Minor league baseball, albeit in a completely different form, stays alive in Colorado.
A renewed eight-team Pioneer League, unveiled by Major League Baseball on Monday, includes Grand Junction Rockies, Rocky Mountain Vibes in Colorado Springs and Northern Colorado Owlz in Windsor.
The Pioneer League has been designated a “partner league” for MLB. This means that from 2021, teams in the Pioneer League will no longer be affiliated with major league teams. Instead, the teams will serve as independent clubs in Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Utah.
In addition to the three Colorado teams, the other members are the Pioneer League Billings (Mont.) Mustangs, Great Falls (Mont.) Voyagers, Idaho Falls Chukars, Missoula (Mont.) PaddleHeads and Ogden (Utah) Raptors. All teams will keep their existing team names and brands.
“We’re excited to continue playing professional baseball in Western Slope, where we all have so much love for the game,” said Mick Ritter, president / general manager of Grand Junction Rockies. “We have the support and help of MLB to get started. We are lucky to still have that relationship. But there are still many things to work out. ”
MLB has promised to help the Pioneer League get started with its new format as an independent league.
“MLB will provide initial funding for the league’s operating costs, as well as install scouting technology in Pioneer League ball parks to provide MLB clubs with first-class scouting information about Pioneer League players,” MLB said in a statement. “The agreement will also include a procedure for player transfers to MLB clubs. The leagues will also explore opportunities for joint marketing, tickets and fan engagement. ”
Dick Monfort, majority owner of the major league Colorado Rockies, is still the majority owner of the Grand Junction minor-league team. Grand Junction, which will continue to play home games at Suplizio Field, had served as the Colorado Rockies ‘rookie league team for nine years, but it will no longer feed players directly into the Rockies’ system.
Vibes had served as the Milwaukee Brewers’ rookie team, while Owlz was associated with the Los Angeles Angels. Owlz announced Monday that they are leaving Orem, Utah, for Windsor.
Owlz will play at the Future Legends Complex, a new 118-acre sports, entertainment and retail development currently under construction in Windsor. The complex is scheduled to open completely in the spring of 2022.
This year, during the coronavirus pandemic that wiped out baseball in the minor leagues, MLB moved to shrink the associated minor leagues from 160 to 120 teams after the expiration of the Professional Baseball Agreement, which governed the relationship between the majors and minors. Many cities wondered if they still wanted professional baseball.
“I think the Grand Junction Rockies have grown with the community over the last nine years,” Ritter said. “We have grown to a large fan base for baseball in Western Slope.
“We will continue to offer great baseball, cheap beer, cheap sausages, cheap tickets and a fun family atmosphere.”
Added to Grand Junction Mayor Duke Wortmann: “This is a proud moment for the Pioneer League and Grand Junction. After a tough year financially, we could not have been happier to hear the news about the team that lives here. We look forward to getting out and supporting our local baseball team next summer. ”
The Vibes will continue to play at UCHealth Park in Colorado Springs. President and CEO Chris Phillips said it took a concerted effort to keep baseball alive in the Pioneer League.
“We have been working on this for more than a year, ever since the contraction negotiations began,” Phillips said. “When we addressed the fact that minor league baseball was changing, we were concerned about what it meant for us.
“But we were proactive as a group, and we tried to find a way to stay alive and stay relevant in the Pioneer League. I think we came up with a pretty sophisticated program, and we worked well with MLB. I think we will have a super fun and exciting league, and we are very happy with the outcome. Honestly, the second option was just to fold up and walk away. ”
Because the teams are no longer affiliated with major league franchises, they will no longer be in stock with drafts and free agents. But Owlz owner Jeff Katofsky said the Pioneer League would have no problem finding quality players.
“The players will not be difficult to find,” said Katofsky. “There were already more players than there were places on the team. And now, with minor league system contracting, there are going to be high quality players in our league. ”