Butte will have to wait at least another year for Expedition League baseball, since efforts to put companion, college-level summer teams in Helena and Bozeman haven’t panned out.
The league had hoped to find another suitable Montana partner to Butte after plans for Helena fell through in September, but it didn’t happen in time for the 2019 season that starts in May, league President Steve Wagner said Tuesday.
Butte embraced the league from the get-go last year and a $12,000 lease for use of 3 Legends Stadium can simply be extended to the 2020 season, he said.
The league emulates the minor leagues, with players using wooden bats and playing six games a week on average from late May to early August. It started last year with eight teams in the Dakotas, Wyoming and Nebraska.
This spring, the league is expanding to 10 teams, adding one in Fremont, Nebraska, and another in Brandon, a city in Manitoba, Canada, about 60 miles north of the North Dakota line.
But the league needs at least one more Montana team, preferably close to Butte for easy travel, to expand into this state.
“We are still working very hard to find another community out that way,” Wagner said by phone from Brandon. “We are still very hopeful we can be there in 2020 along with another traveling partner.”
J.P. Gallagher, Butte-Silver Bow's parks director, said the early relationship between the league and Butte is still solid but a decision by city officials in Helena last September was a setback.
“As soon as that fell through I knew they probably wouldn’t play this next season in Butte,” Gallagher said Tuesday.
Helena commissioners decided to allow the city’s American Legion baseball program to grow for two years without sharing Kindrick Legion Field with an Expedition League team. The decision followed the departure of the Helena Brewers, a minor league team moving to Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Wagner said the decision was disappointing, especially because the league works with and co-exists with one or more American Legion teams — whose players are mostly high-school aged — in most of its locations now.
The Legion program is pretty protective of its turf in Bozeman, too, he said, and negotiations for use of the ballpark at the Gallatin County Fairgrounds have not been successful so far.
In contrast, the American Legion in Butte joined county officials in welcoming the Expedition League and a stadium lease was worked out last April for play in 2019. Play won’t begin now until at least 2020.
Wagner has said that Butte, Bozeman and Helena would be ideal expansion members, in part because they are short charter-bus rides away. Teams could easily do two-game "home and away" stints, and when they're gone, Legion teams could use the ballparks.
The league threw a formal pitch to Butte in January 2018, hoping it would join the Badlands Bigsticks, Hastings Sodbusters, Spearfish Sasquatch and others in 2019. The regular season is 64 games and runs from May 24 to Aug. 5.
The league promises high-quality baseball and affordable, wholesome family entertainment through a 64-game season. Players — many aiming for the pros — would stay with host families.
The college players don't get paid, since NCAA rules prohibit it, but the league itself is a for-profit entity, with owners, marketing plans, sharp logos and promotions.
Wagner said he is confident an owner or owners can be found for a Butte team.
“I actually have one individual who is particularly interested in Butte and I have heard from a few others, and when we know our timeline a little better, we will intensify those discussions,” Wagner said, declining politely to name those he has talked with.
Gallagher said he took in a league game last year in Dickinson, North Dakota, home of the Badlands Bigsticks. Teddy Roosevelt ranched close to the Badlands at one time and the community chose the name through a contest as a play on his famous saying, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
Gallagher said it was a great time.
“They had all kinds of things for the kids and they had activities between every inning,” he said. “They built a following for the product and they marketed it really well.”
Gallagher said the game was on a Tuesday night two weeks before the playoffs and there were nearly 1,000 people on hand. Attendance at the start of the season was around 300, he was told, but it grew over the weeks.
Gallagher said city officials in Dickinson, which has about 22,000 residents, told him that everything the league promised “they came through on.”
The name of the expansion team in Brandon is the Wheat City Whiskey Jacks. Brandon has about 58,000 people and is known as the “wheat city.” Whiskey jacks, also called gray jacks and Canada jacks, are a bird found in Canada’s forests, among other places.
Fremont is a city of about 26,500 people in dairy country in Nebraska, about 35 miles northwest of Omaha, and its team name is the Fremont Moo.