When last we left Peter Davis, the 70-year-old Seattle man who fulfilled a lifetime dream in 2019 by purchasing a minor-league baseball team — the Missoula PaddleHeads of the short-season Pioneer League — he was sweating out a two-pronged crisis.
The COVID-19 pandemic had wiped out the 2020 minor-league season, leading to grave financial losses across the industry. And on a more existential level, the future of the Pioneer League, and by extension the PaddleHeads, was in limbo because of Major League Baseball’s plan to reorganize the minor leagues — and cut out 43 affiliated teams.
“My happy place is in a baseball stadium,” Davis said in June, when I told his story in a column. “So then you finally get this dream, and a year later you get kneecapped.”
I’m happy to report that some six months later, Davis is back in a happy place — literally and figuratively. When I talked to him Wednesday, he was in Missoula, Montana, enthusiastically planning for a 2021 season that finally is taking shape.
Granted, the shape is dramatically different than the one that existed when minor-league ball was shuttered last summer — like a square becoming a dodecahedron. But considering the alternative — and in light of the sometimes draconian measures MLB is taking in radically restructuring the minor-league landscape — he’s pretty ecstatic.
“A lot of stuff is going to get really ugly for a few owners,” Davis said. “We came out in a pretty good shape, given the other choices.”
On Tuesday, MLB announced that the Pioneer League, which consists of eight teams in Montana, Utah and Idaho, has been repurposed as an independent league, which means it no longer will be affiliated with a parent major-league team. The PaddleHeads had been the lowest rung of the Arizona Diamondbacks organization. The season has been expanded to 92 games and will begin play in mid-May.
It’s being called a “Partner League” of MLB, which means MLB will provide initial funding for the league’s operating expenses, install scouting technology such as Rapsodo and TrackMan in the Pioneer ballparks, and explore joint marketing, ticketing and fan-engagement opportunities.
In a summer of bitter negotiations that resulted in politicians lobbying for the status quo, MLB wound up taking over operation of the minor leagues. By next week it is expected to reveal the 120 affiliated teams that will remain after the bloody game of musical chairs — and more darkly, the ones that didn’t make the cut.
Close to home, the Pacific Coast League, home of the Tacoma Rainiers, is expected to survive intact. The Northwest League, home of the Everett AquaSox, will likely change from a short-season rookie league to a full-season Class A League.
More than half of the newly unaffiliated teams — 23 — have been identified, including the eight in the Pioneer League. The 10-team Appalachian League is switching to a summer amateur wood-bat league. And four former members of the New York-Penn League, plus Trenton, which used to be in the Double-A Eastern League, will comprise the MLB Draft League. It’s also an amateur wood-bat league designed mainly for juniors and seniors in college.
MLB has vowed that every city that had a minor-league team will have a chance to continue in some form. But some options are more palatable than others. For instance, Fresno, a longtime Class AAA affiliate, is reportedly being switched to a low Class A league. Davis was strongly opposed to becoming an amateur wood-bat league, so he’s pleased that didn’t come to pass.
“This is a thousand times better than a wood-bat league,” he said. “It’s been a long, long cold summer of trying to figure out just how this would shake out. Whether we would get to work with Major League Baseball or not. Ultimately, logic won the day.”
Davis, who owns the team with his wife, Susan Crampton Davis, saluted his Pioneer League brethren for staying resolute in their desire to forge a new path, rather than bailing out. They met via Zoom every Thursday for months to plot strategy.
“We knew if we stuck together as a league, we’d be in a fairly strong position in the future,” he said. “I think that turned out to be true.”
He said he believes the independent designation could wind up being a positive in some aspects. For one thing, if MLB once again decides to keep minor-league ballparks closed because of COVID-19, the Pioneer League could still open its doors to fans with social distancing.
“We’re hugely optimistic,” he said. “If COVID is the same as it is today, we have a plan for protecting players and protecting fans. …. We’re hoping the vaccine will be more available and we’ll be out of this COVID a little bit. But either way, we’re planning to do baseball. It may be at a reduced scale, but we’ll be playing baseball this summer, if the health department approves our plan.”
One new challenge is that independent teams have to pay their players, manager and coaching staff, an obligation previously covered by the parent team. That increased expense will require teams to be innovative in their marketing, and to seek new sources of revenue, such as league sponsorships that were previously struck down by MiLB.
The big question, of course, is where those players will come from. According to Baseball America, the Pioneer League will focus on younger players and have an age limit, while the three other independent leagues — the American Association, Atlantic League and Frontier League — will seek veteran minor- and major-leaguers.
The Pioneer League’s pool of talent is expected to come from players who weren’t taken in the draft now that it has been reduced from 40 to 20 rounds, or players who were drafted but recently cut from their organizations. With each team now limited to four minor-league affiliates, there could be many players who fall into that category.
Davis declined to talk in detail about player acquisition because he got some blowback for information he included in the team’s news release this week announcing the revamped Pioneer League. The release said league rosters could include players who are under contract with an MLB team and on loan to a Pioneer League club.
According to Baseball America, no such agreement to allow loans has been reached. But the publication noted that it’s now likely that each MLB organization will be allowed a minor-league roster of 180 players, rather than the expected 150.
Those extra players will need a place to play. With that increase, Baseball America wrote, “Missoula’s release may end up being just premature. While no agreement on player loans has been approved by MLB, the idea becomes a possibility with a 180-player limit.”
However the PaddleHeads get players, Davis is convinced he’ll be able to field a better team than he did when handed the rawest players in the Diamondbacks organization. And he is eager to get back to his happy place. Especially after a lost season that resulted in six-figure losses, even after various Paycheck Protection Program loans.
“It’s kind of a financial gamble, but we’re just grateful to have baseball, and a relationship with Major League Baseball,” he said. “We’re really optimistic and quite pleased how this came out.
“I can’t wait to sit in the stands in our park and see baseball again.”