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Historic finish welcomes back Pioneer League across four states in Rocky Mountain region

Patrick Lyons Avatar
May 24, 2021

It may have taken 628 days, but professional baseball is back along the Front Range.

Following a year in which fans were not allowed in ballparks around the country and minor league players were forced to work from home, baseball is beginning to normalize with the return of the Rocky Mountain Vibes in Colorado Springs.

The Vibes welcomed the Grand Junction Rockies on Saturday as part of the new Pioneer League to a sold out crowd to UCHealth Park thanks to a change in the state-wide mask policy allowing 100% capacity just in time for Opening Day.

On Sunday, fans witnessed something that had never been seen before in the history of baseball. 

Before the game came back to various smaller cities in Colorado, Montana, Idaho and Utah, the pandemic wasn’t the only issue casting doubts on baseball’s return. Discussions about shrinking the footprint of Minor League Baseball by Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred placed the Centennial State in peril with only the Colorado Rockies represented on the map of organized play.

MLB reduced MiLB by 43 teams across the United States, including the entirety of the Appalachian League and Pioneer League, signaling what appeared to be the end of the Vibes and GJ Rockies. 

However, it was announced that the Pioneer League would be saved, in sorts, becoming the fourth MLB Partner League along with the Atlantic League, the American Association and the Frontier League. Though the eight teams will operate as a professional independent league, MLB will provide initial funding for the league’s operating expenses.

Rebranding with a new logo, this latest incarnation of the Pioneer League also comes with the launch of the PBL Network, which will enable access for its teams, coaches, players and fans to professional-level live streams from every game, multi-angle video, as well as coaching and performance tools for pitching and hitting mechanics.

MLB will also install scouting technology in Pioneer League ballparks to provide MLB Clubs with first-class scouting information on Pioneer League players. The agreement will also include a procedure for player transfers to MLB teams.

After the resurgence of the Pioneer League, their next bit of news was quite possibly the most intriguing as the league announced a revolutionary rule change: the replacement of extra innings with a home run derby. 

Under the rule, each batter receives five pitches. The team with the player who tags the most homers is the winner of the Knock Out Round. Should each player hit the same amount, a new player is selected for each team until a winner is declared.

Powered by former Kansas City Royals prospect Manny Olloque, fans in attendance on Sunday in the Springs witnessed the Vibes defeat the GJ Rockies in the first ever Knockout Round in baseball history. 

Other new rule changes seen this past weekend included a designated pinch hitter and designated pinch runner that allows a non-starter to pinch hit or pinch run once per game, three-person umpire crews, and the ability for batters to appeal check swings.

Another alteration to the Pioneer League extends to its members. The former Rockies’ affiliate Boise Hawks were welcomed for the 2021 season and the Northern Colorado (NoCo) Owlz for 2022.

Last November, it was announced that the team from Orem (UT) Owlz will move to Windsor to become the NoCo Owlz with play to begin next season at the brand new Future Legends Complex.

As for the club in Boise, they’re rolling out the carpet with numerous promotions for every game, including plans for 11 post-game fireworks, as well as help some former members of the Boise State club as well as former purple prospect Hidekel Gonzalez starting at catcher.

On the Western Slope, the Dick Monfort owned Grand Junction Rockies return to historic Sam Suplizio Field on June 8 for their home opener.

While the Pioneer League may lack the future superstars it once possessed, it is still fighting for its existence and providing quality baseball to those communities that need it most.

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