HELENA — The Helena City Commissioners decided to allow the Helena American Legion baseball program an opportunity to grow for two years without sharing Kindrick Legion Field space and availability with another baseball team at a meeting Wednesday night, following the departure of the Helena Brewers minor league team.
They made the decision during an administrative meeting in the City/County Building before a rare overflow crowd.
The decision was repeated from a July 25 meeting when there was little input from the community because of the lack of knowledge about the meeting. Some of the commissioners were also missing for the first meeting, so the decision was revisited with public comment this time.
"I am relieved that the decision has been made," Helena Senators general manager Greg Thornquist said. "That's the biggest thing. A decision has been made, whether it was bring in the Expedition or let the Legion program grow, I'm just happy a decision is made."
The Helena Senators have two years to expand their program with added tournaments for all three of its teams: the varsity level Senators, junior varsity level Reps and freshmen/middle school level Independents.
The Brewers are headed to Colorado Springs, Colorado, for the 2019 season. A summer wood-bat collegiate level team from the Expedition League wanted to take their place starting in 2019.
"Disappointed; we wanted to be here, or we wouldn't have spent the amount of time and effort to be here," Expedition League president Steve Wagner said. "I love the community. I think this community will support summer collegiate baseball, Expedition League baseball in a big way. I'm confident we could get large crowds at the ballpark. But I respect the decision of the city commissioners."
The Expedition League planned to have a team in Butte, Wagner said, but that can't happen without another team in the area. The league is spread out in the Dakotas, Nebraska and plans to expand to Montana and Canada.
The league needs teams in close proximity to help with scheduling and traveling. Wagner now plans to look at different Montana communities to place a second team.
"There are other places in Montana we have an interest in that we could bring in [as] a partner for Butte," Wagner said. "Butte has been wonderful. They've welcomed us with open arms."
Wagner is willing to come back in two years and be the potential team to fill that void, but wants to move into Montana now.
The league had eight teams last season and will have 10 in 2019, and possibly up to 12. Wagner's goal is to have 20-26 teams.
The city commissioners expressed interest in bringing in another team in two years. They would look to see if it would be better to have another Advanced Rookie League pro team such as the Brewers to play in the Pioneer League, or to go with an Expedition League team.
"I think American Legion earned the right to grow," commissioner Ed Noonan said. "Helena youth baseball and Legion should be given the opportunity to grow for two years and see what they can accomplish."
The sticking point was scheduling. The Senators wanted more home games in June and July, especially for the younger teams. The Independents rarely played at home.
The Senators also wanted to be able to run more tournaments and have access to the lucrative concessions money for home games during the summer.
Mayor Wilmot Collins was concerned with what he felt was limited cooperation from both sides to work out a schedule, but the consensus from the commissioners was to wait two years.
"I would hope Helena would want us to be here to provide that level of baseball," Wagner said. "Hopefully, we can revisit it in a couple years. My concern is it becomes harder in two years and have the Legion program open up and fit 32 home games in from late May to early August if they are already telling us they can't."
Community support for the Expedition League came from Helena Brewers fans looking for a higher level of baseball than American Legion.
"Most of us feel it shouldn't be a politics things of a Legion team vs. a collegiate team or a minor league team," said Kim Ranger, a supporter of the Expedition League and booster club member of the Helena Brewers. "We think it should be about the community wanting baseball in Helena in general.
"We think it's a city park and city field, and we think it should be shared. It shouldn't be one of us will do it better than another one. It's a shared effort, and something that keeps the community in the community."
The Senators now go about taking control of Kindrick Legion Field. The Brewers were a major financial backer of the field and owned much of the equipment to maintain the field
Thornquist knows he as a big job ahead, but one he wanted to help the teams he manages.
"We know we have a lot of work to do," he said. "We need to find grounds keeping. There are several small things to deal with, but very much looking forward to it. We have very active parents from all walks who are ready to help."