BILLINGS — The good news: Billings will have professional baseball next summer. The so-so news: It won’t be Mustangs baseball that fans have known for 67 years.
The Mustangs — and all eight Pioneer League teams — have been designated as members of a Major League Baseball "Partner League", according to a joint release Monday morning.
"Starting in 2021, the Pioneer League will transition from affiliated status to an independent professional MLB Partner League that continues to provide high-quality baseball to the states of Idaho, Montana, Utah and Colorado," the release stated. "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."
“I am very pleased to have the Billings Mustangs join our seven Pioneer League colleagues in this new league,” said Mustangs owner Dave Heller. “The good news is our league remains affiliated with Major League Baseball, our fans still get to see the same high-quality professional baseball they have come to expect at a Mustangs game, and our young people in Billings will still be able to get autographs from future Major Leaguers. The only real difference is that the Mustangs will now be responsible for paying the players, coaches, trainer and manager. Most everything else remains the same. Most importantly, Billings will, for some Major Leaguers, still be the first stop on 'The Road to the Show.'"
The announcement brings closure to months of uncertainty surrounding the future of professional baseball in Billings during a year in which Major League and Minor League owners have engaged in an absolute street fight over the future of MiLB organizations.
“I mean, you hit the nail right on the head. It is an audible, huge sigh of relief," Mustangs general manager Gary Roller told MTN Sports. "Right now we’re looking at a 92-game schedule. That could change one way or another. We haven’t really looked at the calendar. Specifically, is it going to be 92, is it going to be 90 or 80? So, it probably means a little bit of an earlier start for us, perhaps early to late May as opposed to mid or late June.”
The pandemic certainly didn’t help, accelerating contraction talks and inhibiting fans from offering teams a proper farewell. It also just happened to hit in the final year of a deal between Minor League teams and Major League Baseball owners who want to take complete control of player development, save money, draft fewer players and keep them geographically closer to home, meaning closer to MLB cities. Within the process, 42 Minor League teams, including the Mustangs and all others in the Pioneer League, were thrust onto the chopping block of no longer being considered Minor League Baseball squads.
Last summer would’ve been the 68th year of Minor League Baseball in Billings, but COVID-19 eliminated Minor League Baseball's season nationwide.
“We’re going to see kids that are free agents, that are not drafted through the Major League Draft," Roller said of what Pioneer League teams can expect. "We also have access to players that have been released by Major League organizations. So, the pool of players is going to be larger. We know that. It’s just going to be up to us and the seven other (Pioneer League) clubs to go get their players.”
In conjunction with the Pioneer League, the MLB Partner League will be joined by the Atlantic League, American Association and Frontier League. Each covers a different geographic area in the United States and Canada and attracts players of varying levels of experience, according to the joint release.
"As a Partner League, the Pioneer League will collaborate with MLB to provide organized baseball to communities throughout the Western U.S. and Canada," the release continued. "MLB will provide initial funding for the league’s operating expenses, as well as install scouting technology in Pioneer League ballparks to provide MLB Clubs with first-class scouting information on Pioneer League players. The agreement will also include a procedure for player transfers to MLB Clubs. The Leagues also will explore joint marketing, ticketing and fan engagement opportunities.
"Today’s announcement follows the late September announcement of the Appalachian League’s evolution into the premier college wood bat league for the nation’s top rising freshmen and sophomores, as well as today’s 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 the local communities in which it is currently played.
"All Partner Leagues provide communities with high-quality professional baseball and share MLB’s goal of growing participation and engagement with baseball and softball."