A college-level summer baseball league wants to add Butte and several other cities to eight in Wyoming, Nebraska, and the Dakotas that will play ball for the first time this May.
The Expedition League has thrown a formal pitch to Butte, hoping it will join the Badlands Bigsticks, Hastings Sodbusters, Spearfish Sasquatch, and others in 2019.
Invites have been extended to Bozeman and Helena and Sheridan, Wyoming, too, and the league also hopes to land Rapid City, South Dakota, and Brandon, a city in Manitoba Canada just north of the North Dakota line.
The league promises high-quality baseball and affordable, wholesome family entertainment through a 64-game season. Players — many aiming for the pros — would stay with host families, much like members of the Butte Copper Kings Pioneer League team did here years ago. Games here would be at Three Legends Stadium, the new ballpark at the Copper Mountain Sports Complex.
The players don't get paid, since NCAA rules prohibit it, but the league itself is a for-profit entity, with owners, marketing plans, sharp logos, promotions, and ticket and concession sales.
And the league emulates the minor leagues, with players using wood bats and playing six games a week on average in nice ballparks and — hopefully before nice crowds.
The inaugural season gets started with eight teams in late May this year, and if things pan out, Butte and several other cities would join next year.
"The runway has been pretty long," said league president Steve Wagner. "We have been working on this for three-and-a-half to four years, identifying some of the key cities and ballparks that would work with the type of baseball we plan."
Butte, he says, would be ideal.
It has a nice, new ballpark with stadium-style seats which could easily be expanded to accommodate more people, and the city could draw folks from here and adjacent counties.
Butte has long supported American Legion baseball, Wagner said, which he played for five years in his younger days. As with other cities in the league, he said, schedules can be worked out so league and Legion ball coincide as partners.
"I just feel so good about it," Wagner said.
Butte-Silver Bow officials, including Chief Executive Dave Palmer and Parks Director J.P. Gallagher, feel good about the prospects, too.
They met with Wagner in Butte recently and had Butte American Legion officials join them.
"I think it's going to be big, and it could lead to something bigger down the road," Palmer said. "It's not going cost taxpayers anything, and it will give people something to do on summer evenings."
It would enhance "quality of life" that people and businesses look for when considering communities, Palmer said, and would come on the heels of the new water park set to open in May and $5.5 million in upgrades to Stodden Park.
Gallagher said lots of things need to fall into place, including a stadium lease, but he's hopeful Butte can join the league next year.
"They loved our ballpark," he said. "They were really impressed with what we had. If you look at Duncan Field in Hastings (Nebraska), it almost looks like our stadium. It almost mimics that."
Three Legends seats 500 but could easily be expanded to seat 750 or more with bleacher sections, Gallagher said. But no other modifications would be needed.
"They loved the layout of the field," he said.
The original eight
Several cities in the league now are similar in size or population to Butte, if not right in those towns, certainly within a short drive.
Hastings, home of the Sodbusters, is a city of about 25,000 people that sits in the south-central plains of Nebraska. There are smaller towns nearby, and Grand Island, about 25 miles north, has about 48,500 people.
Spearfish, home to the Sasquatch, is a city of about 11,000 people near the Black Hills of far western South Dakota. Deadwood, just 15 miles away, has another 1,300, and nearby Sturgis has 6,800 people most of the year — half a million or more during its famous motorcycle rally in early August.
The league's other charter members are the:
• Western Nebraska Pioneers in Gering, Nebraska, which is just across the North Platte River from Scottsbluff, the largest city in the Nebraska Panhandle.
• Hub City Hot Shots in Aberdeen, South Dakota. The team name reflects the history of the railroad industry in Aberdeen, with Hot Shot a term for a fast-moving train.
• Casper Horseheads from Casper, Wyoming.
• Souris Valley Saber Dogs playing in Minot, North Dakota.
• Pierre Trappers in Pierre, South Dakota.
• Badlands Bigsticks playing in Dickinson, North Dakota. Teddy Roosevelt ranched close to the nearby Badlands at one time, and the team name is a play on his famous saying, "Speak softly and carry a big stick." The logo is a caricature of Roosevelt, complete with his round spectacles and bushy mustache, with a baseball bat slung over his shoulder.
Like several teams, the name was chosen through a local contest that helped foster ties with the community, said Jason Watson, the team's general manager. Rattlers and Roughnecks were among other names in the running.
Like other charter teams, their roster includes players from numerous states, including Georgia, Florida, Michigan, Missouri, and Tennessee. Two players — Wyatt Setian and Drew Staley — go to Montana State in Billings.
Host families have not been lined up for everyone yet, Watson said, "but we're working on that."
"The good thing that comes out of that are the relationships that people build with the players and the coaches," he said.
The team has been busy lining up businesses as sponsors and advertisers, but already, Watson said, "the community has really embraced us."
Dickinson also has Legion baseball and Babe Ruth baseball, and the sport got local support from a group called the Dickinson Baseball Club. They haven't had to do any fundraising on their own going into this season, Watson said.
"We cut them a check," he said. "Instead of them going out and us going out, we overtook all that as far as getting sponsors."
Back to Butte
Wagner said Butte, Bozeman, and Helena would be ideal expansion members, in part because they are short charter-bus rides away. Teams could easily do two-game "home and away" stints, and when they're gone, Legion teams could use the ballparks.
Gallagher said games would have the same kinds of entertainment featured in pro baseball, such as races against the mascot and fireworks, and there would be promotions such as free kids days.
Wagner says all those things are part of the pastime.
"We make it really fun for the fans," he said. "Baseball is very much a social event. It's kind of the nature of the game — the time between pitches and between innings and being out on beautiful summer nights."
And the players, Wagner and Gallagher say, are very good.
"These guys are college level who did not go into the draft but are still playing high-quality baseball — college players that are looking to up their status for the draft or completing their education," Gallagher said.
Wagner says the league "gives them exposure to what the minors are like — using wood bats and playing in front of large crowds."
In Butte, a club would have to sign a lease with the county for using the stadium, work out a schedule with Legion baseball, and find an ownership team, among other "first" things.
Wagner said he hopes to get some of those pieces in place in the next few months.
Gallagher said he was "very hopeful" about the prospects and said the inaugural season starting in May — without Butte just yet — is a plus.
"One of the benefits is we watch the league for a year and see how they do," he said.
To view the league website, visit expeditionleague.pointstreaksites.com/view/expeditionleague.