BILLINGS — The American Legion Baseball season in Montana is once again temporarily on hold.
And when practice resumes, play will begin under a new name, likely the “Montana Baseball League,” for 2020.
With phase one underway in Gov. Steve Bullock’s planned reopening of Montana after a stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus pandemic, American Legion Baseball teams in the state just recently learned they could resume practice, or in some cases hold tryouts, with approval from their local jurisdictions.
Then, the national governing body of American Legion Baseball released a statement over the weekend saying it would no longer sponsor baseball during the 2020 season. Earlier this year, the sanctioning body had canceled regionals and the World Series, but left open the opportunity to play at the state level.
Now, teams in the Treasure State are hoping to play a season of organized baseball — just not under the American Legion umbrella.
“What the national Legion has done is postponed all Legion baseball activities for this year. But everybody has the right to go ahead and try to play if they choose to put something together, but there is no affiliation with Legion baseball,” said Billings American Legion Baseball chairman Jeff Ballard.
"Each team in each state, if they choose to organize, can have a season. Then, they can do so on their own accord and play under their own rules, but Legion baseball will have nothing to do with it. Their name will not be on it."
Two meetings, one for Class AA and one for Classes A and B, were held on Zoom Sunday night. For the past month, coaches and team officials have been having organized online meetings. Another meeting for Class AA, A and B team officials is set for Tuesday.
“We all got hit with this last night at our weekly Zoom meeting and we are trying to figure it out and trying to figure out how we’ll go about it insurance-wise and we don’t want to be scattered out there,” Laurel Dodgers coach Doug Studiner said.
Reached by phone later Monday, Montana-Alberta American Legion Baseball general chairman Ron Edwards of Bozeman said individual teams will be able to purchase insurance through independent insurance companies. In fact, a new website for the proposed Montana Baseball League (Mtbl.org) lets teams know one place they can purchase insurance.
Insurance is for potential medical claims and is supplemental to other insurance a family might have, Edwards said. It is also for general liability for the program and is required of all Legion teams when they register. Fees for insurance previously purchased through the American Legion registration site will be refunded.
“Individual teams can purchase their own insurance. They are able to do that,” Edwards said, noting some programs have already purchased insurance and all coaches have been told to not hold practices until their programs are insured. “I got confirmation today that that is happening.”
Teams will either remove, or cover, the Legion logos on their uniforms, Edwards noted.
Studiner said the programs want the opportunity to play baseball.
“The goal is to continue with a season with a Montana Baseball League,” he said. “We have another meeting (Tuesday) night to try and iron out some of the wrinkles. It’s a fluid situation and seems like it changes every day.”
Lewistown coach Scott Sparks said Class A teams are working together with the goal of having a season. Lewistown, which normally doesn’t hold baseball activities on Monday, had halted practice for the time being, Sparks said, until the team is “fully-covered insurance-wise.” Sparks did say travel club teams in the state purchase their own insurance.
“It was pretty unanimous on the Class A side we will do something and keep moving forward and play under the same rules and formats and same structure,” said Sparks.
“We would like to have some sort of structure in place, even if we are all independent, but play under a broader style of guidelines that mirrors American Legion baseball.”
The Laurel Dodgers have also suspended activities for the time being, but “hopefully we get rolling in the next day or two,” said Studiner, noting Monday’s practice would have been washed out by the rain even if it had not been canceled.
Ballard said that the seven teams in Montana that play AA baseball, the Royals, Scarlets, Kalispell, Missoula, Helena, Great Falls and Bozeman, all want to attempt to play the season. While the U.S.-Canadian border is closed to non-essential travel, Ballard said the two Canadian teams have also been taking part in the meetings.
“It’s canceled as far as having the name Legion baseball. It won’t be Legion baseball this summer, it will be baseball with the players who would have played Legion baseball,” Ballard said, adding coaches are still having conversations about what the schedule will look like. “We’ll just have our own league and our own games.
“We expect things to pick back up as normal next year.”
Edwards, a volunteer appointed by the American Legion executive committee to his post as chairman, said the expectation is the American Legion will once again sponsor baseball next year and he hopes to be chairman for the state again next season. Edwards did say he will help the new league in facilitating the transition this season, and then will phase back his actions.
“I’m trying to help get it started and give these teams a place to go,” he said.
From the feedback he’s received, Edwards said, most teams plan on pursuing the season, but noted “we may lose some teams that decide it’s just not worth it.”
Edwards added that “almost all the teams have been cleared to practice,” by their local jurisdictions.
“They still want to keep going,” Edwards said. “All the reports from practices have been good. They want to stay on a path that would lead to some games and potentially the postseason.”
Sparks said as far as a Class A schedule, it’s dependent on when phase two of the reopening plan is implemented.
“Class A decided last week we won’t put a date on it, whenever we move into phase two we’ll play games. … We are just going to take it by a week-to-week basis. As soon as we hit phase two, we’ll roll. That’s the plan.
“If we don’t, we don’t. That’s the risk we are taking. At last we have some sort of plan in place. With the reopening of bars and restaurants, and now with gyms later this week, we are heading in a positive direction.”