Dave Heller, owner of two MiLB teams and a newly independent Pioneer League squad, joins Jesse Goldberg-Strassler and Kevin Reichard to discuss his approach to fun at the ballpark and MiLB’s makeover in this week’s Ballpark Digest Chat.
Heller’s first splash in Minor League Baseball came as owner of the Quad Cities River Bandits in the Class A Midwest League, where he implemented annual ballpark upgrades on the fan side, including a scenic Ferris wheel in center field, fan-friendly additions to the Modern Woodmen Park upper level, and other amusements (which, interestingly, are popular with players as well!) in the 360-degree concourse. The guiding philosophy behind all the moves: to create and enhance the sense of community at the historic venue, which reflects in the current support for the River Bandits. A portion of the proceeds from the amusements go to a local medical foundation providing free flu shots for every child in the Quad Cities. Along the way he discusses other notable moments in the Quad, including the waterproofing of a ballpark that previously flooded frequently.
On the flip side, Heller discusses the challenges operating MiLB teams in the last year, whether it’s sitting out the 2020 season due to COVID-19 and losing teams in the MLB reorganization of the sport. Quad Cities and the Wilmington Blue Rocks made the cut to the new 120 (only after Iowa elected officials lobbied to keep Quad Cities in the mix, however), but the Billings Mustangs and the rest of the Pioneer League did not. Instead, the Pioneer League will play this season as an MLB Partner League—the new term for what were formerly independent leagues—and break new ground in the west. All the Pioneer League teams will be operating in 2021 or 2022, joined by the Boise Hawks. While the Pioneer League has been making headlines due to 2021 rule changes, operations will be a challenge due to new, increased payroll, as Heller explains. But with a strong set of owners, Heller likes the chances of the Pioneer League thriving in the future.
Jesse Goldberg-Strassler is the Voice of the Lansing Lugnuts and the author of The Baseball Thesaurusand The Football Thesaurus from August Publications. Kevin Reichard is publisher at August Publications and Ballpark Digest.
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