BUTTE – Nick Miller loves baseball.
He serves on two baseball boards in Helena. The company where he's vice president, Missouri River Contractors, supports the capital city's American Legion and Babe Ruth programs. And Miller isn’t opposed to the fledgling Expedition League providing another baseball outlet akin to the Pioneer League’s Brewers, who left Helena in 2018.
But right now Miller says he simply can’t envision another team in town, not with only one suitable ballpark, Kindrick Legion Field, that’s already foul line to foul line with activity from Helena’s three American Legion squads from May into August.
“I never thought I would advocate for less baseball,” he said. “But the math doesn’t work. The numbers just won’t add up.”
And so, advocating for less baseball is just what Miller and other American Legion supporters plan to do – again – when the Helena City Commission meets Dec. 16 to begin determining the best summer use for Kindrick, which has hosted Legion ball since 1932.
The Expedition League has coveted Helena from the summer collegiate wood-bat league's inception in 2018 and is eager to add the town of 30,000 to its 14-team mix alongside the new franchise in Butte, which will make its debut in May.
Two years ago, the Commission gave the Legion program and its three teams – the Senators, Reps and Independents – a two-year exclusivity contract for Kindrick. The idea was to see if Legion baseball could grow, and it has, Miller said, to 96 games played by roughly 45 athletes (after cutting about 30) this past summer despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Baseball is doing really well in Helena,” said Miller, adding that Legion supporters have invested heavily in the park and program the past two years.
The issue, he said, is that unlike other communities of similar size, including Butte, Helena doesn’t have another field suitable for games. Another team would create unworkable scheduling challenges, Miller added, and subject the grass infield at Kindrick to damage from overuse.
In an interview Tuesday, Expedition League co-founder Steve Wagner acknowledged the scheduling and wear-and-tear challenges but noted that Helena is not unlike several of his league’s communities where one ballpark is shared. Wagner mentioned Hastings, Nebraska, and Pierre, South Dakota, as prime examples of other towns with limited options.
“I know there’s the ability to do it,” he said. “I’ve looked at schedules in the past and I have no doubt there’s time. I get it there’s one field there that’s adequate. In a perfect world Helena would have two fields like some communities do, but I think there’s a way. It’s not going to be without challenges, but if we work together I know there’s a way to get it done.”
Wagner added that the Legion program had shared Kindrick with the Brewers since 1978, though Miller pointed out and Wagner acknowledges the Pioneer League franchise's games didn’t start until June and finished in September, well after Legion wrapped up. The 64-game Expedition League schedule – which includes 32 evening home games – goes from May to August, just like Legion.
Tangentially, the Expedition isn’t the only league interested in Helena. The city also has heard from the Pecos League, which has 14 teams in Texas, Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and California and plays from early June through early August, though the Pecos hasn't been in touch recently.
“So this is even tougher than the Brewers,” Miller said of the Expedition League. “The Brewers were problematic, scheduling-wise, but they could load up their games in August and September.”
As was the case two years ago, ultimately the decision is the city's. The topic will be on the agenda at the Dec. 16 Commission meeting.
The city has already asked for public input in an online survey that closed Monday. Parks and Recreation Director Kristi Ponozzo, who took the position several months after the decision in favor of the Legion program was rendered in 2018, said she hasn’t seen the survey responses but added that the city “has gotten a lot of results.”
“We want to know what the community wants,” Ponozzo said. “This really is a public space, a public venue, and it should be used for the public good. We really want to know what the community wants to see there.
“We don’t necessarily have a preference. We want it to be a well-enjoyed community venue and well taken care of.”
Ponozzo said her department will be looking for some “general direction” from the Commission after the Dec. 16 meeting and then make a recommendation for Commission approval. If a decision were made by January in favor of allowing use by the Expedition League, Wagner said a Helena team could be playing by May.
“We would like a decision to be made early in the year (2021) because the Legion contract is up and we will need some clarity on what we’re doing so we can get whatever plan or contract in place,” Ponozzo said.
Scheduling isn’t the only concern, Miller said.
The increased use from 32 collegiate players will add wear and tear to an infield under enough duress from three teams, he said. This past summer, for example, the Senators hosted "triangular" in which two teams came to Helena for doubleheaders.
Miller and Wagner agreed that an artificial surface would be a game changer, though those cost between $250,000-300,000 to install.
“We’d destroy the field,” said Miller, adding that Helena only has one other full-sized diamond and it’s suitable only for practices. “I think to make it work they’d have to turf the field, and they’d have to get another practice facility. If the Expedition League wanted to spend 250 grand to turf the field … but they’re for profit, so they’re not going to do that.”
Wagner said a public-private partnership could raise the funds for a turf, as has been the case for communities in North Dakota. But he disagreed that adding 32 games for one more team would necessarily be harmful to the existing grass.
“I think there’s a way to make that work, too,” he said. “We’ve seen this in other places. Again Pierre comes to mind. We had somebody tell us last year they’ve never seen the field look better. We take meticulous care of it. Obviously we’ve got some people who are pretty good at the grounds-keeping side. It can be a challenge, but this fields are made to play on. There’s ways to get it done.”
One more challenge: Signage. The Helena Legion program keeps its participation fees to a state-low $900 in part because every signage dollar feeds the program. Where its teams play, the Expedition League takes signage revenue.
Wagner acknowledged the signage control but added his league “makes the Legion program whole.”
“We can clearly sell for more money than the Legion program because we’re getting more eyeballs on signage,” he said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity to go out and sell signs. That’s how we’ve typically done that. Really again, it’s a spirit of cooperation. There’s plenty of money to go around in that regard.
“We never take anything away from a Legion program. It really truly is a partnership.”
On Dec. 16, the city will begin hearing these arguments again from both sides. If a similar meeting two years ago was any indication, interest will be high.
Wagner, who suggests the younger Legion team playing in the mornings or early afternoon as one solution to scheduling challenges, said having an Expedition League team in Helena will benefit the entire community – including the Legion program.
“I think there’s a lot of positives that outweigh any scheduling issues,” he said.
One thing both Miller and Wagner do agree on: A love of baseball.
“I wish them luck around Montana with their business venture,” Miller said of the Expedition League. “It just shouldn’t come at the expense of local youth.”