HELENA — After a recent meeting with Helena’s City Commission, Expedition League president Steve Wagner is “very optimistic” a collegiate baseball team could call the Queen City home at Kindrick Legion Field in the future.
The Expedition League would bring a replacement of entertainment to Helena after the Brewers depart later this summer. With a college team would come a quality of life folks around Helena have come to expect during the summertime.
The league is made up of players throughout collegiate athletics classifications, anywhere from NCAA D-I down to junior colleges. For example, the Hub City Hot Shots features players from the University of New Mexico, University of Kansas, North Dakota State, South Dakota State down to community colleges, among many, many others.
Players from regional baseball schools such as Gonzaga and MSU-Billings also dot rosters. You may not see College World Series-level players on rosters and the talent level may not be that of advanced rookie pro ball, which Helenans have become quite familiar with, but at the very least the Expedition League would bring college baseball players into the city.
“What we bring to the community is high-level entertainment,” Wagner said. “Really fun fan experience. The baseball caliber is off the charts. The collegiate baseball players are very, very good. They’re trying to get drafted and break into (pro) baseball.”
The teams play 64-game schedules, meaning 32 home contests. The season runs from late May to early August.
A Helena affiliate would bring an estimated two-to-four employees to the city, year round.
The league is currently in its first season with teams in the Dakotas, Nebraska and Wyoming. The hope for the league is to expand to Montana with teams in Butte, where the Expedition League has already signed a lease, and in Helena.
Part of what other cities of comparable sizes are seeing are accessible, enthusiastic baseball players. Wagner said Expedition League players sign autographs, run bases with children and are otherwise volunteering their time to non-profits in each community.
“We do a lot within our communities at non-profits and try to be contributing members of the community where we live,” Wagner said.
Wagner worked with the American Legion to mockup a schedule that would allow both teams to use Kindrick Legion Field as co-leasers in the future.
Wagner, as has been the case in other cities with Expedition League and American Legion teams, said it’s their method of operating to allow the American Legion team to schedule first and then schedule the Expedition League games around that.
Wagner said the mock presented to Helena included a lot of weekends for Legion, several seven or eight day blocks and a large window to host a Fourth of July tournament.
“It really looks like a good, workable schedule,” Wagner said. “I also pointed out even the days we have game, Legion can have junior games or practices. We’re not out there until 5:30 and preparing until a 7 o’clock game. I think it's really, really workable.”
Part of the concern for American Legion was becoming binded to another team’s scheduling. There are three legion teams in Helena vying for playing time right now while sharing Kindrick Legion Field with the Brewers, a varsity (Senators, AA), junior varsity (Reps, A) and freshmen and sophomore team (Independents, B).
American Legion general manager Greg Thornquist said, even with the priority in scheduling with a potential Expedition League team, he had a concern that local Helena teams could be pigeonholed. Thornquist had not seen the latest scheduling proposal from the EL as of Wednesday evening.
The legion regular season schedules run from late April until the end of July, meaning definite more than two full months of overlap between the two organizations.
The American Legion outpost in Helena also sought the full absorption of the lease under the onus it would host more tournaments with more field time. In particular, the Helena Independents would be able to schedule a more favorable home stretch versus their current scheduling which front loads their home games.
The Independents had nine home games at Kindrick Legion Field before May 28. After that, the freshmen and sophomore team is on the road or playing at Ryan Park.
Beyond the Independents, the Helena Legion teams would gain more flexibility in scheduling overall. Teams wouldn’t need to schedule as many games in April and May (10 home games this season) where contending with weather became regular.
“Our kids don’t get to practice much on the field as much as our coaches would like them to,” Thornquist said. “As we all know, practices on the field is going to make you better.”
The local Babe Ruth leagues could also host championships at Kindrick Legion if the lease were granted to the American Legion. That, along with perhaps additional baseball camps, gives the Legion some reservations about the prospect of a new team moving in.
At one of the Expedition League outfits in Pierre, South Dakota, a town of more than 14,000 people, the operation appears to be running smoothly so far in Year 1.
Tom Farnsworth is the director of parks and recreation in Pierre. He and the city worked with Wagner and the Expedition League for the past year and a half. The city of Pierre and the American Legion outfit there cosigned on for a five-year contract with the Expedition League.
“Like anything being new for the first time is I see people learn how to share the space, work together,” Farnsworth said. “You have a for-profit league wanting to play 32 ball games. What you also have is your hometown American Legion teams and they need to also be able to play their games. (Scheduling) was a good process. Mr. Wagner was very good about saying ‘host city, you get to set your schedule first. We’ll work around your schedule.’”
Farnsworth made it clear the whole process is quite new to Pierre, but said it’s working and providing an entertainment the South Dakotan city had not seen before. He said the communication between the Legion and Expedition League has been strong and both parties have worked together to resolve minor conflicts.
“Right now it’s a win-win,” Farnsworth said. “Like anything new, you work through the challenges that can come up. I think the best compliment I can say, if my mayor was on the phone, he’d have nothing but praise.”
An answer as far as how Helena determines the lease could come in the next six-to-eight weeks, though Wagner expected a much quicker response.
“I’m very optimistic,” Wagner said. “I had a lot of people that reached out to me that they’re excited for the potential.”