OGDEN — The first season of independent ball for the Pioneer Baseball League and the Ogden Raptors is coming to an end and, looking at available data, it seems the league found solid standing despite soul-crushingly losing major league affiliation just after the 2020 season was canceled due to a pandemic.
And, it’s nearly playoff time. The Raptors (53-40) host the Boise Hawks (47-46) this Wednesday through Friday for a three-game series to end the regular season.
After that, Boise and Ogden play at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 11, in a one-game South Division playoff round to determine who advances to the league championship series.
Ogden is assured to claim the PBL’s attendance title for the 24th consecutive season. Coming into this weekend, the Raptors have drawn 148,900 fans over 44 contests, an average of 3,384 per night.
Though it’s not quite the franchise-high of nearly 4,000 per night from 2019 before the world fell apart, so to speak, it’s well within the range of what was normal from affiliated times. The per-game average over the last 24 seasons since Linquist Field opened has ranged from 3,100 to 3,900.
“It was an incredible season, even if we didn’t make the playoffs. Because baseball remained relevant, and it was alive and well in Ogden. We have the fanbase and the corporate community to thank for allowing that success to happen,” team president Dave Baggott told the Standard-Examiner. “We didn’t know quite what was going to happen but our Raptor fans came out in full force to lead the league in attendance once again. We’ll cross the 150,000 mark, which is fantastic.
“And we will have some player successes even after the season where some players will move on with major league organizations.”
The rest of the league is in an OK range as well. Rocky Mountain (Colorado Springs), Boise, Billings and Idaho Falls are all averaging between 2,300 and 2,750 fans per night. The bottom tier — Missoula, Grand Junction and Great Falls — are between 1,400 and 1,600 per night.
Billings and Colorado Springs took a dip from 2019, too, but remained near the top of the league. Even with a dip in Missoula, top to bottom, the league’s attendance looks similar to how it always has — especially with Orem, underperforming for a metro area of its size, and Helena, unable to break 1,000 on most nights, out of the league.
Baggott said despite COVID-19 protocols cutting into the team’s ability to build a promotional schedule for the full season, fans, civic leaders and sponsors stepped up to keep the Raptors on solid ground.
“We’re going to continue to put the best product we can on the field to warrant the trust of the fans and the community to keep coming out,” he said.
Baggott said he felt stressed but liberated by being in full control of the team’s operations, outside the umbrella of Major League Baseball.
“I’ve worn every single pitch on my sleeve, in a positive way and a negative way,” he said. “But it’s been a lot of fun. Having total control of how you run your operation is very freeing, even though it’s stressful … I couldn’t ask for anything better. It’s been a great season, it really has been.”
There have been some hiccups in the Pioneer League. A dearth of pitching talent causing games to last too far beyond the three-hour mark is probably chief among them.
The Rocky Mountain Vibes did not field a competitive team from the jump (they’re 21-71 as of Tuesday). Also, schedules were not equitable or balanced, which was odd. Ogden played Missoula 21 times despite being in different divisions, and will have only played Rocky Mountain and Boise 12 times each despite sharing the same division. Idaho Falls played the Vibes more than 20 times.
Some of that may not matter next season, anyway. The league will expand to 10 teams as a privately financed expansion team will launch near Kalispell, Montana, and the once-Orem Owlz will resume operations in Windsor, Colorado, as the Northern Colorado Owlz.
Both will have new stadiums, and Baggott said he hopes Boise’s playoff berth — its first since 2014 — will help the Hawks find a way to realize their goal of building a new facility, which was the main reason that while the Northwest League remained affiliated, Boise got the boot.
“It’s their first year in the league, they wanted to feel like they were part of something, and they did. I think that builds momentum for them, not only in their operation and getting a facility built there in Boise, but momentum for the Pioneer League as well,” Baggott said.
The current one-game divisional playoff round will change next season, Baggott said. That’s in part because, with 10 teams, they haven’t yet decided how to align divisions. He said there’s talk of using three divisions (Montana, Colorado, and Utah/Idaho), or also of just playing with no divisions and re-tooling how teams qualify for the playoffs. The number of regular-season games may change, as well.
“We’re going to welcome Kallispell into the league, and the Northern Colorado Owlz into the league, play 10 teams and make it even more competitive, and try to turn ourselves into the envy of other leagues, including affiliated leagues,” Baggott said. “Our league did not have the same dip in attendance as most affiliated minor leagues.”
When Boise and Ogden play at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 11, in the South Division playoff game, fans will be rooting not just for the Raptors to advance, but for the opportunity to see them play again for free.
All tickets for Saturday’s game will be for reserved seats at $15 apiece, or $1 more than the reserved-seat price from the regular season.
If Ogden wins and advances to the three-game championships series, it will host Games 2 and 3, if the third is necessary, on Sept. 15-16. Fans with tickets from the Saturday divisional game can return to one (or both, if it happens) of the championship series games and get in for free.
“Let’s fill this place up and create a home-field advantage, and then you get to come back when we win,” Baggott said.
If the Raptors can defeat the Hawks on Saturday, it would play Game 1 of the title series Monday in the city of whoever emerges from the North Division, which will be Missoula, Idaho Falls or Billings.
Ogden and Boise have played competitive games this season, with the Raptors owning a 5-4 advantage going into this final regular-season series that may see some managerial chess as both coaches try to reserve pitching, especially, for the Saturday playoff game.
The series is 3-3 in Ogden, with the Raptors taking 2 of 3 to open the season back in May. That series included scores of 5-3 and 2-1, and Ogden also took a 4-4 game on July 3 in Boise when outfielder Jakob Goldfarb won the Knock Out home run derby to break the tie.
The final regular-season set and the playoff game give fans a last chance to see some of Ogden’s league-leaders as well. Goldfarb is second in the Pioneer League with 23 home runs and first in stolen bases with 41. The top two hitters by average play for the Raptors, too, in David Maberry (.419) and Josh Broughton (.409).