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A Rocky Mountain Vibes game at UCHealth Park. Photo by Robert Sanchez
Sports

Marshmallow Mascots, $2 Beer, and the Future of Minor League Baseball

The Rocky Mountain Vibes just finished their first season independent of Major League Baseball. One writer went to see if that changed how he and the Colorado Springs community views the team.

From my third-base bleacher seats at UCHealth Park in Colorado Springs, I stared at the day’s lineups on the video board and thought to myself: Who the hell are these guys?

That’s not a thought I usually have, especially at a baseball game. I’ve been a fan for more than four decades, and I’ve written regularly about the sport for years. But as I watched the Rocky Mountain Vibes play the Ogden Raptors, I was at a loss.

Major League Baseball (MLB) recently slashed nearly two dozen affiliated minor league teams, amid a massive retooling of the professional system. Both the Vibes and the Raptors lost a seat within affiliated Minor League Baseball, as did the Grand Junction Rockies and other organizations that made up the rookie level Pioneer League, which had teams up and down the Rocky Mountain West. In very real ways, baseball fans wondered if the game had died in their communities.

That included me.

The Pioneer League, which features eight teams, moved to what’s called an independent MLB “partner.” Under its agreement, MLB gives some marketing, scouting, and other business help to the newly independent clubs as needed, but it doesn’t provide players as part of the much larger, traditional, minor league system. In other words, the next Todd Helton—or Tony Wolters, for that matter—isn’t coming through Colorado Springs anytime soon.

The way I saw it, MLB killed baseball in much of the West. Montana and Idaho no longer had teams directly affiliated with Major League Baseball. Utah was now down to its Triple-A team in Salt Lake City. Colorado didn’t have a true MLB affiliate for the first time in more than a century. The closest minor league teams to Denver now are in Albuquerque, New Mexico and Amarillo, Texas.

I grew up with the Denver Bears and the Denver Zephyrs and the Colorado Springs Sky Sox. So when the Pioneer League was officially dropped from traditional Minor League Baseball, I was angry and disappointed. Yes, we have the Colorado Rockies, but non-Rockpile seats aren’t cheap for a family of four. (And I don’t know many people in Pueblo who want to spend a four-hour round trip in the car to see the Rockies play the Florida Marlins.)

With the loss of traditional Minor League Baseball in our state, it felt like I’d also lost something special in my life.

I’d spoken to several team owners and general managers within the minors when I was reporting a story last year for Sports Illustrated. None were happy about the prospect of moving teams to an independent league, and it seemed everyone at the game’s lower levels was concerned about the long-term survival of lower-level professional baseball in the Rocky Mountains.

Early this season, I talked to Scott Bush, the chief executive officer for the Society for American Baseball Research. I lamented the loss of the old Pioneer League and what it might mean for the game, especially in more far-flung parts of the country. Would the game eventually die in these places? I asked. “You’re overthinking things,” Bush told me. “Give this some time to develop. Don’t write it off just yet.”

I decided to give it a chance.

I made it in time to see one of the season’s final games, taking a seat above third base. On that night in early September, little happened in the stands that seemed different from dozens of my previous experiences watching games in Colorado Springs. There were a couple thousand people, which seemed respectable for a mid-week game—especially for a team that was about to finish 24 games below .500. (The Vibes signed a contract with the Mexican League’s Acereros de Monclava, to serve as a developmental program for that team. One of the pitchers who arrived in Colorado Springs was 16 years old. It did not go well.)

I ate a pulled pork sandwich that rivaled anything served at Coors Field. A boy threw on camping gear during the middle of an inning as part of an in-game promotion, and he won a gift card. Toasty, the Vibe’s anthropomorphic flaming s’more mascot, high-fived people in the concourse. He gave me a thumbs-up. Husbands and wives and girlfriends and boyfriends huddled together and laughed over plastic cups of beer. Rain threatened the early innings, but it turned out to be a beautiful night.

“In the grand scheme of things, baseball is baseball,” Kyle Fritzke, the Vibes’ marketing director, told me during the game as I expressed my fears over what might be lost. “Ninety percent of our fans are here for affordable family entertainment. They’re here for fireworks and $2 beer on Wednesdays and military night and $1 hotdogs on Sundays. That’s what moves the needle. No one cares about the score. At the end of the night, the only thing the families ask themselves is whether they had fun.”

The Pioneer League’s season ended in September. From the self-reported figures, it seems the reconfigured league was hardly a flop. Ogden drew roughly 150,000 fans this season, a number in line with pre-pandemic crowds, when the team was affiliated with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Teams in Idaho Falls and Billings, Montana, drew about 2,500 people per game, which was roughly on par with previous, non-pandemic seasons. In Colorado Springs—where the Vibes were affiliated with the Milwaukee Brewers—Fitzke said his club was within 10 percent to 15 percent of the 137,000 fans who attended in 2019 (the minor league season was canceled in 2020). If the pandemic ends by next year, Fitzke expects the numbers will be even better.

The Pioneer League will expand from eight to 10 clubs next season, including one in Windsor. With Colorado Springs and Grand Junction, the league will include three Colorado cities.

Rather than my doom-and-gloom scenario, maybe baseball in the Rocky Mountain West will chug along. Or maybe that’s just how I’m deciding to view it right now. I want inexpensive baseball available to anyone who wants it. I’d prefer that it be done with guys who have a real shot at someday playing in the big leagues, but maybe we need to take what we can get.

“I think baseball down here will be around for a long time,” Fritzke told me.

I hope so.

My son couldn’t go to the game with me because he had school the next morning. I had an early wakeup too, and an hour-long drive was ahead of me, so I left as the eighth inning began. The next day, my son asked about the game. Baseball is baseball, I said. I told him I enjoyed my barbecue beef sandwich and that the parking was quick and easy. I told him about Toasty. I said we should go down to Colorado Spring next season.

He asked who won the game. I never bothered to check the final score.

(Read more: Checking in on the Worst Trade in Baseball History)

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