Paul Klee: Why is baseball's Pioneer League deciding games with a Home Run Derby? Because they're smart (and need to)

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Paul Klee, The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
·4 min read
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May 3—DENVER — The great idea came from the same place that most great ideas come from.

Someone else.

This time it came from Justin Turner. Yes, that Justin Turner, the redheaded and redbearded Dodgers slugger. Forget for a second how he punishes the Rockies and soak in his genius.

"This is my opportunity to push for a home run derby in extra innings," Turner said last year.

The Pioneer League — home to your favorite and mine, the Rocky Mountain Vibes — listened.

"I'm happy to steal peoples' great ideas," Pioneer League president Mike Shapiro told me. "His idea was different. We massaged it a bit. But yeah, thank you, Justin Turner. Great idea."

Fantastic idea.

Deep breath, baseball purists. Go cheer the cutoff man somewhere else for a minute. The Pioneer League is shaking things up, and Lord knows pro baseball around these hills needs a proper shake-up. Starting this season — opening day is May 22 at UCHealth Park, and I can't recommend the experience enough — extra innings is being replaced by a Home Run Derby. They call it the "Knock Out" format.

Love it. Make every night $1 hot dog night, and where do we sign up for season tickets?

Say the Vibes are tied with the Grand Junction Rockies in a thriller. No 10th inning here. Each side chooses a slugger and his pitcher, most likely the coach who tosses batting practice ("It will put a premium on a BP guy who can throw strikes," Shapiro says). The batters get five pitches apiece and whoever bombs the most dongs wins. If it's tied after five pitches they flip a coin to determine the first batter, and off we go to sudden death. The drama! Let's go! Every 6-year-old in attendance is on her feet.

"I think it's great," Vibes president Chris Jones said Monday. "It gives people reason to stick around for the whole thing."

The sheer novelty of the "Knock Out" rule is part of the attraction, but it's not why the Pioneer League is doing it. This is independent league baseball, and independent league baseball needs all the help it can get at the moment, if not forever. The 2020 Pioneer season was canceled thanks to COVID-19, and that stunk for serious or casual baseball fans in Colorado Springs. And Missoula, and Idaho Falls, and the kinds of places you can get a full day fly fishing the river and still make first pitch no problem. They're places that love local baseball. Same here. You're reading a guy whose beloved childhood team was the Albuquerque Dukes, with two Dukes foul balls to prove it. Somewhere.

Foul balls were part of the math with the "Knock Out" rule. More specifically, economics were the math. Jones, the Vibes president, estimates a team might go through 50-70 baseballs in a typical game. This isn't Coors Field, and that's not cheap. Beer sales are done in the seventh inning, and the costs of going 10, 11, 12 innings don't make financial sense whatsoever.

"Now you're bleeding money," Jones said.

(Unrelated note: UCCS coach Dave Hajek told me he won't manage the Vibes this season. The club hasn't announced its skipper yet.)

Indy clubs are hanging on. The 2021 Vibes will fill a 25-man roster with players from Acereros de Monclova, a Mexican League affiliate. Pioneer teams are being forced to get creative, the league president telling me he's encouraged team owners to "go to Korea or China and find a team" to fill their rosters.

"Indy ball teams are fighting for survival," Shapiro said. "You just have to figure out how to rise above the rubble."

Toss in the health factor for the players, and nine innings plus a home run derby is plenty.

"Let's say I go three extra innings and I used three extra arms and I'm in Missoula, Montana. What am I going to do then?" Shapiro said. "Am I going to hurt a kid by throwing him too long? I'm out of arms, and I've got a game tomorrow."

It's still true there are no ties in baseball. God bless it, there are now home run derbies.