BILLINGS — Who won the Pioneer League championship last year? Most fans have no idea, not because they’re not good fans — everyone of course roots for their team to win — but because that’s not what minor league or independent professional baseball games are all about.
People come to games to be entertained, often times in wacky ways, and many of the Pioneer League’s best stories are now chronicled in a book by a former league broadcaster.
"Minor league baseball has played more games than any other sport," said Tim Hagerty, "so there's the most possibility for crazy happenings."
The 2023 Pioneer League baseball season opens Tuesday, its third year as an independent league. Hagerty has been calling baseball games for 20 years, so he’s seen his fair share of stories.
"Something I got to see in person, a retired police officer who played the national anthem on a saw," Hagerty said. "And he pulled it off well."
That was in the mid-2000's at the old Cobb Field in Billings during Hagerty's one season as the radio play-by-play broadcaster for the Idaho Falls Chukars.
Hagerty now calls games for the El Paso Chihuahuas, a Pacific Coast League club and the Triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres. But in his downtime Hagerty compiled 1,001 minor league anecdotes in his new book titled "Tales from the Dugout." The stories include some he saw and some he researched, including perhaps the most famous story in Montana baseball history, when the Great Falls Eletrics general manager saw something outside the stadium on August 15, 1950.
"GM Nick Mariana sees this mysterious flying saucer outside of the stadium," Hagerty said. "It's regarded as one of earliest videos of an unidentified flying object."
"He might have been drinking early that day," joked Jim Keough, another former general manager of the Great Falls team, "but there was definitely something in the sky."
Keough was the GM from 1997-2010, overseeing a name change in 2008 from the Great Falls White Sox to the Voyagers, an homage to that fateful sighting.
"We sold quite a bit of merchandising those first couple years," Keough said. "Originally, I wasn’t in favor of it, but as it went on, it was a really good move for the community."
"I think a great minor league team name and brand connects to the city, but also has some fun," Hagerty added.
Former Butte Copper Kings GM Ted Tornow always leaned in to the fun side of minor league branding.
"Our mascot was a Death Valley burro named Donkey-Hotey," Tornow laughed. "He was wonderful. He delivered game balls to the umpires."
There’s a Donkey-Hotey trading card on eBay that can be yours for $12.99.
Tornow also remembers the buzz from the 1996 Copper Kings team, when comedian Bill Murray became a part owner.
"We packed the place in Butte on the simple premise that Bill Murray could show up at any time, which he did," Tornow said. "On opening night of 1996, we probably easily had 5,000 people. It was absolutely nuts."
Butte lost 5-4 that night, but nobody remembers that part. It was a reminder that in minor league baseball, entertainment is king.
"Sometimes back in the day, we weren’t a very good team, but we still had record attendance," Keough said. "It wasn’t about the game. It was about the entertainment in between."
In the summertime, all most people want to do is have fun.