'Seismic shift': Minor league baseball in Montana facing uncertain future after 2020

'Seismic shift': Minor league baseball in Montana facing uncertain future after 2020

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Dehler Park

Proposed changes to the structure of minor league baseball for 2021 could mean the end of professional baseball as we know it at Dehler Park in Billings.

BOZEMAN — As speculation and rumor swirl around the future of minor league baseball across the country after 2020, the uncertainty is rippling out to Montana and the Pioneer League.

Baseball America and the New York Times recently reported Major League Baseball’s intentions to renegotiate a "seismic shift" to its Professional Baseball Agreement with minor league baseball beginning in 2021, including a proposal to reduce the number of teams from 160 to 120.

Though in its preliminary stages, if adopted the proposal would eliminate Rookie and short-season Class A leagues, including the Pioneer, and instead having the 42 franchises subsequently without Player Development Contracts form a full-season "Dream League." The associated costs for smaller markets to maintain such teams would likely be too prohibitive, Baseball America executive editor JJ Cooper wrote earlier this week.

“Teams in those leagues would instead be encouraged to form summer wood bat amateur teams under the auspices and organization of MLB,” Cooper continued. “By doing so, MLB could assure cities that while they may no longer have MLB-affiliated teams, they still would have baseball tied to the MLB/MiLB umbrella.”

Though negotiations are underway, Cooper notes they are contentious and that both sides are “further apart than they have been in any PBA negotiation since 1990.” The current contract expires after 2020.

In Montana, fidgety general managers of the three Pioneer League franchises — the Billings Mustangs, Missoula Osprey and Great Falls Voyagers — can do little but wait it out and prepare for baseball as usual through 2020.

In general, they have been asked to refrain from substantive comment until further notice.

"This negotiation between the commissioner's office and minor league baseball office has just started and this is for after the 2020 season,” Osprey general manager Matt Ellis told 406mtsports.com and the Missoulian. “There's a lot of posturing going on and a lot of inaccurate stuff being said. We're continuing to move forward. We're confident that we're going to be fine."

Said Billings Mustangs GM Gary Roller in a text to the Billings Gazette: “We can't comment other than to say we're aware that representatives from MLB and MiLB are currently engaged in discussions regarding the new professional baseball agreement that takes effect following the 2020 minor league season.”

In a phone call Thursday, Voyagers GM Scott Reasoner said he’s following the reports from afar while preparing for 2020.

“Obviously there’s some uncertainty in the negotiations and what could happen,” Reasoner said. “But we know in Great Falls we have great support and … we’re very committed to having baseball in some form after the 2020 season.”

Minor league baseball has been a summer staple in Montana dating back generations.

Great Falls and Billings have had teams since 1948, and the Mustangs have been affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds for 46 years. The Osprey have been in Missoula since 1999 but the town first had Pioneer League baseball with the Timberjacks in 1956.  

Reasoner pointed to the contentious 1990 negotiations as reason for guarded optimism. Significant changes were made to the PBA after considerable compromise, but with little impact on the ground in minor league cities — though a dramatic reduction in teams wasn’t proposed then.

“So there is a precedent to these negotiations taking a while and having ideas floating out there,” he said.

Another reason for some optimism in Montana is the caliber of facilities. One of MLB's contentions with MiLB is that it says roughly one-fourth of minor-league ballparks are sub-standard; the stadiums in Billings, Missoula and Great Falls likely wouldn’t be among them.

But that won’t necessarily prevent the Pioneer League from being swept up in an overhaul. Cooper writes that any PBA agreement would have to include a guarantee from MiLB that all venues would be improved to MLB standards.

Other short-season leagues are similarly anxious.

Cooper writes that the Northwest League — comprised of teams in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and British Columbia — possibly could become full-season if the proposal is adopted. Or it could cease to exist.

“Am I concerned about it? I’d be naive to say I wasn’t,” Everett (Wash.) AquaSox general manager Danny Tetzlaff told the Everett Herald. “Anything that’s proposed that would dramatically affect your business model, then it would definitely catch your interest. I think it’s early for us to be too concerned. Right now, we’re focused on 2020 and we’ll keep doing it the way we’ve been doing it. ...

“I personally feel that it could possibly affect 42 communities across the country in the heart of America. I mean come on,” Tetzlaff added. “I think that’s crazy.”

Negotiations between MLB and MiLB are in a recess for postseason baseball but are scheduled to resume in November.

All the folks in Montana can do is wait and hope.

“Obviously there’s a lot of different ideas, rumors and speculation,” Reasoner said. “We’re waiting like everybody else to see what comes to fruition and getting ready for more baseball for 2020.”

406mtsports.com reporters Bill Speltz in Missoula and Mike Scherting in Billings contributed to this story.

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