As MLB’s farm system braces for a major overhaul, the state’s two minor league teams, the Grand Junction Rockies and the Rocky Mountain Vibes, are on the precipice.
Grand Junction (the Rockies’ rookie-league affiliate) and Rocky Mountain (the Brewers’ rookie-league affiliate) are dealing with the likelihood of the 2020 minor league season being canceled due to COVID-19. Plus, both are members of the Pioneer League, which is part of MLB’s proposed 42-team contraction for 2021.
Those invested long-term in both franchises, from the front office to the diehard fans, can see the depressing writing on the outfield fall: Colorado may have seen the last of minor league baseball.
“I’m still trying to stay hopeful, but the reality is what it is,” said Jerry Wilds, 79, a Grand Junction season-ticket holder since the team came to town in 2012.
“If the Rockies and the Vibes do leave, it’d be an economic and cultural void. It’d be a step back for baseball (in Colorado). You’re taking away two ball teams and you have to consider the amount of people it will hurt and how it will affect the economy in both cities. The reach of minor league baseball is large because it’s something enjoyable to do all summer — nice, clean, affordable family entertainment.
“That reach and that intimacy will be lost in Colorado going forward, on both sides.”
The proposed contraction, which has been accompanied by a public back-and-forth between MLB and MiLB, would come along with a new Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA).
The PBA, which binds the separate entities together, expires Sept. 15, 2020. MLB wants to use the negotiations with MiLB to trim down a farm system owners argue has become too large, too costly and too inefficient.
But with coronavirus having put the MLB season in peril, all of baseball’s powers-that-be have been focused solely on a return to big-league play over the past few months.
“Before, the negotiations were ramping up and there was a lot of good movement on the minor league side getting congressional support and things like that, which all came to a screeching halt,” said Chris Phillips, the Vibes general manager. “Major League Baseball is such a mess (with contentious negotiations), so until they can get their situation figured out, we’re on the back burner.”
Despite all ominous indications, the Vibes are staying positive and creative amid the pandemic. The team set up meal takeout services, and in coordination with guidelines from the county health department, is also using UCHealth Park for drive-in movies, high school graduations and fireworks shows.
There is also a chance UCHealth Park could be used as a Colorado Rockies practice field, should the MLB season occur.
“We’ve said internally as it’s become more and more evident there isn’t going to be a season that we have to transition this year from Vibes baseball to Vibes entertainment,” Phillips said. “We had to start thinking way outside the box, with no restrictions of a strict game schedule and the fact that we don’t have to keep the field as pristine as we do during the regular season.”
Over in Grand Junction, Wilds is disappointed that the Rockies “are not doing a thing as far as information or promoting right now amid what’s been going on.”
But he, like his daughter Shannon Sneddon, isn’t mad at Dick Monfort, the majority owner of the Colorado Rockies and Grand Junction Rockies, or any particular individual over the prospect of losing the team. Sneddon is also an original season-ticket holder and coordinates host families for the team. In the past, she’s housed current Colorado big leaguers Raimel Tapia, Brendan Rodgers and Sam Hilliard.
“Do I have any ill-will towards anyone? No. Would we love for the team to stay? Yes,” Sneddon said. “But also, yes, we all also understand this is ultimately a business decision by Major League Baseball.”
While MLB has painted the need for contraction as partly driven by the economic infeasibility and poor facilities of certain lower-level franchises, such is not the case in Grand Junction or Colorado Springs. Both Sam Suplizio Field and UC Health Park are above-grade stadiums for rookie league franchises.
That fact is no doubt bolstered by Grand Junction’s status as the home of the JuCo World Series since 1958 and Colorado Springs having hosted a Triple-A team from 1988 to 2018.
“(The Rockies) are one of the successful franchises, as opposed to many (lower-level) teams that have poor facilities and they’re in much smaller markets,” said Robin Brown, executive director of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership. “Financially, it probably doesn’t make sense for MLB to keep some of those open, but ours stands out differently in that regard.”
From an economic standpoint, both teams are drivers. In Grand Junction (pop. 63,374), Area Chamber of Commerce president Diane Schwenke estimates the Rockies have an economic impact of $7 million to $10 million annually. Phillips put the same figure in Colorado Springs (pop. 472,688) at around $20 million.
And for a sport desperate for new, young fans, Grand Junction season-ticket holder Greg Olson says contraction is a big mistake.
“Baseball is a big economic driver for these communities,” said Olson, 51. “The MLB should be part of supporting this. If they used this to their advantage and connected their story to the success of these rural communities (like Grand Junction), their fan base would grow… I feel that the MLB is really cutting into a growing base of fans.”
The future of both clubs will remain murky for the time being.
But just as Vibes season-ticket holder Pat Drake lamented how “the prospect of no team here really crushes me,” she, Phillips and others also believe communities with strong baseball roots still somehow have a chance to retain their team.
“I know they’re saying the same thing in Grand Junction that we are here — we’ve got a great ballpark, we’ve got a great city,” Phillips said. “We have to figure out a way to keep professional baseball here.”