Inland Journal Podcast: Minor League Baseball Changes, Pioneer League

Mar 29, 2021

The Pioneer League is still in business after Major League Baseball reshuffled the minor leagues, but things are different.
Credit Courtesy of the Pioneer League

Batter up! This is the Inland Journal podcast from Spokane Public Radio. I’m Doug Nadvornick.

Thursday, April 1 is opening day for Major League Baseball. The minor league season will begin, for some, on May 4. For many minor league teams, moving forward will be a different experience because of fundamental changes made in the system during the off-season.

Fans will be back in at least some of the parks. At T-Mobile Park in Seattle, where the Mariners will host the San Francisco Giants, 9,000 people will be allowed through the turnstiles. That means no more piped-in crowd noise during the game. People will be admitted in groups of no more than eight with appropriate distancing. Masks at all times, except to eat. Suites and dine-in eating areas must be no more than 25% full and the windows are to be open. Appropriate spacing in lines.

The minor league season will begin in May. Fans may remember there was no minor league baseball last year, so this is good news for the Spokane Indians’ club.

“You know, we’re anxious and grateful to just see people and see fans and bring professional baseball back to the community," said Otto Klein, the senior vice president for the Spokane Indians team, speaking on February 19, the day Governor Jay Inslee announced that outdoor baseball can return.

“How are we going to do it? We’re working on that. We’re working diligently, behind the scenes to see how we can bring people back in a safe manner and we’re confident we can do that. We’re going to have a plan we can announce in the coming weeks for seating and everything else," he said.

The addition of fans is just one change in an off-season full of change for minor league baseball teams. Major League Baseball changed its relationship with the minors. Minor league teams used to have lots of autonomy. They could create their own affiliation arrangements with major league teams. Now, Major League Baseball has said, we’re running the show and we’ll decide which teams with which you can affiliate. Major league teams can now have only four minor league affiliates, as opposed to six or seven. It’s a way to control costs. And Major League Baseball eliminated a handful of entire minor leagues, including some that have played ball for several generations.

This podcast is about one minor league that will stay in business, but under different circumstances. The Pioneer League currently has eight teams in four Inland West states, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Colorado. It plays a shorter season than many of the higher-level minor leagues. Its commissioner is our guest, Jim McCurdy, who lives in Spokane.

“You know, Major League Baseball decided that we’re not going to provide players to the entire short season and they restructured some of the long, full-season teams. Some dropped out. They brought in some independents. Big rigamarole, as you can imagine," he said. "The New York-Penn League, which was a short season league, is gone. The Appy League…”

That’s short for the Appalachian League.

“The Appy League is a wooden bat amateur league. The Northwest League...”

The Northwest League was a short-season league in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. One of its teams was the Spokane Indians.

“Six of the eight teams moved to full-season A,” he said.

The Northwest League has morphed into the West League in what is known as the High A level. That’s the third highest of the four minor league levels. The Spokane Indians have also moved to the West League and will go from a 70-game season to 120. Fans will see a more advanced level of players. Two of the eight Northwest League teams were not invited to be part of the West League.

“Which left Boise and Salem-Keizer out. I don’t know what Salem-Keizer is doing, but we brought Boise into the Pioneer League. We are a partner league with MLB," he said.

What exactly the partner league relationship means is still being determined. What is clear is that the Pioneer League will have to find and sign its own players and it will have to pick up its own expenses in other ways.

“You know, we were sharing in bats and balls with Major League Baseball before, but now we have the full cost of bats and balls and all the rest of it. We have crunched the numbers and it could be anywhere from $200,000 to $300,000 the team takes on in extra expenses," he said. "And, of course, we didn’t pay any of the players in the past. Major League Baseball did or the major league team did. We didn’t pay any of the managers, coaches, trainer. We have all those expenses. Medical supplies. So that’s the big thing about being independent and it’s daunting.”

Not only will it be more money, but it will also be more work.
 
“Now we are going to have to take on being independent and taking on many more things. Our own sponsorships and streaming," he said.

McCurdy's wife Mary Ann is the league administrator and he has moved from president of the league, where he served since 1994, to commissioner. The league has hired a president to help spread the workload.

With that long service to the league, one thing Jim McCurdy has is institutional memory. He can tell you about its history, all the way back to its inaugural season in 1939.

“Twin Falls had a team. Lewiston, Idaho had a team. Boise had a team. Ogden had a team. Salt Lake and Pocatello had teams. The Pocatello team was one of Branch Rickey’s St. Louis farm clubs. The Cincinnati Reds were in Ogden," he said. "We’ve had great players. Frank Robinson was in the Pioneer Baseball League. Bob Uecker, the catcher of some note on the stage, of course, was in Boise, or Twin Falls. I think it was probably Twin Falls. We had a number of players who went on to major league fame.”

Frank Robinson was a Hall of Fame player who started his career in the Pioneer League in the mid-1950s and was later a star player on the Baltimore Oriole World Series teams in 1969, '70 and '71. He’s one of the all-time home run leaders and was later the first African-American to manage a major league team.
 
While the Pioneer League’s status has changed, it at least has a future. McCurdy predicts the entity that has overseen minor league baseball for about 120 years, the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, will soon disappear.

“Everything will be run out of New York," where Major League Baseball is headquartered. "The 120 teams that remain. They will be licensees, much like a McDonald’s franchise or a Ford franchise. So this is a major, major change," he said.

With the change in relationship with Major League Baseball, McCurdy says the minor leagues and their teams will gain some autonomy. They’ll be free to make their own rules when it comes to operating. It can add or contract teams if it wants. It can set the length of its season. The current thinking, he says, is 96 games, about 20 more than in past years.

“We don’t have many of the restrictions that we had before in advertising patches on uniforms. There could be advertising on the field. Perhaps not territorial restrictions on markets, those sorts of things that we will not be under, and I think there will be revenue streams available. For instance, we could not have sold naming rights to the league before. I don’t know whether we will but we probably could," he said.

But the big challenge will be finding and competing for players. It used to be that Pioneer League teams were assigned players by their major league affiliates. No longer.

“We will do our own scouting and tryout camps and different things to find players, but we also think there will be unsigned players, undrafted players and unsigned players at the major league level that will be available for us and, at this time, we project the product on the field to be as good or better than what we’ve had in the past with affiliated players," McCurdy said. "These are new days. We used to call it minor league baseball. I don’t know if we should go back and call it professional baseball as it was before.”
 
The goal, he says, is to keep providing good entertainment at a reasonable price for families, much like the Pioneer League teams, and the Spokane Indians club, have done for years. The Pioneer League season is scheduled to begin in late May.