A week later, Nick Floyd says he felt fine. Pitching on short rest, he was Idaho Falls’ starter in a one-game divisional round against Missoula, toeing the rubber in a must-win game for the Chukars, who were dealt a difficult hand headed into the contest. The night before, the club wrapped up its regular-season slate with a four-hour, marathon victory, only to board a bus some 11 hours later to drive another four hours for this playoff tilt.
“That might have had a little impact,” Floyd said.
But to Floyd, who took the loss in Idaho Falls’ season-ending 11-2 defeat to Missoula, what really sank the Chukars’ season — which looked so promising for so long — had been simmering for weeks.
Idaho Falls came a game away from winning the Pioneer League’s first half, finishing a scintillating 34-14, but that’s when injuries and fatigue descended on the Chukars, who looked like a different team entirely in the second half. They finished 24-25 over the second stanza, fighting for their playoff lives every game. They secured a playoff spot on the penultimate night of the regular season, but even that was out of their hands. A Missoula win gave Idaho Falls the opportunity.
That, in Floyd’s estimation, is why Idaho Falls looked so flat in that season-ending loss to the Paddleheads. The Chukars had expended so much effort trying to make the playoffs that by the time they rolled around, they didn’t have the legs.
“It’s like coming back in a game,” Floyd said. “A team that falls behind early — you spend all your energy just to get back into the game, and then you run out of gas at the end. I feel like it was more like that for us.”
It amounted to quite the abrupt ending for the Chukars, especially considering how much work it took officials to secure a season in the first place. Affiliated with MLB for almost 35 years, Idaho Falls last year became one of 40 minor-league teams to lose its affiliation as MLB cut back and restructured its minor league system.
Translation: If Idaho Falls was going to play baseball in 2021, GM Kevin Greene and his staff had work to do. Usually, the team starts to prepare for the next season in the fall, figuring ticket prices and working with businesses to secure sponsorships. But in September 2020, MLB let its working agreement with Minor League Baseball expire, putting teams like the Chukars in limbo.
Would they have a season? If so, what would it look like? It was all unclear, which meant the team couldn’t do anything for next year, in case it never came to fruition.
In December 2020, though, the Chukars got the green light for a season. The Pioneer League transitioned from affiliated to independent, playing in a newly-formed MLB Partner League, which put a few agreements in place: MLB would provide initial funding for teams to kick off their seasons, install scouting technology in ballparks and supply a pipeline from the Pioneer League to MLB organizations, meaning players could sign with those organizations should they perform well enough.
What it didn’t supply, though, was players.
So instead of receiving prospects from the Kansas City Royals’ organization, with whom the Chukars were affiliated, they had to find their own. First, Greene hired manager Billy Gardner Jr. — who was scheduled to manage the Washington Nationals’ double-A club, only for the pandemic to put him out of baseball — and filled out the rest of the staff with pitching coach Bob Milacki and Billy Butler, who worked together to evaluate players and fill out the roster.
The staff signed some players by reaching out themselves. Some came courtesy of other independent teams, who sent the Chukars players rather than releasing them entirely. Others, like outfielder Thomas DeBonville, emailed Pioneer League teams in an effort to land a spot on one.
What tied all the players together, though, was that Gardner and Co. had to trust others about them. The staff didn’t have time to go watch players themselves, so even to make mid-season trades and acquisitions, they went on numbers, reports and references: What kind of player is this guy? How does he hit left-handed pitching? Is he injury-prone? It wasn’t guesswork, but it came close.
The good news for the Chukars is that they often guessed right. Idaho Falls became one of the league’s best offenses, featuring players like Matt Feinstein (first in the league in RBI with 116, fourth in home runs with 22), Webb Little (tied for second in RBI with 102) and Kona Quiggle (seventh in batting average at .381), who helped engineer a lineup that could explode at any time.
“It’s not a knock on any other team I’ve played on, but (we were) obviously a lot better than anything I’ve ever seen,” Feinstein said. “What we did at the beginning was pretty incredible. I know with the elevation and the nature of the league, it’s a little more offensive-oriented, but we always had guys 1-9 who could be a three or four hitter on any other team.”
The Chukars’ pitching, on the other hand, was more of an issue. Among players who logged 25 innings or more, Idaho Falls’ leader in ERA was Floyd, who finished with a 4.61 mark. Their next best pitcher — at least statistically — was Jake Binder, who missed the final two weeks of the season with an injury.
For Idaho Falls, those problems never quite went away. When DeBonville and Binder suffered injuries, the Chukars struggled even more, floundering their way to the finish line.
Still, around this time last year, it wasn’t clear whether the Chukars would have the opportunity to play this summer in the first place. That they found a way to play, unaffiliated or not, represents a victory — even if their season didn’t end with one.
“Overall, it was very successful, as successful as we could have hoped for,” Greene said. “The community embraced this team. They were fun to watch. They scored a ton of runs. And we had great weather, which helped us a lot.”