In Minor League Baseball, as in the world at large, everything is connected.
What other way is there to explain how a new ballpark in Amarillo, Texas, could result in Helena, Montana, losing its Rookie-level club? In a nutshell, the Double-A San Antonio Missions will move to Amarillo in 2019. The Triple-A Colorado Springs Sky Sox will then replace the Missions in San Antonio, while the short-season Helena Brewers will take the Sky Sox's place in Colorado Springs.
This domino effect, all involving teams under Elmore Group ownership, is a clear positive for Amarillo (which gets a team) and San Antonio (which moves up a level). It could be argued that it's a beneficial step for Colorado Springs as well, which will no longer have to operate in the often unforgivingly frigid months of April and May.
There is no positive to be found for fans of the Helena Brewers, however, as in 2019 they will simply cease to exist. Their home of Kindrick Legion Field will no longer be a community gathering place, a place where legions of hopefuls have begun their long climb to "The Show." Considering that Kindrick Legion Field is 84 years old, and that the Brewers have perennially finished last in the league in attendance, there's a strong likelihood that Minor League Baseball won't ever return. It's the beginning of baseball's end in Montana's capital city.
Kindrick Legion Field, built in 1932, first hosted a Pioneer League team in 1978.
I visited Kindrick Legion Field this past Friday, which happened to be the Brewers' first home game since the news of their relocation was made public. It was business as usual at the ballpark, however, the atmosphere seemingly no different than any other night. (Well, business as usual save for Nickelback being the sole music played over the PA, and the subsequent awarding of a "nickle back" to all fans who made it through the evening.)
Nonetheless, I wanted to get a sense of what this team has meant to the community, and just what would be lost when the Brewers depart. For that perspective, I turned to Dave and Marlene Hughes -- members of the Brewers' booster club, host family coordinators and indefatigable supporters of Helena professional baseball.
When I first met Dave and Marlene, they were sitting in their familiar Section G seats, located behind home plate within Kindrick Legion Field's wooden grandstand. After counting up the money raised by that evening's 50-50 ticket raffle -- $316 raised in all, with $158 going to the lucky winner -- they shared their story.
Dave and Marlene Hughes, longtime coordinators of the Helena Brewers' host family program.
Dave and Marlene are both from Billings, Montana, and even attended the same high school when Marlene was a senior and Dave a self-described "gutter-scum sophomore." Their paths crossed years later in Helena, when Dave was sent to do IT work at an office in which Marlene worked. Pioneer League baseball was always a shared bond; their first date was at a Great Falls Dodgers game.
"Back in 1994, we had players that would come to town and didn't have a place to live," said Marlene. "So our general manager at that time, he just invited a bunch of people to come down to the park and form a booster club. So we decided to take it on as our mission, to find housing for the players. And that's when the booster club was born. And then 1997 we had our first players at our house, so we've had players at our house since then."
2017 Road Trip
Over the past two decades the couple has coordinated host-family housing for the entire Brewers team while hosting dozens upon dozens of players themselves. Of these players, the photos of those who eventually made it to the Majors are proudly displayed within their home.
"Guys come through and they say, 'Let me see if I know anybody [in the photos],'" said Marlene. "'Oh, you had Jonathan Lucroy. Oh, you had Michael Brantley.'"
"Not only that, they'll come in and ask, 'So what bed did Lucroy sleep in?'" added Dave. "So that's a hot item."
"At one point we put a player out on our sun porch. That was Matt Gamel and he made it to the bigs," said Marlene. "You get to meet their parents, too."
"Yeah, we meet people from all over the country. International," said Dave. "We know so many people now."
Some Helena Brewers players ride their bike to the ballpark, using the bullpen as a parking lot.
2019 won't be the first time Helena has lost its Pioneer League club -- prior to the 2001 campaign the Brewers relocated to Provo, Utah. After two dark seasons, baseball returned after current team owner D.G. Elmore moved a team that had been playing in Medicine Hat, Alberta. Dave and Marlene, well known for their booster club efforts, played a key role in this transaction.
"When I met [D.G. Elmore], he was with the city admin, the mayor and a few other local indignitaries," said Dave. "And they put me on the spot. 'You're the fan. Can you do this? Can you put people in the seats, so that baseball can come back?' It was a face-to-face [conversation], just like this, to say 'Yeah, we can do it.' But not having a clue how we were going to do it."
"[We were told] if you guys can get this many season ticket holders, we'll bring a team here,'" continued Marlene. "We did that.… We did whatever we had to do and accomplished that. Opening Day, I was working then and had to leave early. I couldn't sit still. There was just this sense of 'Wow, you're going down to the park again.'"
This time around, they are finding it hard to muster the same optimistic spirit.
"We're a small market, that's just a fact of life," said Dave.
"Well, maybe if we had more money we could buy the team," added Marlene. "But I don't know how real that is."
She continued, "I feel bad for the people, where this is their whole life. They wait all winter for baseball to come back and then what do they do?"
"It's like us," said Dave. "When the last pitch is thrown and they shut the lights off, we're on a countdown until March, to go down to Spring Training."
But after the last pitch is thrown in 2018, it's a strong possibility that there won't be anything left to come back to at Kindrick Legion Field.
"I don't think you ever give up," said Marlene.
"Yeah, you never give up," replied Dave. "But, right now, prospects are looking slim."