The first home run in Flathead Field was hit high into the sky on June 14, touching down just past the right field wall, and prompting a resounding swell of “boos” from the crowd. The two-run home run was hit by Jackson Raper of the Billings Mustangs at the top of the first inning, spoiling the start of opening day for the Glacier Range Riders.
As the Pioneer Baseball League’s newest team, the Range Riders officially formed last August and the outfit has since been pulling its operation together at top speed to prepare for the first game before a home crowd in the Flathead Valley.
Crews broke ground on the site of the new stadium between Kalispell and Whitefish last fall and worked through all seasons to prepare the new state-of-the-art stadium for the season. The stadium includes 2,500 permanent seats, 12 luxury suites and a total capacity of around 4,000, though the stadium was operating with limited capacity as construction is still ongoing.
Due to the delayed start to the home season, the Range Riders began their season with three straight weeks on the road, covering more than 2,000 miles between Kalispell, Colorado Springs, Billings and Great Falls. They won their first ever game 15-1 over the Rocky Mountain Vibes, before falling to 7-10 overall entering their first home encounter.
“There’s never been an opening day in Flathead Valley, and I definitely wanted to be here for it,” said Walt Chauner of Whitefish, decked out in a bright red Range Riders beanie. “Who would have ever thought that after a day like today, you could pull off an event like this?”
The Tuesday night game took place under a light but unrelenting curtain of rain that marked a daily record rainfall in the Flathead Valley but did not appear to deter the home team’s first wave of eager fans.
As the parking lot hit capacity prior to the first pitch, fans were directed to park at Majestic Valley Arena before catching a shuttle to the stadium.
“It was supposed to be a sold-out opening night, and even with this weather I’ve got to say it’s an impressive turnout,” Range Riders general manager Erik Moore said as the crowd quieted down for the National Anthem. “This crowd is just so stoked.”
While the stadium seats appeared to be only a quarter occupied, at least as many people milled around the sheltered concourse sipping light domestic beer and indulging the classic hot dogs and nachos.
“It’s really exceeded my expectations, not just the stadium but really the crowd today,” said Aaron Ells, who attended the game with his wife.
Those sentiments were echoed from all sides of the field.
“I’m amazed at the stadium, it’s definitely going to be a draw for both players and the fans,” Chauner said. “I see this upping the game for everyone in the league, and for teams across the country.”
In an ironic twist, Chauner also commented on the fully synthetic field that allowed Glacier to move forward with the game despite weather that prompted flood warnings around the valley.
“It’ll be amazing how many games they won’t have to cancel because of how much they invested in this stadium,” he said at the top of the fourth.
Two innings later, with Glacier (7-11) trailing 9-4, the umpires called a rain delay, a surprising call given the rain had not intensified to deluge-standards. Shortly after, the game was called.
The Range Riders’ stadium faces Glacier National Park and on a clear day several peaks will be visible from the stands, as is fitting for the team’s branding inspiration. The Range Riders’ name, mascots and logos, displayed by a majority of the fans, pay homage to the founding of Glacier National Park in 1910.
“What I love about this is that no other brand in all of sports has adopted the national parks as inspiration,” Jason Klein, partner with sports marketing agency Brandiose, said. Brandiose was also behind the rebranding of the Missoula Paddleheads in 2019.
“The brand is really inspired by the founding of the national park service, the golden age when it was just getting started at the turn of the 20th century,” Klein added. “The National Park Service today is very educational and scientific, which we love, but we were inspired by a much more rugged version of adventure that really goes back to the founding years.”
The team’s mercantile, located on the main concourse near the entrance, was a nonstop bustle of fans trying on ranger-green shirts and sizing up hats replete with the team’s twin mascots, rendering several items out of stock by the bottom of the fourth, which was when the crowd hit their loudest point of the evening.
Livingston Morris, who set the single-season home run record at Georgia Gwinnet College, broke the egg in the hit column with a single, making him the first Range Rider to earn his way to the base on his home field.
After stealing second, Morris was leading off the base when newcomer Sam Linscott, connected with the ball into center field. Morris rounded third and got the greenlight to make it across home, buoyed by his home crowd. In the stadium the Range Riders’ two mascots, Cliff the mountain goat and Huck the grizzly bear, began dancing around the concourse with a crew of laughing children in tow.
“Major League Baseball doesn’t inspire me, but this does,” Chauner said, waving his hand towards the crowd. “It’s about coming out with my friends and being part of the scene. There’s a lot happening in the world and sports are supposed to be a distraction. I’d say this is a pretty good distraction.”
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