As expected, MLB is going forward with their plans to change how the minor leagues work and it will have a significant impact on the Colorado Rockies and the minor league teams in the region.
The Colorado Rockies are surrounded by the Rocky Mountains, making their closest MLB teams still a fair distance away. However, in the past 80 years or so (with the exception of 1943-1945 due to the shortage of players throughout all of baseball due to World War II), the Pioneer League has been affiliated with Major League Baseball in an effort to spread baseball across the country.
But with MLB deciding to cut down the number of minor league teams to 120 (four for each of the 30 teams), there are entire leagues that are being cut. Despite receiving good attendance numbers, unlike other leagues that will remain like the Florida State League, the Pioneer League is one of those leagues. Included in that league was Rockies rookie-level affiliate, the Grand Junction Rockies.
However, MLB announced on Monday that they will keep all of the teams in the Pioneer League in the Pioneer League but now, the league will be a “league partner,” meaning that they will serve an “independent professional MLB Partner League that continues to provide high-quality baseball.”
The teams will operate under their same names and same facilities with one exception. The Orem Owlz (of Utah) will relocate to Windsor, Colorado, which is about an hour north of Coors Field and a suburb of Fort Collins and they will be named the Northern Colorado Owlz. Former Rockies outfielder and current TV broadcaster Ryan Spilborghs is part of the ownership group for the team.
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While in Orem, Utah, the team was last in average attendance in 2019 at 1,231. In the Florida State League, which plays their games at the Spring Training stadiums of their head team, only five of the twelve-team league had higher attendance than that and five of the teams averaged less than 1,000 people per game, including the Dunedin Blue Jays’ average of just 203 people, according to Kyle Glaser of Baseball America on Twitter.
With their relocation, three teams of the eight-team league, that is exclusively in the Mountain Time Zone, will reside in Colorado as Grand Junction will still have their team and the Rocky Mountain Vibes will still reside in Colorado Springs, which is about an hour drive south of Coors Field and the former home of the Rockies Triple-A affiliate from the Rockies’ inception through 2014.
Rockies owner Dick Monfort is part of the ownership group with Grand Junction and, in a statement on Monday, he indicated that he will remain in that capacity.
While it is unfortunate that the Pioneer League (and other leagues like the New York-Penn League) will be losing it’s affiliation status, at least baseball will remain in some capacity in the smaller towns that still want to see baseball and, perhaps, they will be able to attend games once again in the spring.