to the Ogden Raptors, a long-time Dodgers affiliate, though it was also the where Milwaukee’s Prince Fielder stepped into a professional batter’s box. Ogden is a nice town, and has the pool from “The Sandlot” that saw Squints’ improbable first kiss with Wendy Peffercorn. Helena, Montana is quaint, and it’s ballpark has aged gracefully over 60 plus years. I spent three cold, gray days in Casper. I had the pleasure of taking in all the bleakness the ballpark had to offer from the bullpen (in full uniform) for the final, and mostly meaningless, game of the season.
And then there was Missoula, oh Missoula. Though the Missoula Osprey’s stadium is a bowl of uninspiring concrete, the town could inspire jealousy from anybody under 30.
Missoula is the gem of the rookie league. Being a college town, home the D-II football powerhouse University of Montana Grizzlies, it is the favorite town of all visiting teams. While many of the towns in the inter-mountain region have tough liquor laws and early bedtimes, neither of which 18 to 21 year old baseball players are looking for, in Missoula it’s easy to find a good slice of pizza at 2 a.m. The Missoula Club supposedly sports the best burger in town and cheap, cold beer. I found a record store where I dropped $100 and got invited to a punk show in a warehouse before I could even blink. I found a vibrant downtown and a bear skin rug.
I don’t know what kind of bear it was. I don’t know when it stopped being a bear and started being a rug. I know I found it in an antique store full of dusty books and broken, rusty metal contraptions. I knew I couldn’t afford it, and I knew that I had to have it.
I very coolly walked out of the antique store where my friends were waiting, as it seems that they were not as impressed with the broken things. I asked if anyone had $175 dollars.
“What do you need $175 for?” they blankly asked.
“A bear skin rug.” I answered just as blankly.
Nobody actually said no, but I assumed by the quickness in their turn to leave that the answer was a blank “no.”
Undeterred, I offered them the following scenario, hoping to sway their wallets: imagine you walk into the office for a meeting. Everybody is at a desk, working diligently, the electricity of game day buzzing in the air. My desk, which at the time was a stack of boxes, has been replaced by a bear skin rug. There I am, working just as diligently, stretched out on a bear skin rug, surrounded by candles. Teddy Pendergrass quietly spinning on the turntable, maybe something in a brandy snifter…
Nobody reached for a single dollar bill.
As we walked down the street, however, we ran into a group of Chukars enjoying a lunch of Montana’s best Mexican. One of them was J.D. Alfaro, second baseman and new friend, having recently bonded over the absurdity of my various tattoos. If anybody was going to give me $175 for a bear turned bear skin rug turned desk, it would be thousandaire J.D. Alfaro.
I asked him, somewhat excitedly, for the money to purchase my new bear skin rug desk. He put down his taco, peeking over his sunglasses at me. Whoever else was at the table also stopped eating to stare at me as if I had just asked for money to buy something outrageous, like a live bear.
I don’t know that anybody actually ever told me that they would not buy me a bear skin rug for the office, but I know that I left Missoula without it. I went back to that antique store the next season, looking to see if the bear is still collecting dust among the broken and rusty, metal antiques. I found and purchased a Brooks Robinson glove, a gift for a musician friend, the only friend I have who actually flaunts his Orioles pride, and who’s song was serendipitously playing on the radio behind the counter. I did not find a bear skin rug, though, and it’s a shame, because that glass of brandy just looked silly sitting behind a stack of boxes.