Two days ago, the news broke: The Brewers would call Helena home for two more years.
At the conclusion of the 2018 season, the club is packing up and heading to Colorado Springs, Colorado, the last in a line of falling dominoes that started with a new stadium in Amarillo, Texas.
The Brewers were on the road when the announcement was made Wednesday, playing a two-game set at Great Falls. It returned to the Capital City on Friday, however, to start a series with the Billings Mustangs at Kindrick Legion Field. And, while the results of that contest weren’t what the fans had hoped -- rallies in the sixth and eighth innings pushed the visitors past the Brewers, 8-5, dropping the team to 0-5 to start the season -- a core group of dedicated folks still turned out to cheer on the home team.
Two of 1,051 fans in attendance Friday night were Brad and Jessica Frazier. Billets for the Helena Bighorns hockey team, the pair also likes to support the Brewers. And like most walking the concourse, they were talking about the team’s impending move.
“I think we don’t have a lot of things for families to do, so it’s kind of sad to see one of the summer activities be gone,” said Jessica, who has more direct ties to the team than most. She served one year as mascot, suiting up as Clark the cougar. “I’ve been coming to Helena Brewers baseball games since I was a little kid. We typically come to a game once or twice a month, fairly regularly.
“But we were talking about this when we were driving over here: Everything’s so expensive. As a family, to come and buy, I mean, a $4 bottle of water? It’s just not affordable, for a lot of families. I think that’s a big reason. We have two kids. When we bring the kids to the park, they want to play in the jumper house, that’s $5. They want a bottle of water, that’s another $8, $10. Even if we got free tickets, it’s just not affordable. I think if it were more affordable, we’d come more often.”
Brad agreed, pointing out that at the Helena Ice Arena a beer will cost a fan half as much as it does at the Brewers game.
He’s been in Helena and at the Brewers games since moving here eight years ago. But he grew in in Billings, with the Mustangs. And while the Magic City certainly is a far bigger market from which to draw fans, he said there’s a noticeable difference between the attitude of the two cities.
“The difference between the community here and the community in Billings, the Billings community actually really puts forth putting a presence to their teams,” he said. “They will back their teams, 110 percent. Helena’s like, ‘Eh, I might.”
Fan apathy is certainly something Brad Ouldhouse has to contend with as well.
The marketing director for the Bighorns, Ouldhouse was at Kindrick to take in some Friday night baseball, and said the news of the move hit him on two fronts.
“It’s kind of disheartening, to be honest with you,” he said. “As sports marketers, we always get together and we work together and we do a lot to try to support each other. But as a baseball fan, I’ve been coming to Brewers games since I was a kid. My dad used to get season tickets, I’d drive from Bozeman most the time and come hang out with my dad and my brothers and just watch some baseball. I’ve got a lot of good memories in this ballpark. So it sucks twice.
“Especially for small-market teams -- like the Bighorns, for example -- there’s always that thought in the back of your head of ‘What happens when the rug gets pulled out?’ Because while we share a lot of the same sponsors and a lot of the same fans, we also probably share a lot of the same fate when it comes to fans in the stands and lower numbers and things like that. And from that perspective, it’s a reality that, hey, if the Brewers can go, then we’re not exactly safe even with new ownership. So if anything, it just gives us more motivation to do a better job with the Bighorns.”
Checking out Kindrick for the first time on Friday was Benjamin Hill. He writes for MiLB.com on Ben’s Biz Blog, and is on a Montana swing as he tours stadiums and takes in games across the country. He had already been in Billings and was in Great Falls before hitting Helena. He’ll be in Missoula on Saturday.
“For me, because I’m writing for MiLB and trying to visit every single park, everything for me is big picture,” he said. “I think what gets lost in the bigger picture, particularly here, is it’s losing a team. And I didn’t plan to be here on this particular night, and it is interesting timing. It makes me really grateful that I am here, because I love the older ballparks, and the more rustic places. I just find they have more personality.
“The interesting dichotomy with my job is sort of balancing what makes sense from the big picture situation -- which, this really does makes sense. But as a fan and also as a writer, these are the places that I want to be. This will be the place that I will be telling people, ‘Get here when you have the chance.’ Because you see a throwback environment. You see something that once it’s gone, it’s not coming back, and that is sad.”
That said, Hill continued that there is tradition and small-town baseball, and then there’s business -- which, at the end of the day, is what this move is all about.
“The bigger, bigger picture is the professional baseball agreement between Major and Minor League Baseball ends in 2020. And so Minor League Baseball wants to have the lower-performing stadiums out of the picture as much as possible, because they want to present themselves to Major League Baseball as, ‘This is a relationship that we want to continue with this many affiliation agreements.’ So for the success of the industry, it makes sense. That doesn’t make it any easier for someone who has grown up in those ballparks.”
Many of those fans, like Jessica Frazier, were treated to an explosive first inning on Friday, in which the Brewers drove home three runs. They added another run in the third and tacked on a fifth in the bottom of the fifth to make it a 5-2 Helena lead.
But that’s when the Mustangs got hot. Billings tied the contest with three runs in the sixth, and then pulled away with another three in the eighth.
Still, Helena had a shot.
The Brewers managed to load the bases in the ninth with back-to-back-to-back singles. But, with one out, Gabriel Garcia struck out swinging on a full-count pitch. Then Jay Feliciano popped out to shortstop Carlos Rivero to end it. The Brewers hammered 13 hits in the loss while surrendering eight. But not helping matters were the five errors committed by a team that hadn’t been charged with any through the first four games.
It’s a rough start on the field, and it continues during a trying time for the organization.
Still, while the number of fans may at times be small, they are also a loyal group – even with Wednesday’s news.
“Oh, yeah, we’ll keep coming,” Brad Frazier said. “I’ll be here till the end.”