Montana delegation urges pro baseball to reconsider plan to cut minor league teams

Montana’s congressional delegation this week joined a growing list of officials urging Major League Baseball to reconsider its plans to slash a number of minor league teams, including those in Montana – home to the Pioneer League.

Under the proposal, MLB would reduce its affiliated teams from 160 to 120. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines each sent letters to MLB Commissioner Robert Manfred on Tuesday opposing the plan.

“Our communities are deeply invested in our minor league teams,” Tester wrote. “These teams keep Montanans connected to (MLB), provide affordable family entertainment, and spur economic development and job growth across many business sectors. I urge you to reverse course on this proposal.”

Teams on the chopping block include the newly minted Missoula Paddleheads , affiliated with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the Billings Mustangs. It’s affiliation with the Cincinnati Reds marks one of the longest player development relationships in the county.

Other cities with teams in the Pioneer League include Idaho Falls, Orem, Ogden, Grand Junction, Colorado Springs and Great Falls.

In place of the affiliated teams, MLB proposes to create a so-called “Dream League” for undrafted players. But that proposal hasn’t won over skeptics, including the president of the National Association of Baseball, who called it “a death sentence” for the teams listed on the chopping block.

Montana doesn’t have any major league sports teams – just one of two states that can make such a claim. For many, it’s these minor league baseball teams that provide the chance to watch professional prospects and future stars.

“Due to Montana’s geographical location, the closest major league team is over 500 miles away, and these minor league teams are the best opportunities for Montanans to see professional baseball,” Daines said in his letter to the commissioner.

Tester and Daines have joined other members of Congress in opposing MLB’s plans. Sen. Bernie Sanders called it “terrible for baseball” and “an absolute disaster for baseball fans.” More than 100 members of the U.S. House, including Rep. Greg Gianforte, said the proposal would have devastating impacts on communities and their financial well being.

“The abandonment of Minor League clubs by Major League Baseball would devastate our communities, their bond purchasers, and other stakeholders affected by the potential loss of these clubs,” members of the House wrote.

“We want you to fully understand the impact this could have not only on the communities we represent, but also on the long-term support that Congress has always afforded our national pastime on a wide variety of legislative initiatives.”

Tester believes it could also cripple baseball’s future fan base. Teams like those in the Pioneer League inspire “a connection to the game that will last a lifetime,” he said.

“MLB’s rural footprint is critical to growing the sport into the 21st century,” he wrote. “I strongly believe that now is not the time for MLB to reduce its role in baseball in rural America.”

The current agreement between MLB and the National Association of Professional Baseball Clubs expires at the end of the 2020 season.