Chukars vs Missoula

Fans cheer as the Chukars take on the Missoula Osprey’s on Thursday, July 4, 2019.

While it remains to be seen how negotiations will play out over the next year, Minor League Baseball officials are worried about how losing teams like the Idaho Falls Chukars could affect the future of the sport.

“It’s all very preliminary at this point,” said Minor League Baseball spokesman Jeff Lantz. “It was a very, very early proposal in what will be a lengthy negotiation, and both sides will go back and forth several times over the course of the next 11 months.”

The contract between major and minor league baseball is up after 2020, and Major League Baseball is considering a major reorganization of the minor leagues for the 2021 season that would involve cutting ties with the Idaho Falls Chukars and 41 other teams, or a quarter of the entire minor leagues, including the entire eight-team Pioneer League in which the Chukars play.

Lantz said his league hopes to keep professional baseball in all of the markets that could be affected. One option Major League Baseball has proposed is that the teams would become responsible for expenses such as paying players that are currently shouldered by the Major League teams with which the Minor League teams are affiliated. Lantz doesn’t think this would be feasible in smaller markets such as Idaho Falls, though.

“We find it hard to believe that is a model that can really work,” he said. “The costs are just so high to run a business and pay all the bills just to run a team, and then you have to pay the players on top of that.”

One issue Major League Baseball has, Lantz said, is that some older minor league stadiums have dugout areas that are too small for today’s needs, given the increase in the number of more specialized coaching and training positions over the years. The Chukars’ Melaleuca Field is one of the newer ones in the Pioneer League, having been built in 2007. The league’s location in the sparsely populated Intermountain West may have played a role as well, he said — the league’s teams probably spend more time traveling than teams in any other league.

The New York Times published the list earlier this week of teams with which Major League Baseball is considering cutting ties, prompting a backlash from everyone from small-town baseball fans to members of Congress. U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and more than 100 of his colleagues from both parties signed a letter this week urging Major League Baseball to reconsider.

Lantz said the loss of teams such as the Chukars would be a blow for baseball in general. When there is a minor league team in town, he said, children can go to games, become fans of a particular team or players and develop an interest in the sport. If you live in Idaho Falls, he said, it’s not convenient to drive to Seattle or Denver for a game.

“It’s growing the game of baseball that would be lost if those teams were forced out,” he said.

Minor league parks, he said, provide a place where adults can hang out with their friends and bring their children to a safe and fun environment.

“I like to call it kind of the front porch of the community,” he said.

Also, he said, teams give back to communities through charitable fundraising and other civic activities.

“There’s not a price tag you can put on that kind of stuff,” he said.

The 2018 season saw a sharp spike in attendance at Chukars games compared to the preceding decade. After mostly staying in the high-to-mid 90,000s a season for multiple years in a row and hitting a low of 79,895 in the 2014 season, in 2018 it jumped to 101,448 people attending Chukars home games all year and 2,742 at the average game, which was also the highest number in a decade.

Idaho Falls has had a minor league baseball team since 1940. The Chukars, which got their current name in 2004, are a Kansas City Royals affiliate and were the Pioneer League’s 2019 champions.

One option for the Chukars to keep playing if Major League Baseball does cut ties is to join an independent league. Andrew Dunn, the commissioner of the Pecos League, said Wednesday that he plans to reach out to city officials in Idaho Falls and other Pioneer League towns next week. Dunn hopes to add four currently Pioneer League teams to his league, creating a new division within it.

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.