Play ball! Great Falls Voyagers rescued from the chopping block

It’ll be peanuts and Cracker Jack in 2021 for Great Falls Voyagers fans as Major League Baseball and the Pioneer League announced in a Monday news release that the Pioneer League is safe.

Starting in 2021, the Pioneer League will transition from affiliated status to an independent professional MLB Partner League that will continue to provide baseball to Montana, Idaho, Utah and Colorado.

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 resumption of games will depend on COVID-19 circumstances as the new season begins.

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.

Orbit waits to step on the field for mid-inning entertainment at Centene Stadium. After a year in limbo, the Pioneer League will continue in Montana through a partnership with Major League Baseball.
The Voyagers were previously a rookie level club affiliated with the Chicago White Sox organization. Prior to the branding change to the Voyagers, the Great Falls team was a farm club for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Baseball in Great Falls has spent a year in limbo since the announcement in November 2019 that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred had proposed eliminating 42 minor-league teams.

The move sparked immediate protests from fans, stadiums and even the upper echelons of Montana government.

Following the announcement, U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock all sent open letters to Manfred asking him to reconsider.

Even after meetings with all three top Montana officials, things didn’t look good.

Daines brought out the big guns in June of this year, introducing legislation that proposed to prevent MLB teams from receiving assistance from the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act if the teams were eliminated.

Brantley Bell (49) slides safely into Great Falls second baseman Victor Velasquez (6) on Monday during the Billings Mustangs vs. Great Falls Voyagers game at Dehler Park, September 7, 2015. Baseball will stay in Great Falls after months of doubt, it was announced Monday, as the Pioneer League will continue as a Partner League to Major League Baseball.
Now, as a Partner League, the Pioneer League will collaborate with MLB to provide organized baseball to communities throughout the Western U.S. and Canada.

In response to the news, Tester and Daines commented as part of Monday’s release.

Tester said, “Big Sky Country is professional baseball country…the roots of our Pioneer League clubs run deep, and I’m going to keep working to strengthen MLB’s relationship with our state so that baseball will continue to thrive in our communities and across rural America.”

“Professional baseball in Montana helps bring our communities together and drive our local economies,” Daines said. “It was my privilege to fight for the future of Montana’s minor league teams, and I look forward to seeing the success of the league.”

Voyagers team CEO and principal owner Vinney Purpura and Voyagers President Scott Reasoner also expressed their happiness at the news.

“The Great Falls Voyagers are excited about the new partnership agreement the Pioneer League has with Major League Baseball,” said Purpura. “We look forward to the resumption of America’s pastime in our community and region.”

“We’re thrilled to be a part of the newly revamped Pioneer League, welcoming in a strong new partnership with MLB and giving our fans the opportunity to continue to come out and enjoy high-level professional baseball in Great Falls,” said Reasoner. “We could not be more appreciative of all the support we have received during the past year and look forward to many more summer nights of family fun and community out at Centene Stadium.”

MLB will provide initial funding for the league’s operating expenses and install scouting technology in Pioneer League ballparks to provide MLB Clubs with scouting information on Pioneer League players.

The agreement includes a procedure for player transfers to MLB Clubs, and leagues will explore joint marketing, ticketing and fan engagement opportunities.

Monday’s announcement follows another in late September on the Appalachian League’s evolution into a college wood bat league for the nation’s top rising freshmen and sophomores, as well as the 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 local communities.

The Atlantic League, the American Association and the Frontier League have also become MLB Partner Leagues.

Each covers a different geographic area in the United States and Canada, attracting players of varying levels of experience.