Mustangs vs. Osprey

Billings Mustangs' Jonathan Willems smiles before a game against the Missoula Osprey at Dehler Park in Billings last season.

BILLINGS — Even without an official announcement, it’s long past time to accept the realization that there won’t be a Pioneer League baseball season in 2020.

Like just about everything else, coronavirus suspended all Minor League Baseball operations in April, and every league — from the bottom feeders in the Gulf Coast and Arizona leagues to the Triple-A Pacific Coast — remains shuttered.

Even the start of the Major League Baseball season has proven problematic as MLB and the players’ union squabble over the details of a return-to-play plan.

The teams in the Pioneer League themselves have seemingly reached the conclusion that there will be no baseball this summer.

In a recent interview with 406mtsports.com, Missoula PaddleHeads owner Peter Davis said “there's about as much chance (of) winning the lottery” than the season being played.

The Billings Mustangs released a statement on social media this week that read, in part, “We cannot ignore the reality of the situation and how difficult it will be for Major League Baseball to assemble players and coaching staffs for the 160 minor league clubs located throughout the country.”

That came on the heels of a letter penned by Great Falls Voyagers president Scott Reasoner that stated: “The honest truth is we find it very hard to believe there will be professional baseball in Montana this summer.”

By now it seems clear.

Pioneer League baseball

Missoula's Tristen Carranza, right, looks on as he steals second base under the tag of Ogden's Zac Ching during a game last season in Missoula.

The short-season Rookie Advanced Pioneer League, founded in 1939, was originally scheduled to begin its 79th campaign next Friday, June 19.

The real trouble, though, is what could lie ahead after 2020.

The entire eight-team Pioneer League — which also includes the Grand Junction Rockies, Idaho Falls Chukars, Ogden Raptors, Orem Owlz and Rocky Mountain Vibes — remains on the chopping block as Major League Baseball looks to strip as many as 42 MiLB clubs of their player development agreements in an effort to shrink the minor league apparatus, shorten travel and improve working conditions for players.

Minor League Baseball has publicly pushed back on this proposal, calling it nothing more than a way for MLB to save pennies on the dollar. That may ring true especially now, as clubs across the professional baseball landscape feel the pinch of the loss of revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a recent interview with 406mtsports.com, Mustangs owner Dave Heller called the Pioneer League’s contraction “likely.”

Nevertheless, representatives from MLB and MiLB have been negotiating a new Professional Baseball Agreement. The current 30-year arrangement expires in September.

If the Pioneer League’s teams lose their player development affiliations, what comes next? There has been talk of the league going the independent route or becoming a collegiate summer destination, but whether or not those options are tenable remains to be seen.

Billings Mustangs take on Great Falls Voyagers

The Billings Mustangs and Great Falls Voyagers play during a Pioneer League baseball game at Dehler Park during the 2019 season.

The bottom line is that the longstanding league can still be spared — somehow, perhaps with political action — although some are keeping the faith better than others.

Missoula’s Davis, for one, has been especially optimistic, telling 406mtsports.com that his PaddleHeads are “trying to use this year as a chance to grow our capabilities and we'll come back with a fabulous baseball season in 2021” while also acknowledging that the league’s relationship with Major League Baseball will be “completely different.”

Following is a capsule breakdown of each Pioneer League club.

Billings Mustangs

Current affiliate: Cincinnati Reds

Owner: Main Street Baseball, LLC (Dave Heller)

Ballpark: Dehler Park

Notable alumni: George Brett; Trevor Hoffman; Aaron Boone; Adam Dunn; Joey Votto

Around the bases: Founded in 1948. … The only team to retain its nickname for its entire stay in the Pioneer League. … The primary tenant of Dehler Park, which was opened in 2008. … Previously played at Cobb Field (originally called Athletic Park) for nearly 60 years. … Team’s 15 titles are the most in league history.

Grand Junction Rockies

Current affiliate: Colorado Rockies

Owner: Monfort Investment Group (Dick Monfort)

Ballpark: Suplizio Field

Notable alumni: Cecil Fielder; Omar Vizquel; Francisco Rodriguez; Nolan Arenado; Trevor Story

Around the bases: Founded in 1978 as the Butte Copper Kings. … The club is owned by Colorado Rockies chairman and CEO Dick Monfort, who a minor league source says is also the chairman of the MLB negotiating committee discussing a new Professional Baseball Agreement with Minor League Baseball. … Moved from Butte to Casper in 2001, and previously played as the Ghosts. … Relocated to Grand Junction, Colorado, in 2012.

David Dahl

Grand Junction's David Dahl, now a member of the Colorado Rockies, hits a three-run home run in a game against Billings on July 14, 2012.

Great Falls Voyagers

Current affiliate: Chicago White Sox

Owner: Great Falls Baseball Club, Inc. (Vinney Purpura)

Ballpark: Centene Stadium

Notable alumni: Bobby Cox; Bob Brenly; Eric Karros; Pedro Martinez; Raul Mondesi

Around the bases: Founded in 1948 as the Great Falls Electrics. … Previous affiliations have included the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles/Brooklyn Dodgers. … Along with Billings, Great Falls did not field a team from 1964-68, but has been a mainstay in the Pioneer League for the last 51 years.

Idaho Falls Chukars

Current affiliate: Kansas City Royals

Owner: Elmore Sports Group (D.G. Elmore)

Ballpark: Melaleuca Field

Notable alumni: Billy Martin; Jose Canseco; Rick Sutcliffe; Jake Peavy; Salvador Perez

Around the bases: Founded in 1940 as the Idaho Falls Russets. … The longest-tenured Pioneer League club, having fielded a team in 77 of the league’s 78 seasons. … Owner D.G. Elmore is a member of the MiLB committee working to negotiate a new Professional Baseball Agreement with Major League Baseball.

Idaho Falls Chukars

Idaho Falls' Isaiah Henry (22) and Wyatt Mascarella celebrate after Henry hit a home run during a game against Billings last September.

Missoula PaddleHeads

Current affiliate: Arizona Diamondbacks

Owner: Big Sky Professional Baseball, LLC (Peter Davis, Susan Crampton Davis)

Ballpark: Ogren-Allegiance Park

Notable alumni: Lyle Overbay; Carlos Gonzalez; Gerardo Parra; Paul Goldschmidt; Jake Lamb

Around the bases: Founded in 1987 as the Pocatello Giants. … The team played its first season in Missoula in 1999 as the Osprey. … The organization re-branded as the PaddleHeads following the 2019 campaign. … Owner Peter Davis has said the team plans to play baseball in Missoula in 2021.

Ogden Raptors

Current affiliate: Los Angeles Dodgers

Owner: Ogden Professional Baseball, Inc.

Ballpark: Lindquist Field

Notable alumni: Prince Fielder; Kenley Jansen; Joc Pederson; Cody Bellinger; Alex Verdugo

Around the bases: Founded in 1977 as the Calgary Cardinals. … One of the attendance leaders each year in the Pioneer League. … The Raptors won their first and only league title in 2017, but the city has a history in the Pioneer League that dates back to its inaugural year of 1939.

Orem Owlz

Current affiliate: Los Angeles Angels

Owner: Jeff Katofsky, Jyll Katofsky

Ballpark: UCUU Ballpark

Notable alumni: Howie Kendrick; Mark Trumbo; Nick Adenhart; Patrick Corbin; Tyler Skaggs

Around the bases: Founded in 2001 as the Provo Angels. … Since its inception, the franchise has only been affiliated with one parent club — the L.A. Angels. … Reportedly, ownership planned to relocate the team to Pueblo, Colorado, following the 2018 season, but the plans for a new ballpark there fell through.

Rocky Mountain Vibes

Current affiliate: Milwaukee Brewers

Owner: Elmore Sports Group (D.G. Elmore)

Ballpark: UCHealth Park

Notable alumni: Ryne Sandberg; Gary Sheffield; Greg Vaughn; Ryan Braun; Lorenzo Cain

Around the bases: Founded in 1978 as the Helena Phillies. … The franchise was relocated by the Elmore Sports Group to Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 2019 after a 40-year stay in Helena. The Elmore Group also owns the team in Idaho Falls. … The team replaced the Triple-A Colorado Springs Sky Sox, who relocated to San Antonio.

Email Greg Rachac at Greg.Rachac@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @gregrachac

Load comments