BUTTE — As Pioneer League baseball in Montana as we’ve known it slides inexorably toward the final out, without so much as a single peanut or Cracker Jack consumed during its farewell summer of 2020, many of us grieving its impending demise initially scoffed at the likely substitute.
Summer collegiate wood-bat baseball? Meh.
Rank amateurs vs. Montana’s sole flirtation, however brief each summer, with pros. Fast-food hamburgers after a steady diet of supper-club steaks.
While attempts to revive the Pioneer League’s eight teams continue to strike out, it has been difficult to envision college kids converging from points afar measuring up to 47 years of Cincinnati Reds prospects funneling through Billings with the Mustangs.
Well, sure, if a modest payday and presumed talent differential are decisive distinctions.
We don’t yet know the caliber of diamond gems coming to Butte when the Expedition League makes its Montana debut in May. But upon further review, once we finally reconcile the sting of Minor League Baseball's departure, the replacement could just be, well, a natural.
For sure in Butte, where many still mourn the Copper Kings' absence two decades later. Perhaps also in Helena, which has a void left by the Pioneer League’s Brewers in 2018, and Bozeman/Belgrade, which has never had pro ball but presents a tantalizing population of melting-pot baseball transplants who might pine for Boys of Summer a cut above the American Legion's niche.
Counter-intuitive as it first seems, collegiate-prospect baseball — including a potential new incarnation of our Pioneer League franchises in Billings, Great Falls and Missoula, whether it’s with the Expedition League or in the current eight-team alignment — could even be an upgrade.
For starters, if the assumption is that lesser talent equates to a less-compelling product, consider NCAA Division I basketball next to the NBA’s alphabet of minor leagues. The amateurs would no doubt get drubbed 10 of 10 times by the talented but rag-tag NBA hopefuls, but clearly it’s a non-factor for spectators.
Here’s why: The college kids, while certainly dreaming of getting to The Show or The League, play to win — for their teams, their schools, their communities.
Sure, minor league players are highly competitive, too. But clearly winning is merely a satisfying byproduct of pursuing other organizational priorities.
Most Pioneer League players, while all accomplished, are window dressing for a handful of prospects. You couldn’t watch without knowing it deep down.
Games were lost because distant brass had goals unaligned with winning. Obligatory high-fives, butt pats and even championship dog-piles on the mound did come with the package, but it all felt slightly hollow.
Spectators root, root, rooted for the home team, but if they didn’t win it wasn’t really a shame.
Pioneer League baseball resonates not because of rings pursued, but because of the Rockwellian bliss of eating those peanuts and Cracker Jacks with family and friends while hearing the crack of a bat and singing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” during seventh-inning stretches on postcard-perfect summer nights.
All of which will continue with summer collegiate wood-bat baseball.
And consider: Though amateurs, the players arriving each summer will still be the top athletes in any team sport in any season in Montana.
Superior, even, to the Cats and Griz.
It is, as new Butte general manager Dane Wagner puts it, “a college all-star game 64 times a year.”
Further, with Minor League Baseball aiming to retract from 162 teams to 120, many college players who would’ve potentially begun pro careers in the Pioneer League will remain in college and could land in Montana just the same.
There’s more: If Expedition League co-founder Steve Wagner’s vision is fulfilled, as many as seven Montana communities could one day play ball.
Provincial pride will intensify as Butte plays Gallatin Valley, Helena, perhaps Kalispell and, depending on the Pioneer’s direction, Billings, Missoula and Great Falls. Compare that to the semi-steady diet of Orems, Ogdens and Grand Junctions.
Meanwhile, the infrastructure already is in place in Billings, Missoula and Great Falls. Baseball could continue unabated in 2021, whether as an independent Pioneer League for those three towns or as part of an Expedition League with four Montana outfits.
“My belief is if they do go (independent), it’ll be summer collegiate, and if it’s summer collegiate it’ll be Expedition League because it’s in our footprint — I really do,” said Wagner, whose strategic plan for the 3-year-old league calls for 30 teams in the upper Great Plains and Northern Rockies.
“It could be seamless. There wouldn’t be a hiccup or a year wait or anything. We could get those teams locked and loaded with great collegiate talent.
“We’re willing and able to step in and bring Expedition League baseball to those communities.”
Either way, the prospects for high-level baseball in Montana in 2021 are brighter than a couple months ago.
So don’t lock your peanuts and Cracker Jacks in the pantry just yet.