Friday, December 4, 2020

Pioneer League to remain in Idaho Falls

The old grandstands at Highland Park, which were destroyed by fire in 1975. (Museum of Idaho photo)
You can call it wishful thinking, but it is good news that Pioneer League baseball will continue in Idaho Falls.

Major League Baseball and the Pioneer League jointly announced this week that the Pioneer League has been designated a “Partner League” of MLB. Starting in 2021, the Pioneer League will transition from affiliated status to an independent professional MLB Partner League that continues to provide high-quality baseball to the states of Idaho, Montana, Utah and Colorado. All eight members of the Pioneer League – the Billings Mustangs, the Grand Junction Rockies, the Great Falls Voyagers, the Idaho Falls Chukars, the Missoula PaddleHeads, the Ogden Raptors, the Northern Colorado Owlz and the Rocky Mountain Vibes – will continue participating in the league and will maintain their existing team names and brands.

Idaho Falls' relationship with the Pioneer League dates back to 1940, when the Russets, a New York Yankees farm team, began playing home games at Highland Park, where wooden grandstands had been built by the Works Progress Administration the year before. Over 80 years, a dozen Major League organizations have had a farm team here. After Pearl Harbor the Yankees pulled out and the Russets became a co-op team, according to an account in digitalballparks.com. The Brooklyn Dodgers came in 1949 and stayed for one season. They were succeeded in 1950 by their the crosstown National League rivals, the New York Giants, who stayed three seasons.  There was a two-year gap before the Detroit Tigers came in 1954 and remained through 1958. The Pirates came in 1959, followed by the White Sox in 1960 and 1961. The Yankees made a triumphant and brief return for 1962 and 1963, changing the name of the team to the Idaho Falls Yankees, before the California Angels settled in 1964. The Angels remained through 1980, the longest continuous stretch for any one organization.

A spectacular fire destroyed the WPA grandstands in 1975, but a community effort led by Post Register Publisher E.F. McDermott and Club President Eugene Bush, a prominent attorney and state legislator, kept the Angels and the Pioneer League in Idaho Falls. Games were played at McDermott Field until Melaleuca Field was built in 2006-2007. After the Angels left, the club was affiliated with the Oakland A's, Atlanta Braves, San Diego Padres and since 2004, the Kansas City Royals.

As a Partner League, the Pioneer League will collaborate with MLB to provide organized baseball to communities throughout the Western U.S. and Canada. 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 first-class scouting information on Pioneer League players. The agreement will also include a procedure for player transfers to MLB Clubs. The Leagues also will explore joint marketing, ticketing and fan engagement opportunities.

The Nov. 30 MLB press release followed the late September announcement of the Appalachian League’s evolution into the premier college wood bat league for the nation’s top rising freshmen and sophomores, as well as today’s unveiling of the new MLB Draft League in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, West Virginia and Ohio. These are both part of MLB’s broader efforts to modernize player development while preserving baseball in the local communities in which it is currently played.

Morgan Sword, MLB’s Executive Vice President, Baseball Economics & Operations, said: “Over the past year, we have worked closely with Pioneer League owners and elected officials to ensure the continued success of baseball in the Mountain West. We’re excited to support this new initiative and look forward to Pioneer League baseball returning in 2021.”

The Pioneer League joins the Atlantic League, the American Association and the Frontier League as an MLB Partner League. Each Partner League covers a different geographic area in the United States and Canada and attracts players of varying levels of experience. All Partner Leagues provide communities with high-quality professional baseball and share MLB’s goal of growing participation and engagement with baseball and softball.