Tomball, Texas, is a small city on the northwestern outskirts of the Houston metropolitan area. It is the hometown of a woman named Lori Ann. She grew up in Tomball, where numerous childhood days were spent on and around a certain rope swing at her aunt's house.
She loved that rope swing. That rope swing helped create lots of memories with both her friends and her family.
It was also at this beloved spot where her life would take a monumental swing: around the turn of the 2017 new year, Lori Ann agreed to become a Billingsley. Her boyfriend, Cole-a 2019 Baysox outfielder-got down on one knee and proposed.
Without traffic, the drive between Tomball and Billingsley's hometown of Cropwell, Alabama, would take a casual 11 hours, roughly. Clocking in at 733 miles, the distance between Cole and Lori Ann has been an almost omnipresent theme throughout their relationship.
With geography as a potential hurdle, these two may never have met. There was a certain mutual friend, though.
"We both met in college at the University of South Alabama," said Billingsley. "She was actually going to a different school, (but) we met through a mutual friend that I had played with and she grew up with. She was wanting to come down to (USA) to check it out, so our mutual friend reached out to me and was like, 'Hey, can you show her around?' That's really how it happened. She came down to visit. We met, connected and it's all history from there."
Soon, after a move in January of 2015, Lori and Cole were in the same city. Mobile, Alabama, played center stage to a blossoming relationship.
"You could tell she was definitely different," said Billingsley. "She has this beauty about her. She shined her own light and she put a lot of people in front of herself. I noticed the way she lived her life, the way she loved her friends and family, and the way she treated me. Over the course of time, I just fell in love with her and I just wanted more."
Cole was officially in love.
It was undeniable, and nothing could prevent the young college student from wanting to know and spend more time with Lori Ann. Even the achieved dream of being drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the 19th round of the 2016 draft and playing professional baseball could not halt the ever-growing feelings of love inside.
"Over the course of the season (that) we weren't together, I found myself wanting to talk with her and engage with her," said Billingsley. "We were 12 states away and maintaining a healthy relationship. I didn't really want to pursue anyone else."
As time went on, the desire to propose became clearer and clearer. For such an important moment, much of the planning ended up falling nicely into place, including that crucial rope swing.
"I think every guy tries to think of ways of how they're going to do it," said Billingsley. "We had talked for months about how she wanted me to meet that side of the family, to go out to Texas and see it. I thought 'You know what, what better way (to propose)?' We road-tripped from Texas to Alabama. I had the ring in my bag the entire time. There was this rope swing at her aunt's house that she loved so much. That's where I wanted to do it.
"When the time was right, we went out there-just me and her. Everyone in her family knew I was going to do it but her. I was very nervous. I had all this stuff planned out in my head that I was going to say and when the moment arrived, I was sweating. I got down on a knee (and) it was a very raw, emotional moment. I hope everyone in their life gets to experience that. There aren't really words to wrap around it."
On October 28, 2017, Cole and Lori Ann became Mr. and Mrs. Billingsley. They have continued living happily ever after, but that geographic distance has remained. Outside of the 2018 season when the newlyweds spent the summer in Frederick with the Class-A Advanced Keys, the two have almost always been a time zone apart during the baseball season.
"I think every relationship has its challenges, but long distance is tough," said Billingsley. "She works a job from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. She gets a one-hour lunch break, so I'm hoping to face time or call her during that one hour. We're on two totally opposite schedules.
"You have to make time for each other as far as talking, but you find a way to make it work at the end of the day. If you want something bad enough, you make it work. I wouldn't say it's easy, but it's the circumstances we're under."
After the wedding, the new pair experienced living with each other for the first time, exposing new areas of growth to make the relationship stronger and closer.
"We had never lived with each other before we got married, so going from spending time with someone to living with someone was a totally different aspect," said Billingsley. "She started to rub off on me in certain ways, (from) wanting to spend quality time (to) realizing it's about the little things in life. She's a little more even-tempered and very selfless. It's really respectable and I admire that about her.
"Especially when you're married, life starts to expose your selfishness. We've only been married a year and a half, but I found myself worried about what I was going to do that day and what I had going on. She holds me accountable on that. It's not about yourself anymore. You've got another person to take of and meet her needs. I want to be there for her and I think our circumstances will make you grow and more wise in the long run."
When Cole patrols the outfield in 2019, he'll do so with a constant reminder of how much Lori Ann and their relationship means to him. On the ring finger of his throwing hand is a tattoo of her initials.
"I got this in Spring Training this year," said Billingsley. "She came and visited me, so we decided to do this. It's on my throwing hand, so I'd always take (the ring) off whenever we played or practiced. This was something I wouldn't have to worry about losing or taking off or putting it back on. It'll be there permanently."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.