Mustangs vs. Osprey

Billings catcher Eric Yang tags Missoula's Cesar Garcia at home during a Pioneer League baseball game in 2019. The league will begin a new era when it opens the 2021 season on May 22.

BILLINGS — The Pioneer League’s new era has an official start date following the release of its 2021 baseball schedule on Wednesday.

The season is expected to begin May 22 with Missoula hosting Great Falls, Billings traveling to Idaho Falls, Ogden hosting newcomer Boise and Rocky Mountain (Colo.) welcoming Grand Junction. The schedule will finish on Sept. 10.

Eight of the league’s nine teams are expected to play 96 games each, 48 at home. A new Northern Colorado franchise, which was previously located in Orem, Utah, won’t debut until 2022.

The schedule will begin roughly a month earlier and last 20 games longer than in previous seasons.

“We could not be more excited to not just bring professional baseball back in 2021, (but) by adding ten more home dates to the schedule we hope to give our community and the surrounding area even more options to take in Americas pastime,” Great Falls team president Scott Reasoner wrote in an email to 406mtsports.com.

One highlight of the schedule is the amount of games that will be played between the teams in Montana. Great Falls will host Billings and Missoula a combined 27 times. Missoula will welcome Billings and Great Falls for 24 dates, while Billings has 18 home games against Great Falls and Missoula.

Missoula will travel to Great Falls for a three-game series over the Fourth of July holiday.

Billings will be home for Memorial Day (May 31 vs. Rocky Mountain), Father's Day (June 20 vs. Grand Junction) and Labor Day (Sept. 6 vs. Idaho Falls). Great Falls will host Rocky Mountain on Father's Day and will welcome Missoula on Labor Day.

The 2021 season will mark a fresh start for the Pioneer League, previously a Rookie-level circuit which was founded in 1939.

In November, following the expiration of the 30-year Professional Baseball Agreement, the league became an independent Partner League of Major League Baseball, meaning teams will no longer be affiliated with MLB parent clubs under contractual obligations of player development licenses.

The move was made as part of Major League Baseball executing a contraction of the minor league farm system from more than 160 clubs to 120.

Optimism for the future is league-wide.

“Our fans are going to continue to see all of the same teams they’ve enjoyed in the past and the same high-quality baseball – just more of it,” Billings owner Dave Heller said in a release. “It will have been 20 months since our last home game and it’s way past time for some fun Mustangs baseball. I can’t wait for the first pitch.”

While Missoula and Great Falls are scheduled to begin the season at home, Billings will make its home debut on May 26 against Rocky Mountain.

As independent clubs, Pioneer League teams must now sign and pay players and hire on-field staff on their own, as well as account for more travel expenses, although MLB has said it will provide initial funding for the league’s operating budget as well as install technology in ballparks to provide MLB with more diverse scouting information.

In June, the entire 2020 Minor League Baseball season was canceled because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

“After a year of no baseball, we are excited to announce our 2021 schedule alongside the entire Pioneer League,” Missoula vice president Matt Ellis said in a statement. The Missoula franchise, previously known as the Osprey for 20 seasons, has been rebranded as the PaddleHeads.

“May 22 will be a great day for us as we open up the season and hit the field as the Missoula PaddleHeads for the first time.”

The 2021 schedule is subject to change due to any potential COVID-19 restrictions, the league said.

Click here to view the entire 2021 Pioneer League schedule.

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

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