For the first time since gaining a team in 1999, Missoula had a summer with no minor league baseball. The Missoula Paddleheads, the rookie affiliate minor league team for the Arizona Diamondbacks, saw no time on the field.
“We realized baseball wasn’t gonna happen this year,” Matt Ellis, vice president of the Missoula Paddleheads, said. So the question became, “How can we give back? How can we provide entertainment in a safe environment?”
Getting 30 major league teams to play baseball was hard enough, as some MLB players tested positive for the coronavirus over the course of the season, which began in July. Rob Manfred, the commissioner of the MLB, has so far managed to have a season with limited travel, a shortened season and no fans.
But what works for three dozen major league teams was deemed insufficient for the 261 minors. The minor league season was postponed on July 30, 2020.
After the postponement, Ellis and his team were determined to make the most of the situation they’d been forced into by COVID-19. Ogren Park at Allegiance Field has not been abandoned. There have been trivia nights, yoga classes, dinner nights and movie screenings held in place of ball.
“We could do movie nights all day long,” Ellis said. “They don’t meet the revenue of a baseball game.” Having kept the whole front office open for the entire year, the Paddleheads’ budget was bound to be an issue even before COVID-19.
According to Sports Illustrated, the MLB’s original plan for a new agreement with the minor league included cutting around 40 minor league teams, begging the question of whether 2020 could be the last year the Paddleheads spend in Missoula. The Paddleheads are one of eight teams in the Pioneer League, a rookie-level Northwest conference with teams in Montana, Colorado, Idaho and Utah.
In the hierarchy of Minor League teams, the Pioneer League and rookie leagues in general fall toward the bottom, due to their small markets and how little star power they have. If a player is any good, they almost immediately get called up.
But Ellis isn’t worried about the Pioneer League being eliminated. “We will have professional baseball in this town next year,” he said.
The Paddleheads switched up their branding last fall for the first time since 1999, when they first arrived in Missoula as the Osprey from Lethbridge, Alberta (hence the name of the stadium). The Paddleheads’ logo, a moose, was voted best new logo in the Minors in January of 2020.
Ellis says the team has enjoyed broad support from the city. When news first broke that the MLB might eliminate minor league teams, the Paddleheads asked their fans to provide testimonials using the hashtag #savemyteam on Twitter.
“It's of paramount importance that MLB understands how important this franchise is to our great community,” the Paddleheads posted on their website.
“The Montana baseball road trip is a highlight of my summer,” tweeted Paddleheads fan Jeremy Klaszus in response to a Paddleheads tweet, “Keep minor league baseball in Montana! #savemyteam.”
In 2018, the Helena Brewers played their final season in the Pioneer League before relocating to Colorado Springs, leaving behind a small park, built in 1932, that seated 2,100 but often sold a fraction of that number of tickets. At the time, there was no #savemyteam campaign.
The best logo in the minors will not go to waste, if Ellis can help it. Minor League baseball’s agreement with the MLB will expire on Sept. 29.