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After Helena Move, What Will Pioneer League Look Like?

With the blockbuster announcement by the Elmore Sports Group yesterday that three MiLB teams will be on the move for 2019, several leagues are planning their future configurations. We begin with the Pioneer League and the Helena Brewers move to Colorado Springs.

That Helena is moving to Colorado Springs is not a surprise. As a market, Colorado Springs is certainly more appropriate for the Rookie-level Pioneer League than the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. Winter tends to linger in the mountains, and the location isn’t the most convenient for travel. Plus, MLB teams — including former parent Colorado Rockies — have not been thrilled with such a high affiliate playing in such a high altitude.

“My years in Helena have been some of my fondest in professional baseball. From the day we moved the club to Helena in 2002, I have enjoyed the people and community and I am sad to move the team at the end of the 2018 season,” Brewers owner D.G. Elmore said in a release issued. “I am glad there will be two more seasons in Helena and I will cherish them.”

Indeed: running into the late Calvin Griffith at Kindrick Legion Field (he had a season ticket and dedicated seat there after selling the Minnesota Twins) and talking baseball is a cherished memory of Helena Brewers visits over the years. The baseball community in Helena may not be large, but it is loyal.

While Helena does occupy a nice piece of real estate when it comes to Pioneer League travel — sitting between Missoula, Great Falls and Billings — the attendance numbers for the Brewers have not been spectacular. In 2016, the Helena Brewers reported 1,075 fans a game, a 14 percent improvement over 2015. But that put them at #148 out of #160 Minor League Baseball teams. Kindrick Legion Field is exactly as advertised — an American Legion facility that’s been expanded for pro ball — and if you were to launch a Rookie-level league in the American West now, putting a team in Helena probably wouldn’t be high on your Montana wish list.

But Colorado Springs certainly would be high on a Colorado wish list, with a population over 400,000. (Indeed, apart from the Denver suburbs, Colorado Springs would be first on a Pioneer League wish list.) So the move is certainly an upgrade for the Pioneer League.

We don’t expect the Colorado Springs to be the only team moving by the 2019 season, however. We’ve written about Pueblo’s quest for a new ballpark. The city would be a perfect travel partner for Colorado Springs, though it is on the smaller side. But with county leaders holding $60 million for civic investments and a feasibility study underway, it would seen a natural to host Pioneer League ball.

And, as it end up, another Pioneer League team facing some ballpark issues is on the hunt for a new home. We’re not going to get into the specifics, but it’s a situation that will affect the Pioneer League configuration in the future. (We could also see two ownership changes in the next year or so, but those are not expected to alter the league lineup.) So there’s a very real chance the league will look dramatically different by 2019. Or after 2020; who knows whether you’ll have separate Short Season A and Rookie levels come the next PBA? We’ll save that discussion for another time.

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