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MISSOULA — The first pitch of high school baseball in the state of Montana won’t be until the spring of 2023 at the earliest — if that season-opening pitch is thrown at all.

The idea of introducing high school baseball in Montana came about in recent weeks when a petition originating in Stevensville led to a proposal sent to the MHSA.

The next step is the Jan. 11 meeting of the MHSA executive board. The seven-member board — which includes a representative from Class AA, A, B and C, a Montana School Boards Association rep, a state superintendent’s rep and a governor’s office rep —needs a majority vote to open the door for a survey of association schools to see if there’s interest in studying baseball.

Then, if a majority of the 196 schools say they have interest, the board will appoint a committee to study the viability of adding the activity. The results will be presented at the next annual meeting in January 2022, and a vote will be held on whether to introduce baseball in the following school year.

“The purpose of the rule is to have a study and make sure there’s adequate information gathered and there was enough time for everyone to look at that information and take it back to their school districts and to their board and their communities,” MHSA executive director Mark Beckman said.

If the executive board doesn’t have a majority vote Jan. 11, then the proposal will have to be reintroduced in January 2022, meaning the earliest baseball could then be added is 2024.

In a normal year, a proposal could be submitted for the annual meeting with there being a vote of the 192 member schools on whether they should study adding the sport. But those types of proposals weren’t being accepted this year because there’s no in-person meeting due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so Stevensville submitted its proposal as a request for the executive board to review.

Beckman said there have been three or four proposals to add baseball during his 24 years with the MHSA. None have received a majority vote to even form a committee to study adding baseball, so no information was gathered.

“If my memory serves correct,” Beckman said, “some concerns about having an additional sport in the spring were would it take away from track and other spring sports? They looked at how the Legion program was successful and would there be a conflict, could they play both, would Legion wait until high school is done or would schools be conflicting? Some positives that came up were to say it’d be a great opportunity, lots of kids enjoy baseball, weather shouldn’t be a factor because we can do softball, maybe we could work with Legion and work out details.”

Those are many of the same questions and concerns on the table now.

Impact on high schools

The main concern that athletic directors who spoke to 406mtsports.com had is regarding participation.

Would there be enough interest at schools to field a team? Would there be enough schools fielding a team to make a season and championship meaningful?

Those are the types of questions that would be presented at the January 2022 meeting should the legislative process get that far.

“Part of my question is a better understanding of participation level at our school,” Missoula Hellgate athletic director Nick Laatsch said. “The proposal raises questions, and what a survey of schools and study does is it answers questions like does high schools sanctioning baseball make it more accessible than with Legion? I don’t know the answer to that.”

Missoula Sentinel athletic director Brian Fortmann would be open to possibly adding baseball because he sees the nationwide popularity, but among his questions are participation and facilities. Missoula County Public Schools doesn’t own baseball fields, so there would be costs for renting fields for practices and games or finding money to build their own.

“The biggest hurdle would certainly be interest. I would be surprised if there wasn’t interest,” Fortmann said. “The facility would be another one. The hurdles to get across would be to find a facility or create a facility for each high school.”

Those are initial questions, but a slew of other issues would then arise. Schools’ operating expenses will include coaches, travel costs, equipment and field upkeep among other considerations. Where does that money come from? Are other sports then affected if they get money pulled?

In smaller towns, there are questions about the potential need for co-ops. Would that make it more accessible or work financially? For St. Ignatius athletic director Tyler Murray, his school’s softball team needs to do a three-way co-op with Arlee and Charlo.

“The biggest thing for us are participation numbers,” said Murray, who would be in favor of adding baseball, a sport he played growing up, if it makes sense. “We’re generally pretty low already in the spring. We’d need a facility if we wanted to have it here, or we’d need another school to co-op. Baseball is not a cheap sport. We’d have to get a baseball budget and a transport budget. You’d have AA and A teams, but do you have B and C also?”

Then there’s something they can’t control: the weather. Softball has shown an ability to complete a season, although games each year are canceled due to weather.

“Spring baseball would be tough unless the season ends later in the summer, and softball would probably have to follow,” said Butte athletic director Chuck Merrifield, who is open to adding baseball at Butte if the MHSA approves it. “I do believe more kids would be able to play the game if it is administered by the schools.”

Pay to play?

The petition argues that Legion baseball is inaccessible to many kids because of the cost required to play.

That narrative received pushback from the Legion members who spoke to 406mtsports.com: Billings American Legion Baseball chairman Jeff Ballard, Bitterroot Bucs coach Austin Nogle and Libby Loggers coach Kelly Morford.

They said the only required payment by a player to the team is a registration fee. It’s $100 for the Bitterroot Bucs. In Libby, that’s $150. The Missoula Mavericks charge $350. In Helena, that number jumps to $600 for the Independents and $900 for the Senators.

Players have to buy their own cleats and glove, but they’d be responsible for those items if they were playing high school baseball. They do have to get passports if they play on a team that travels to Canada.

The teams take care of operating costs such as travel, lodging, uniforms, helmets, bats and more through fundraising, tournaments, tickets sold for games, auctions, raffle tickets and community dinners, among other things. Ballard and Nogle both said the fundraising pays for food on road trips, while kids in Libby bring or pay for their own food.

“It’s being painted as being inaccessible to kids due to cost, and that’s simply not true,” Morford said. “It’s accessible, and if we didn’t make it accessible, we wouldn’t have kids come out. There’s no denying playing Legion is a commitment by them and their family, but financially, programs do what they can to make it accessible.”

In Libby, each player has to raise $500. It’s about $1,900 in the Bitterroot Valley. The Missoula Mavericks ask their kids to hit $2,800. In Billings, it’s about $3,500.

Nogle said his team provides his players with a list of businesses who’ve sponsored them in the past, and it’s up to the kids to take the initiative of contacting the business to ask about sponsoring them. Parents could pay the fundraising figure if they can afford it and their kids don’t want to do the fundraising.

“If one kid says my parents can’t afford the registration fee or I can’t do the fundraising, we’re not in the business of turning kids away from playing baseball because they have struggles,” Nogle said. “It’s good for their social skills to interact with businesses in their community. It’s a different experience than high school. Football you show up to game day and the lines are painted and grass is cut. Our guys have to set up the field, rake the dirt and fly their flags.”

Ballard pointed out that certain high school sports have their athletes or programs do fundraising to help cover their costs because the tax dollars subsidizing them might not cover everything

“We’re not a pay-to-play sport, we’re a work-to-play sport,” Ballard said. “Somebody may say we’re not an equal-opportunity sport because it’s too expensive, but everyone is given the opportunity to raise the money. It’s a lot of work to play, to raise the money. We can’t afford to be an elitist type of program. That’s a death sentence for any youth sport in my opinion.”

Believing in baseball

The Legion coaches who spoke to 406mtsports.com agreed on one thing: Kids playing baseball is a good thing. They just wonder how the potential addition of high school baseball will affect Legion baseball in the state and if the two sports could be balanced without hurting Legion.

Morford is worried that high school baseball could lead to the dissolution of Legion ball in smaller towns, which isn’t the goal of the Stevensville members who put together the proposal. He’s already had issues in the city of about 2,800 people, getting just nine players to come out for the team in 2012. They’re now up to 22 between their A and B teams

“I have some real fears that it would eliminate a lot of Legion programs, and there’s no way to know which way it would go,” Morford said. “If kids decide they don’t want to commit to playing a full summer and that high school is enough baseball for them, then you start losing players and teams here and there, and it adds up and makes it difficult to have a good league. When you’re close on numbers every year like we are, it’s concerning.”

Bigger cities could be safer from that sort of fate, but there could be other consequences. Nogle isn’t for or against high school baseball, he just doesn’t want to see Legion ball compromised, which could include being forced to become a summer-only sport because of high school baseball potentially diminishing Legion enrollment.

“In our area, what if Stevensville adds baseball but Florence doesn’t and there’s no co-op, then the Stevi kids are playing but the Florence kids are forced to not play for the first two months of their normal Legion season,” Nogle said. “I’m not saying that’s going to be the situation across the state. I think the baseball players in the state that really love the game of baseball or want to play game at a higher level than varsity or are going to play in college are already playing.”

Ballard posited he’d be OK with Legion baseball becoming a summer sport and not battling high schools for players. He noted that Legion teams regularly have games canceled early in the season anyway.

“It would not be proper for Legion to try to compete with high school baseball,” Ballard said.

He feels they’d still able to get in 50-plus games in the summer and the shortened season could possibly mean a smaller registration fee and fundraising requirement. High school could then be used as a pseudo spring training getting players ready for the more competitive Legion season with a structure still in place of state, regional and World Series.

“I see that there’s some synergy of each one working together,” Ballard said. “High school should flow into Legion, and Legion should flow into college. That’s really the way it can work. That’s why I think it can be an asset if it can be done correctly.”

Montana is one of just three states that doesn’t play high school baseball, along with South Dakota and Wyoming. All 50 states play some sort of Legion baseball, so 47 states have had to work to achieve a balance, like waiting to begin until the high school season ends.

Morford can recognize the excitement of kids getting to play for a state title while representing their school, but he doesn’t want to see Legion ball downgraded to just a summer sport.

“We’re one of the last great strongholds of Legion baseball where a state title means something,” Morford said. “I don’t want to see that go away. But I wouldn’t say no to an opportunity for more kids to play baseball.

“The question is how do you balance that and not hurt Legion. You may get only the kids who are really serious playing in the summer and it turns into travel ball and all about finding more innings as opposed to playing for your town and state title.”

For Nogle, who played for the same team he now coaches, shortening the Legion season that runs from April through August could alter the meaningfulness of the experience.

“I feel our Legion programs are strong and good, competitive baseball,” he said. “It gives the boys a long journey they go on and to form a good, solid foundation of what it means being part of a team. It’s the closest thing to a college atmosphere.

“If it isn’t broke, don’t try to fix it. Maybe it is more broken than we’re aware of, but I don’t see it with it being how competitive it is and the state champion changing, it’s not one team dominating the whole thing. We hate to see what Montana’s built as far as Legion suffer from something that might take players away.”

Even if Legion ball becomes just a summer sport, Ballard noted it would still represent collections of the best players as the teams in major cities draw from multiple high schools.

“I think Legion can make the adjustments needed and still provide the top-caliber competition that Legion currently provides and it can work well in working with the high schools,” he said. “I think it’s do-able.”

Track hurdles

The addition of high school baseball could potentially most impact high school track and field, which could lose kids to the baseball diamond.

The coaches who talked to the 406mtsports.com think that’s a possibility, but they’re not overly worried about it.

“It will certainly have an impact on track and field, but as an educator, your guiding question should always be, ‘What is best for the kids?’” Missoula Sentinel coach Craig Mettler said. “This is a great opportunity for kids, so I am all for it if the MHSA implements high school baseball.”

Butte track coach Arie Grey agreed with that sentiment. He’s had 10-20 kids in all 13 of his years at Butte do both track and baseball in the spring, the latter with Legion, Babe Ruth or Little League.

“I think any opportunities that we can give kids more opportunities to do sports is a good thing,” Grey said. “It’ll have an impact on us, but the main thing for me is getting kids to do things. I want kids competing. I want participation in athletics to go up.”

Corvallis track coach Spencer Huls said high school baseball’s impact on track and field won’t be immediate or too devastating.

“In the first 5-10 years, you’re not going to see a huge difference because the kids that want to play are already playing,” Huls said. “I wouldn’t say it’s going to make a huge immediate impact, but it will eventually. When a school adopts boys soccer, you don’t see an immediate impact on the football program overnight, but eventually you do see an impact on that program.”

Murray, who once coached track at St. Ignatius, said his school is heavy on kids whose primary sport is football, and those kids already focus on track instead of playing baseball for the Mission Valley Mariners, the area Legion team.

“They know track would help them more with football than baseball,” he said.

Huls said the impact of adding high school baseball will be more on Legion baseball than track.

“I think high school baseball would signal the death of Legion baseball,” he said. “I can’t imagine both of those existing. I’d assume you’d have a JV team if you have varsity, and I think if you did, you’re spreading out the pool even further. I don’t see how you can have a good, competitive baseball league at the same time as the Legion league.”

There are also concerns about how the addition of high school baseball affects other spring sports besides track, such as golf and tennis. There are also out-of-school sports such as club soccer, lacrosse and rugby already pulling on athletes.

“I think it’s more the case of would it destroy Legion more?” Missoula Big Sky track coach Dan Nile queried. “It might cause some issues there, but for high school, the worst issue is there’s too many high school things going on. I think the question is do you dilute everything in the spring because you’ve got lots of activities already, so how much can a school support?”

Coaches could be then challenged even more to recruit kids to come out for the sport they coach.

“We have to go out and get kids to want to come out for our sport,” Grey said. “We have 130 kids come out for football this year. If you want your sport to be successful, you’ve got to walk your halls and get kids to want to join. Kids will come out if there’s opportunities.”

Mettler said high school baseball will give kids who want to play an opportunity to scratch that itch and then be able to use the summer for another sport instead of spending all spring and summer in Legion baseball.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for those kids who love baseball but also want to work on other sports during summers,” Mettler said. “High school baseball will allow those kids to play 20-30 games and then focus on their other sports during the summer.”

Huls would like to see high school baseball, if approved, and softball move to the summer. That would allow more kids to come out for track because there wouldn’t be contest conflicts.

“The hard part is then you’re not in school,” Huls said, “and then some of those expectations that come with a school sport would have to be altered, like attendance, eligibility, all of that would have to be different if it were outside of the school year.”

Gender equality

The potential addition of baseball also prompts questions about Title IX.

The more immediate impact involves the Ridgeway Decision, which resulted when the MHSA was sued in federal court in 1982. That led to association schools having to offer an equal number of boys and girls sports.

When the MHSA recently added girls wrestling, it counterbalanced that by adding boys powerlifting. The MHSA had to do that because the AA schools were already offering all sports, and if those schools decided to have girls wrestling, they couldn’t add a boys sport they weren’t previously offering, which would be possible at smaller schools that don’t sponsor all sports.

There are 55 schools in the state sponsoring girls wrestling this year and only five or six offering boys powerlifting, Beckman said. So, if baseball is added, that school could use baseball instead of powerlifting to counterbalance girls wrestling. A school offering an equal number of boys and girls sports could also drop another boys sport to add baseball and keep the balance.

So, all that means a girls sport isn’t required to be proposed along with baseball.

“In this case, we’d like to add an additional girls sports, but we don’t need to because we can still offer equal numbers,” Beckman said, referencing the AA having been offering all sports before the additions of girls wrestling and boys powerlifting. There could be issues with a balance of sports if only a boys sport is added and powerlifting becomes more popular at AA schools by the time baseball throws its first pitch as early 2023.

Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.

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