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Pioneer League baseball in some of the most scenic states in the west

MISSOULA, Mont. — Eight baseball games, eight different ballparks, eight days. We would have seen eight home-team wins, but the Missoula Osprey blew the ninth-inning lead in the trip opener.

A motorcycle tour last summer through the stadiums of the Pioneer League took me and my dad through some of the most beautiful parts of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah, with some of the parks offering spectacular mountain range views. Catching games in all eight places makes a great theme for a summer road trip through the region, where nearby attractions include Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.

The league has a Rookie classification, the lowest class of the minor league farm systems, with many players right out of high school. A number of famous ballplayers started in the league, including George Brett, Jeff Cirillo, Andre Dawson, Sid Fernandez, Cecil Fielder, Andres Galarraga, Eric Karros, Pedro Martinez, Raul Mondesi, Gary Sheffield and Ryne Sandberg.

The league dates to 1939, though games were suspended during World War II. The current eight teams are broken into two divisions. The four Montana teams, the Missoula Osprey, Helena Brewers, Great Falls Voyagers and Billings Mustangs, make up the North Division. The South Division stretches from Idaho, with the Idaho Falls Chukars, to Wyoming, with the Casper Ghosts, and down to Utah, with the Orem Owlz and Ogden Raptors.

It’s a split-season format with the division winners in the first and second halves of the season making the playoffs. In 2010, the Helena Brewers won the league championship.

Our first game was in downtown Missoula, next to the Clark Fork River. The stadium opened in 2004 and features an osprey mascot. We even saw a real osprey nest on a pole just outside the right-center field wall.

We quickly noticed the small town, family-friendly environment. As we were parking our motorcycles just outside of the fee lot, an employee came over and invited us to use free motorcycle parking near the front gate.

It was a Saturday night and the stands were nearly full. A promotion that night gave away Osprey Snuggies to the first 750 fans (announced attendance was 2,841).

The early fans were also treated to a local band performing on the first base dugout. Pregame concerts take place for every Saturday night home game. (The ballpark also hosts other events, including this year, on Aug. 2, when the team’s away, an appearance by Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett.)

The following day, we saw the Helena Brewers (affiliated with the Milwaukee Brewers). Helena has the smallest market and the oldest stadium in the league. A half-hour before the first pitch, I counted 32 people in the stands, though more fans eventually arrived for the Sunday afternoon game. The park offers a weekend promotion of four tickets, four hotdogs and four sodas for $25, and kids 13 and under get to run the bases after Sunday games.

It was a beautiful ride from Missoula, over MacDonald Pass in the Rockies, as we headed south toward Butte.

Idaho Falls has the longest continuous team (since 1976) in the Pioneer League. The Chukars are named for a partridge-like bird and their ballpark, Melaleuca Field, built in 2007, is next to Highland Park and the Snake River. Fans can use a hot tub on the right field line for an additional fee.

The Monday night announced attendance of 3,720 was the biggest crowd of the trip, fueled by free general admission tickets from a local credit union.

Most of the breaks between innings were filled with crowd participation activities. The most creative game of the trip was called sectional volleyball. Two section leaders held up a volleyball net and whichever section had the most beach balls at the end of the song, lost.

The game ended with a game-winning walk-off hit.

The next day we rode the most scenic parts of the trip, from Idaho Falls to Casper. Or maybe I should say from Idaho Falls to just outside of Jackson, Wyo. The route takes you right near Grand Teton National Park, with Yellowstone nearby. After that, though, we hit central Wyoming, which doesn’t offer much to write home about except for the courage and fortitude of highway construction workers.

The stadium for the Casper Ghosts features a pale ale on tap called the Boo Brew made by the Grand Teton Brewing Company, which also makes root beer. We visited the brewery earlier in the day, in Victor, Idaho.

Casper also offered the best beverage deal of our trip. During the game, a player from the opposite team was designated as the “brew guy,” and after the home team struck him out in the fourth inning, beers were $2 for the next 10 minutes.

But there was no beer available at our next stop, in Orem. Games there are held on the Utah Valley University campus, where alcohol is prohibited under state law. Obviously, that made it the most family-friendly park on the tour.

Orem is south of Salt Lake City, near Provo. The views from the stadium of the Wasatch Mountain Range and Utah Lake were beautiful, but something was missing from the baseball experience — drunken fans yelling at the umpires.

The umpires travel in two-man crews, and just like the players, they are in the early stages of their professional careers.

Players often say that life on the road in the minor leagues is not easy. A local article I read said the Orem Owlz arrived at 7 a.m. after an overnight bus ride from Montana.

Perhaps the Owlz know some travel secrets the other teams don’t. They won the league’s 2009 title, which gave them four championships in six years.

Another scenic riding highlight of the trip was traveling north 110 miles to Ogden. We rode on the eastern side of the mountains instead of the more direct route on the western side, through Salt Lake City.

After traveling near Park City earlier in the day, it was only fitting that the foul poles at the Ogden park were sponsored by a couple of ski brands — Salomon and Atomic. Here, too, the Wasatch Mountain Range offers a magnificent backdrop to the stadium.

Last year, the Ogden Raptors led the league in attendance with 132,799 fans. Next on the list was Billings with 101,516, Idaho Falls with 91,551, Missoula at 87,345, Orem with 81,229, Great Falls at 66,106, Casper at 57,120, and Helena with 32,723, for a league season attendance total of 650,389. The numbers were down from 2009, likely due to the weak economy. Still, ticket prices for Pioneer League games are a bargain compared to Major League games or even the movies: adult tickets average $6.13, kids $5.06, according to Steve Densa, who handles communications for Minor League Baseball.

The entrance to Lindquist Field says “Welcome to Dodgertown, Utah.” The team is a farm team for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Many fans feel a connection to their teams’ affiliates. They track the players through the minors and applaud when winning scores are announced for the farm teams.

The next night in Billings, the players wore Cincinnati Reds jerseys. The Billings-Reds partnership began in 1974.

Dehler Park opened in 2008, and is the only ballpark in the league where fans can walk around the entire park without leaving the gates. There are no obstructed seats, and fans can watch the live game while waiting in concession stand lines.

That night fans were treated to a walk-off double to complete a 6-3 comeback.

We ended our trip in Great Falls at Centene Stadium watching the Voyagers, affiliated with the Chicago White Sox. Great Falls was a stop on the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1805, but local lore also includes a 20th century tale, memorialized in a team logo of a baseball on a spinning planet. In 1950, when the team was called the Great Falls Electrics, general manager Nick Mariana captured a home movie of two shiny objects spinning in the sky. The “Mariana Incident” led to investigations, debunkings and claims ranging from UFO to hoax.

We didn’t see any UFOs on our trip, but after traveling over 2,200 miles to all eight Pioneer League parks, we certainly qualify as voyagers.