To borrow a baseball analogy: It's a close play at home and we're almost out.
After nearly 70 years of professional baseball in the Magic City, Billings stands to lose its affiliation with Major League Baseball. A new proposal, dubbed in some circles as the "Houston Plan," would shrink the number of minor league teams by about 25 percent. That would mean the elimination of the Pioneer League and with it, three Montana teams, including the Billings Mustangs.
Mustangs' ownership remains mum, and granted, they're in a hard position: They can't say much for fear of upsetting Major League Baseball and threatening their multi-million-dollar business.
Others have speculated that this plan is nothing more than a ploy by MLB to eliminate small-market minor league affiliates which have antiquated facilities and low attendance.
Neither one of those descriptions fits Billings, but new reporting this week demonstrate that there's probably more than just bargaining pressure here.
The "Houston Plan" is named that because the Houston Astros, widely acknowledged to have one of the best farm systems in MLB, have done well while actually shrinking the number of minor-league affiliates. The Astros have been to the World Series twice in the past three years.
Other teams have taken notice and it is believed to be the model of the future. It would also have the affect of revamping a minor league system that looks like it did decades ago.
That spells trouble for the Pioneer League and its "Rookie Level" baseball. But, to listen to Billings' leaders, it seems like no one is raising the alarm.
So, let us be the first.
The Mustangs only are contracted through the 2020 season, which means next summer could be the last for them. Major League Baseball and the Cincinnati Reds, the parent club of the Mustangs, have no obligation to Billings beyond that.
And yet Billings has a commitment to professional baseball for beyond the 2020 season, both historically and practically. This community has rallied and supported professional farm-team baseball for several generations. It's not only become part of our summertime tradition, it's also a part of our tourism and entertainment industry here.
We have also invested millions of dollars of taxpayers' money to upgrade and build out the facilities at Dehler Park. It has repeatedly and consistently been named the best Rookie League park in the country. Dehler Park is not only picturesque with its Rims backdrop, its facilities for fans and players are second to none. There are many AA and AAA ballparks that are not quite as well maintained. Billings taxpayers voted to upgrade the old Cobb Field. We continue to pay for the facilities at Dehler Park and if the Mustangs go away, our investment will be severely under utilized. And, as much as Billings has had a wonderful tradition of American Legion baseball and college baseball through Montana State University Billings, the facility needs professional use.
Taxpayers were sold a Dehler Park with the promise of professional baseball (along with more events), and that's what we should fight for.
Right now, Billings leaders seem content to sit back and watch what has been characterized as an issue at the Major League level. However, we believe the onus is on more than just the owners of the Mustangs. We believe the community also has a responsibility.
The Billings City Council must start publicly talking about this. It must see that the Mustangs bring so much to the community in terms of quality of life and economic value. The voters of Billings have responded and spent money on infrastructure through Dehler Park, and the city leaders must start lobbying to make sure that Billings keeps professional baseball.
To date, the city has treated the Mustangs far too much like tenants of the city's facilities instead of a treasure. Major League Baseball, Minor League Baseball and the Cincinnati Reds must know that Billings needs to keep a team and that we have demonstrated through superior facilities and fan support that we can support baseball here.
We also believe it's incumbent upon Visit Billings and the other tourism organizations to rally support.
Poll the average Billings resident and you'd be hard pressed to find many who don't have fond memories of going to the ballpark. The tourism and entertainment leaders must see that Dehler Park and the Mustangs help attract folks here and add immeasurably to the quality of life. We must do everything we can to make sure that we keep professional, affiliated baseball in Billings. Any old league of semi-professional ballplayers simply will not do.
However, up until this point, the voice of our city leaders and tourism movers and shakers has been too laid back. We can't expect the ownership group of the Mustangs, which has other properties and is not local, to do all the advocating for Billings.
The message must be clear: The Mustangs must stay.
Billings, it's time to step up to the plate.
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