At its annual meeting on Jan. 17 the Montana High School Association will ask its members to vote on whether to add a new sport to their respective prep lineups. Representatives from 182 schools across the state will decide whether America’s pastime will take on the mascots and colors of local high schools.
In December 2020, Stevensville High School athletic director Chance Edman requested that MHSA consider baseball, and the resulting member survey came back 83-42 in favor of forming a committee to study the sport’s feasibility.
MHSA executive director Mark Beckman said that this was the fourth time the idea of adding the sport to the prep lineup had been floated to MHSA, but the first time member schools voted in favor of a committee, showing a marked increase in local interest.
“Any time we can provide opportunities for kids to be involved in more activities, then it’s a positive,” said Glacier activities director Mark Dennehy. “The AA schools in general are very supportive of activities … When it comes down to it, I think both Glacier and Flathead will be voting in favor of it.”
Dennehy said that one of the biggest considerations for adding a new sport is cost. He estimates that it would cost around $20,000 to $30,000 to fully outfit a new team with uniforms and equipment, pay coaches and cover transportation. A line item of that size might be feasible for larger Class AA schools, but it prompts more hesitation among smaller schools.
Up in Whitefish, both the high school swim team and the softball team are privately funded.
“What we don’t want to do is create a situation where 20 years down the road [baseball] is in the same position where they need to find private revenue,” Whitefish activities director Aric Harris said. “I’m all for giving our kids more opportunities to compete but we’ve got to really look at the long-term impacts and the potential ripple effects.”
Harris said that in his discussions with other Class A administrators, most seem to be on the fence about the vote, adding that no matter their decision, it will come down to smaller schools — with a simple majority vote, the 16 Class AA and 23 Class A schools don’t carry enough weight to be a deciding factor.
“We also don’t want to be spread too thin,” Harris said. “We’re a middle of the road Class A school, so there’s a population concern.”
Harris says around 100 boys at the high school already participate in spring sports — track and tennis — and diluting those successful programs could be counterproductive, a problem further exacerbated as schools get smaller. Multi-program cooperatives are common in Class B and C, such as the St. Ignatius, Charlo and Arlee softball co-op.
If the vote passes, individual schools will determine whether there’s enough interest to field a team and MHSA will determine specific rules and classifications ahead of the first pitch in 2023.
As one of just three states nationwide that doesn’t offer the sport in high school, Montana has a storied and robust American Legion Baseball program.
The first Montana championship series was sponsored by the American Legion in 1926, and just seven years later there were 3,000 boys playing on teams with 80% of American Legion Posts sponsoring local teams.
“Honestly it was kind of a surprise,” said Kalispell Lakers board president Toby Liechti. “We’re one of three state that doesn’t have high school affiliated baseball but to me this didn’t seem like a problem that needed fixing.”
The first known Legion team in Kalispell was fielded in 1947, with the current organization established in 1968. The Kalispell Lakers first took to the diamond in 1970 and have been a strong presence ever since, winning the state championship in 1978.
Up north, the Glacier Twins have had a string of recent successes, winning state titles in 2014 and 2018, and finishing runner up in 2021.
Liechti said he thinks one reason for the push to move sport into schools is the lower cost to athletes to compete, acknowledging there is a notion that Legion baseball is expensive.
This year, Lakers players have to pay around $2,000 in fees, depending on which team they play for. However, Liechti said that usually two-thirds of the cost to players is covered through fundraising and sponsorship opportunities.
As a Legion player when he was a teenager, Liechti said that the one disappointment he had was not being able to earn a letter as a high school athlete, but he said none of his recent players have expressed any sentiments of wanting high school baseball.
“All the best athletes are already playing Legion baseball,” Liechti said. “The best kids on the best teams are playing for meaningful state championships. It’s the cream of the crop for baseball.”
To accommodate a newly sanctioned high school baseball season, Legion baseball would be forced to adjust its schedule, similar to how neighboring states such as Idaho and North Dakota operate.
The MHSA committee appointed to study sanctioning the sport recommended a spring season that would start a week before other sports, with a first practice held on March 6, 2023. The state tournaments would be held May 18-20, also a week prior to other spring sports.
Currently, Legion baseball begins in April and runs through early August, with teams starting pre-season training in the middle of January. If the MHSA vote passes, Legion ball would be asked to start after May 22 and play a shortened season.
Glacier Twins coach Kevin Slaybaugh is torn on the issue, saying that more baseball is always a good thing, and it could boost numbers by getting more athletes to play spring ball with the high schools and then keep them engaged to combine with their rivals for Legion play.
“I could argue it either way, but I really don’t know why they’re doing it,” Slaubaugh said, adding that he would vote no if he could. “I don’t think it’s going to help our quality of baseball at all.”
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