When Butte Central graduate Rob Johnson was called up to the Seattle Mariners for the first time in 2007, sportswriters marveled about the Major League player who never even played high school baseball.
It was as if he was playing with one leg.
You would never see a player in the NFL if he did not play high school football. You do not see NBA players who were not out for the high school basketball team.
High school sports are usually the springboard to any college career. In baseball, tons of players go straight from high school to the minor leagues every year.
So how could it be that a Big League player did not play high school baseball? Sportswriters tried to wrap their heads around that question as if Rob arrived in Seattle by spaceship.
Of course, every follower of sports in Montana knew the reason. Rob did not play high school baseball because Montana is one of three states that do not offer high school baseball.
The Montana High School Association recently decided to add baseball as an official sport. That will leave only South Dakota and Wyoming as states without that national pastime in its schools.
While Johnson certainly missed out because Montana did not have the chance to play baseball for the Butte Central Maroons, he did get to play American Legion ball.
Rob got to play for some great coaches — and with some great players — with the Butte Muckers Butte Miners, and that helped send him to play at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California.
The American Legion has been filling the gap for Montana baseball players for years, and it will continue to do so for years to come..
While some of us love the addition of baseball in high school, others have brought up some complicated questions about the feasibility of playing the sport during springtime in the Rockies.
How are we going to play baseball in early April in Butte, when we might still have a foot of snow on the field?
That is a good question. We have seen years where the softball teams can barely get on the field by May.
How are we going to get a full schedule completed in Montana, where the spring is often the coldest and wettest time of year?
It is tough enough in softball, and softball games are much shorter than a baseball game. Also, there is no pitcher’s mound in softball.
Keeping the mound dry is one of the most important aspects of the game. Playing on a wet mound leads to injuries and ruined mounds.
We also have to worry what kind of an impact high school baseball will have on other spring sports, particularly track. Hopefully, the schools will stagger the state tournaments so that student-athletes can do both sports if they wish.
After all, Legion players have been doubling as track athletes for years.
What will high school baseball mean for Legion ball, which will have to adjust its schedule?
It is hard to see how exposing more boys to baseball could possibly be bad for Legion, but some people have voiced concerns.
There are other issues about starting up high school baseball. Some schools will not have a baseball field to play on. Some schools will have to find a co-op partner in order to have enough players to field a team.
That can be a problem in a rural state in which some schools have to merge with former rivals — and make long drives to practice each day — just to field an 8-man football team.
We will also have to worry about the schools looking to co-op so they can have a competitive advantage.
Will we have enough umpires to cover all the games? Probably not.
The answer to most of these questions is simple. Who cares?
They can play baseball in Idaho, Colorado and North Dakota. They play it in Minnesota. So, we should be able to figure out how to do it in the Treasure State.
If it means more baseball, we have to give it a try. What’s the worst that can happen if we try?
According to Baseball Reference, just 26 Montana-born players have ever made it to the Major Leagues. Yes, just 26.
In more than a century of Major League Baseball, Montana has produced barely enough to fill an active roster of one team.
The most famous of Montana-born players is Dave McNally, a Billings native who is the only pitcher to hit a grand slam in the World Series. McNally hit his slam to help the Baltimore Orioles beat the Cincinnati Reds 9-3 in Game 3 of the 1970 World Series.
The Orioles won the Series in five games.
If you check out the MLB Network, you will see the McNally grand slam game played several times each offseason.
Only two of the 26 Montana players were born in Butte, and neither one was Johnson, who was born in Anaconda. Presumably, Rob had his sixth toe surgically removed before he moved to Whitehall and then to Butte, where he was a four-sport star in his high school days.
The Butte-born MLB players were Brennan King and Scott Brow.
King, who was born in 1916, pitched for the Cincinnati Clowns of the Negro American League in 1943.
Born in Butte in 1969, Brow, a pitcher, contributed to the Toronto Blue Jays’ World Series championship in 1993.
You can see Brow, who wore No. 44, celebrating at home plate after Joe Carter hit the Series walk-off home run.
Brow and his family moved out of Butte before he turned 1, so most of us never heard of him before.
Lefthander Jeff Ballard of Billings had a nice career, pitching for the Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates from 1987 through 1994.
Johnny Couch of Vaughn, Cecil Duff of Radersburg, Mason Tobin of Glendive and Steamboat Williams of Cascade were born in the 1800s.
Nobody thinks the addition of high school baseball will add to the list of Montana-born players on Major League rosters.
But going pro is not the reason we play high school sports in the first place. We still will not be able to play the game year-round like they can in the warmer climates that tend to produce the most professionals.
Only a fraction of high school players in any sport ends up playing in college, let alone at the professional level.
We do not have a basketball team at every high school in America so the NBA will have enough players. How many professional tennis players do you know who played for their Montana high school team?
Prep football coaches do not worry about making sure there are enough players ready for the NFL Draft every spring.
The more opportunities our young athletes have, the better. That is true if it is baseball, track, football, swimming, power lifting or speech and debate.
Adding high school baseball in Montana will expose more people to the sport, and it might even help a few more college and pro scouts find a reason to visit the state.
How could that be a bad thing?
If nothing else, maybe the next time a Montana boy makes it to the big time, sportswriters won’t look at him like he’s an extraterrestrial.
— Bill Foley, who would have been a Major Leaguer if Montana had high school baseball in his day, writes a column that appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74.