GREAT FALLS — The loss of affiliated baseball in Great Falls marks a drastic change to the city’s rich pro baseball history.
The jerseys are the same, the setting is the same, but the roster makeup of the 2021 Voyagers is nothing like fans in Great Falls have grown used to over the years.
And in the mind of Voyagers skipper Tommy Thompson, who returns to Great Falls after a memorable one-season stint in 2016, that’s a good thing.
“These guys, they're hungry. They want an opportunity. The game has been taken away from them due to COVID, or they haven’t reached their ultimate dream of playing affiliated ball,” Thompson explained. “Some of our guys are little older, which gives us some experience. Most of the time here, you got 17-, 18-, 19-year-old young men. These are a little older men and I like what they're bringing to the table."
Gone are the fresh-faced teenagers and gone are the high draft picks with big signing bonuses. In their place are a mix of veteran professionals with varying experience levels.
The biggest difference is that these players weren’t assigned to Great Falls by an MLB club. They chose Great Falls as the place to continue pursuing their dreams.
“I don't think the mindset changes whether it's affiliated baseball, whether it's (independent) ball, or whether you're in Somalia,” said Voyagers utility player Jason Nall. “We're here to play. If you want to be in the big time, you want to keep it rolling. You got to compete with these guys.”
No two paths are the same for this year’s Voyagers. Nall is from south-central Los Angeles and played collegiately at UC-San Bernardino. He had hopes of getting drafted or signing with an MLB affiliate, but COVID changed everything.
Minor league ball was shut down in 2020, and the number of picks in the MLB draft was cut significantly. But Nall found an opportunity when Thompson called to offer a roster spot on the Voyagers.
“You got to be on your toes nowadays. We don't know how the world is going to move forward,” Nall said. “So you just have to put your best foot forward every moment.”
Nall’s sister Maria is married to former World Series champion Coco Crisp, who Jason credits with keeping him grounded through the ups and downs of the past few years.
“A lot of the great things that I've learned in my life and how I carry myself comes from him,” Nall said. “So nothing but respect, nothing but love for Coco.”
Infielder Mike Howard hails from the opposite coast. He grew up in Bronx, New York, and is the nephew of boxing legend Smokin’ Joe Frazier. Howard’s father was a longtime NBA referee and now is an athletics administrator for high schools in NYC.
Howard played baseball at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania before spending a few years in independent leagues in the Northeast. Now he’s continuing to chase his dream in Montana, hoping for an opportunity to advance.
“Athletics run big in my family and it's something that I just want to keep living on and keep pushing on this journey,” Howard said. “I have a little brother back home and I want to set a good example for him.”
All these divergent paths have come together for one summer in Montana, where players from different walks of life share a common goal.
“We all want to see each other win. And I think you guys will see on opening night, we're going to come out here and we're going to shock the world,” Howard said. “I think we're going to have a great year.”
For a lot of guys the 2021 Pioneer League season marks their first chance at pro baseball, while for others it represents a final chance to catch on. But the task remains simple: perform, win, climb.
“This is our job. It's what we love to do. We've been doing this since we were children and I thank God to have the opportunity to keep playing,” Nall said. “If you want to hoot with the owls, you got to fly with eagles.”
The Voyagers open the season Saturday at Missoula before returning to Centene Stadium for their home opener on May 26.