BILLINGS — The Pioneer League will usher in a new era in 2021, ending months of speculation and uncertainty regarding its future in professional baseball.
The league, which was founded in 1939, has officially lost its longstanding professional development licenses with Major League Baseball parent clubs and will now shift to independent status as a Partner League of MLB.
Major League Baseball announced the agreement on Monday, giving clarity to the Pioneer League’s direction since news broke last year of MLB’s desire to restructure the minor league system.
Teams in the Pioneer League operated under player development contracts with MLB clubs, in some form, for the past 81 years. It was a short-season Rookie league beginning in 1964 until 2019. The entire 2020 Minor League Baseball season was canceled due to the coronavirus crisis.
As defined in a press release issued by Major League Baseball, the Pioneer League will collaborate with MLB to provide organized baseball to its communities. The release said MLB will provide initial funding for the league’s operating expenses, as well as install scouting technology in Pioneer League ballparks to provide MLB clubs with scouting information.
The agreement will also include a procedure for player transfers to MLB clubs, the release stated, and that the leagues also will explore joint marketing, ticketing and fan engagement opportunities.
Three other independent professional leagues — the Atlantic League, the Frontier League and the American Association — took on Partner League designations in September.
“We've got great communities, great fans, great owners and great facilities. That's an infrastructure for success,” Pioneer League president Jim McCurdy told The Billings Gazette and 406mtsports.com. “And we think we've got a great partner in MLB.”
As it stands now, the eight-team Pioneer League consists of the Billings Mustangs, Great Falls Voyagers, Missoula PaddleHeads, Idaho Falls Chukars, Ogden Raptors, Northern Colorado Owlz, Grand Junction Rockies and Rocky Mountain Vibes.
The Northern Colorado team is relocating from Orem, Utah, according to the MLB release, and will be based in Windsor, Colorado.
Multiple teams indicated in press releases that one or two more communities that previously hosted affiliated baseball may also join to increase the size of the league.
The league will be made up of players with varying levels of experience. According to a press release issued by the Missoula franchise, teams are expected to feature undrafted players, former professional players who have been released from a major league club and/or players who are under contract with a major league organization.
The annual first-year MLB player draft is expected to be cut from 40 rounds to 20, meaning more prospects will be available for independent leagues to fill their rosters, many of which could be the same types of players the league had in the past. The Pioneer League is expected to cap its age limit for players at 24 years old.
“I think there could be a great number of players with major league potential,” said McCurdy, who took over as Pioneer League president in 1994.
Team owners will be responsible for paying player salaries. Details of who will be tasked with finding and signing players within each organization have not been finalized.
Owners and executives around the league expressed optimism and excitement about the new agreement with MLB.
“Our fans still get to see the same high-quality professional baseball they have come to expect,” Billings owner Dave Heller told The Gazette and 406mtsports.com. “The level of play is the same. The biggest difference is now the Mustangs will be responsible for paying the players, coaches, trainer and manager. Most everything else remains the same.”
“We are very pleased that professional baseball is alive and well in western Montana,” Missoula owners Peter Davis and Susan Crampton Davis said in MLB's release. “Through this partnership, we see ourselves contributing to player development in more substantial ways, while also developing baseball fans for life.”
Great Falls president Scott Reasoner was quoted: “We’re thrilled to be a part of the newly revamped Pioneer League, welcoming in a strong new partnership with MLB and giving our fans the opportunity to continue to come out and enjoy high level professional baseball in Great Falls.”
Break with MLB
The Pioneer League and its club owners had been in negotiations with MLB officials in recent weeks to map out a new direction following the expiration of the 30-year Professional Baseball Agreement in September and as Major League Baseball’s desire to revamp the minor leagues came into clearer focus.
The writing had been on the wall for the Pioneer League for months as contraction for Minor League Baseball's short-season model drew closer. Now as a Partner League of MLB, it will remain a professional league albeit independent of any major league parent clubs.
Since last fall, Major League Baseball and the office of Commissioner Rob Manfred have remained steadfast in their desire to trim the Minor League Baseball system to 120 teams and take over operations, which endangered short-season coalitions like the Pioneer League and other MiLB franchises across professional baseball.
MLB’s reasoning for this broad change, as outlined in a memorandum issued by MLB Senior Vice President of Economics and Operations Morgan Sword and obtained by 406mtsports.com, is to improve working conditions and pay for players, to better align major- and minor-league clubs geographically, to build on marketing potential for MiLB and to position the game for greater growth.
Despite pushback from minor league officials and a political pressure campaign to preserve teams' professional development licenses with MLB in many communities, including in Montana, MLB has pushed ahead with its plans.
Montana’s U.S. Senators, Steve Daines, a Republican, and Jon Tester, a Democrat, along with Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte and Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, formed a bipartisan coalition to help save the professional development licenses of the state’s three pro teams and the rest of the league.
Though the outcome wasn’t perfect for the parties involved, there is a sense of optimism knowing that pro baseball will still be played in Montana and the region.
“I’m very glad that after months of negotiations, MLB and Montana’s minor league teams have come to an agreement to allow Great Falls, Missoula and Billings to continue playing professional baseball in their communities,” Daines said in a statement provided to The Gazette and 406mtsports.com. “I look forward to seeing the success of the league.”
“Big Sky Country is professional baseball country,” Tester was quoted in MLB's release. “The roots of our Pioneer League clubs run deep, and I’m going to keep working to strengthen MLB’s relationship with our state so that baseball will continue to thrive in our communities and across rural America.”
As of this year, the Pioneer League’s MLB affiliations were as follows: Billings and the Cincinnati Reds, Great Falls and the Chicago White Sox, Missoula and the Arizona Diamondbacks, Idaho Falls and the Kansas City Royals, Ogden and the Los Angeles Dodgers, Orem and the Los Angeles Angels, Grand Junction with the Colorado Rockies and Rocky Mountain with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Billings was founded in 1948, and its affiliation with the Reds dated back to 1974. Missoula’s partnership with the Diamondbacks had been ongoing since before the team moved to the Garden City from Lethbridge, Alberta, prior to the 1999 season.
Also founded in 1948, Great Falls was paired with the White Sox since 2003 but was associated with the Dodgers for nearly 20 years before that.
Helena had a team in the Pioneer League from 1978-2018, initially as a farm club of the Phillies, before moving to Colorado Springs, Colorado, as the Rocky Mountain Vibes.
The Grand Junction franchise, a Colorado affiliate, was founded in 1978 in Butte as the Copper Kings before relocating to Casper, Wyoming, after the 2000 season.
Idaho Falls is the league’s longest-tenured club, having joined in 1940 as an affiliate of the Yankees. The Chukars were a member of the Royals’ system since 2004.
Ogden’s Pioneer League history dates back to 1939, though teams left the city on two different occasions through the years. Ogden was an affiliate of the Dodgers since 2003, and saw former players like Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, Joc Pederson and Kenley Jansen win the World Series when L.A. beat Tampa Bay in six games in October.
Originally founded in 2001 in Provo, Utah, the Northern Colorado franchise was partnered with the Angels since its inception.
The 2021 schedule is expected to begin in mid-May and will consist of 92 games. In the past, a typical 76-game Pioneer League season would start the third week of June.
Email Greg Rachac at Greg.Rachac@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @gregrachac