MISSOULA — The story of the year for this Missoula sports fan was the four-month saga involving the minor league team formerly known as the Osprey.
It all started in August when a Mumford & Sons concert turned their outfield into a swampy mess. It was nostalgic for this old Midwestern river rat because it smelled like the Mississippi at low tide — a delightful blend of dead carp, algae and mud.
The field still isn't right. But all parties involved are working to make sure it's good by opening day in June and that future concerts don't do further damage.
The Osprey were front-and-center on the sports page once again in November when they changed their nickname to the PaddleHeads. Holy buckets did that cause a stir.
"It's been kind of comical," said Matt Ellis, executive vice president for the team. "The not-so-social media has been crazy and negative. What amazes us are the amount of lies that are posted. People just irresponsibly write things that aren't fact."
Once and for all, the name Osprey was not changed because former owners Judy and Mike Ellis refused to release the rights to new owners Peter Davis and Susan Crampton Davis. In fact, the Osprey nickname will live on this coming season as part of the team's Throwback Thursdays.
"What was funny about that (rumor) was that one local media outlet ran it as a news story, like it was true," Ellis said, adding that the Missoulian did the responsible thing, calling him to find out the facts. "But (the rumor) still lives. I had a prominent businessperson in town tell me at a holiday party that it's a fact. I was like, 'Dude, where are you getting that?'"
The internet, that's where. Likely some mouth-breather sitting in his mom's basement eating Cheetos and making up stuff to add as a comment to a Missoulian story. It happens almost daily.
The astonishing part of the nickname change was the amount of poison pedaled by online posters. One went so far as to suggest it was "only slightly less offensive than Redskins."
You have free articles remaining.
"What's funny is we'll hit a nasty comment and the person lives in, like, Kentucky," Ellis marveled. "It's like, they don't even know who we are. They're just bored."
Granted, the change to PaddleHeads was a shock to the system at first. Ellis even had two loyal fans call to cancel their season tickets.
But let's be fair about this: The new owners are trying to breath new life into the organization. An organization that doesn't just belong to longtime fans. It belongs to young people as well, two of whom were on my Christmas list this year and were thrilled to receive PaddleHeads T-shirts.
"We just got back from the winter meetings and everybody was walking up to us, teams that are hugely successful, telling us it's the best re-brand of the year," Ellis gushed.
If you're asking this baseball fan, I'm just happy Missoula has a minor league team. It's one of the best things about summertime, sitting at Ogren-Allegiance Park among all the friendly fans.
Osprey was a nice nickname and I hated to see it go. But even if the team was called the Outhouse Rats, yours truly would still be as excited as a child about opening day.
Here's hoping there's many, many more opening days to come. By now most everyone knows about the threat looming on the horizon, leaving minor league teams like the Paddleheads in limbo about their future beyond 2020.
No one knows for certain what's going to go down, but Ellis has some words of reassurance.
"We're in the second inning of a negotiation that will probably go through the summer," he noted. "I think a deal is going to be made and it's going to be great for everybody.
"We're proud of minor league baseball and what it's done and I think Major League Baseball realizes it would be crazy to eliminate it. Major League Baseball has some legitimate issues they want resolved. There's going to be changes. It's just unfortunate they took this crazy negotiating strategy by threatening to blow us up."
Long live minor league baseball in Missoula. The thought of sitting out there at the ol' ballpark on a warm summer night always makes me smile — especially on these cold, dark days of winter.
Bill Speltz is Missoulian Sports Editor and has served as Sunday columnist the past 13 years. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.