BILLINGS — Tuesday marked the one-month run-up to the scheduled start of the Pioneer League baseball season, but the jury is still out as to whether it will begin on time — or at all.
Restrictions and health concerns due to the coronavirus pandemic has endangered the league’s 2020 campaign. At the very least, all eight clubs, which span Montana, Idaho, Utah and Colorado, are maintaining a level of readiness in the event they are able to start as planned.
“Nothing new to report, except to say that we are prepared to begin operations whenever we’re given the go-ahead,” Pioneer League president Jim McCurdy told 406mtsports.com in a phone interview.
Games scheduled for June 19 are as follows: Great Falls at Billings, Idaho Falls at Missoula, Orem at Grand Junction, and Rocky Mountain at Ogden.
But so much will depend on outlying factors, McCurdy said.
“I’ve mentioned before that there are different things in play — the virus itself and the science that surrounds that, the health care that surrounds that, and of course we’ve got governors that are involved, perhaps the federal government as well, and sometimes local counties and municipalities,” McCurdy said.
“And of course we’re in a multi-state league. Beyond that, we’ve got Major League Baseball that supplies the players. So at this point in time we have no word.”
Major League Baseball is still in the planning phase to begin its season, which includes negotiations with the MLB players union. Recent public statements made by commissioner Rob Manfred suggest the big league campaign might not open until the early part of July.
If that’s the case, it’s hard to imagine minor league clubs will be able to play one month from now if their parent organizations are not.
“Everyone is eagerly awaiting these decisions,” McCurdy said. “We’re all pretty much facing the same things.”
Reportedly, the likelihood of the MLB season being played in front of fans, at least in the early portion of an abbreviated schedule, is dubious due to certain states’ current restrictions on large gatherings as the death toll from COVID-19 in the United States creeps toward 100,000.
But there have been declarations by some elected officials that those restrictions could soon be softened in certain parts of the country.
Major League Baseball, like most professional sports leagues and major college athletic conferences, has survivability, in part, because of profitable television contracts.
The same cannot be said for Minor League Baseball teams, obviously. McCurdy acknowledged the challenges that would exist if the Pioneer League were to try to operate a season in empty stadiums.
“We rely on bringing people through our doors,” he said. “We’re in a much different situation from a media standpoint and in terms of the revenue generation.
“Without fans, there are some things we could do, but in terms of making up for the shortfall of not bringing people to the ballpark to enjoy food and beverage and a baseball game, it would be very hard to try to substitute for that.”
“We have the same desire to operate like anyone else would, but at the same time (we’re) being very attentive to the demands from a health standpoint that are placed on all of our industries,” McCurdy said.
Of course, the backdrop to the uncertainty of this season is the questionable future of the Pioneer League as a whole.
MLB and Minor League Baseball are still negotiating a new Professional Baseball Agreement, which expires in September. All eight teams in the Pioneer League have been designated for contraction as Major League Baseball looks to strip the player development agreements from as many as 42 minor league franchises.
A new PBA, whenever it is agreed upon, could mark the end of the Pioneer League as it has been known for more than 80 years.
As an aside, D.G. Elmore is one of the negotiators representing Minor League Baseball in those talks. The Elmore Sports Group owns two Pioneer League clubs, the Idaho Falls Chukars and the Rocky Mountain Vibes.
In an article published in Sports Illustrated exploring the financial straits in which most minor league teams find themselves, Rocky Mountain general manager Chris Phillips said he remains more concerned about the obstacles that exist currently as opposed to what lies beyond this year.
“We’re going to focus on 2020, hope for the best and then deal with what happens after that,” Phillips told SI.
Each of Montana’s three Pioneer League cities, Billings, Great Falls and Missoula, has a long professional baseball history.
Billings has been affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds since 1974. Billings and Great Falls have existed since 1948. Missoula’s team, recently renamed and rebranded as the PaddleHeads, has been in operation since 1999 but the city has a pro baseball past that dates to the mid-1950s.