We Need to Talk About the Pecos League

September is chugging along. As I’m writing this, there are about three weeks to go before the PBA expires. The story is starting to gain steam in the broader world of sports journalism, especially now that Pat O’Conner has retired. I expect there to be many strongly-worded think-pieces coming up in the next few weeks. This, my friends, is not one of those.

I’d like to take a moment to mention one of the dustiest corners of professional baseball–the independent Pecos League. I first became aware of the Pecos League a few years after its founding in 2010. At that time in my minor league education, I spent a lot of time squinting at PDFs published by David Kronheim AKA the Number Tamer. In those heady days of the early nineteen-tens, Number Tamer was the go-to for attendance information, and in addition to the minor leagues, he always included figures from the wacky fringe of indy ball. On the wacky fringe of that wacky fringe was the Pecos League, and I remember thinking things like why even acknowledge this rinky-dink league with teams like the White Sands Pupfish, who average a hundred or two fans per game?

But while I had my back turned in a condescending manner, the Pecos has grown into a force to be reckoned with. The league moniker originally hinted at a humble circuit of teams in the West Texas/New Mexico area, but that identity (somehow simultaneously both modest and ambitious) is obsolete. Instead, the Pecos League has expanded to California in the west and Colorado/Kansas in the north. When the California League’s Bakersfield and High Desert franchises were contracted, the Pecos scooped up both. Since losing the Triple-A Padres, the city of Tucson’s only version of pro ball has been the Saguaros franchise in the Pecos League.

I can only guess the affect of the pandemic on a league like this, but assuming they keep growing, the Pecos is at a crossroads. The pending expiration and/or renegotiation of the minor league baseball PBA has shined a spotlight on the indy leagues–a group of organizations that would normally blink from a key-chain flashlight. As it happens, the Pecos League is essentially the only independent (non-collegiate) league that operates west of the American Association’s central time zone bloc.

In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, Rob Manfred reiterated MLB’s intention to ensure that any teams that lose their PDC in the new PBA will be shuffled to another corner of the baseball world. While this intention (promise?) is relatively easy to apply to clusters of teams on the eastern seaboard, southeast, or midwest, it gets a little more tricky for teams out west. 

“Every plan we have put forward with the minor leagues involved preserving some sort of baseball in every single community that currently has it.”

Rob Manfred to the LA Times, Aug. 27, 2020

It’s fitting that this quote was in the L.A. Times, because just about an hour’s drive north of the paper’s HQ, there’s a California League team that will need a new home–the Lancaster JetHawks. Though the old list of the 42 teams slated to lose their PDC is likely to have significantly changed since it was leaked last fall, if there’s one team that is sure to remain, it is Lancaster. The JetHawks will be leaving the California League, and their place in the Cali League will likely be filled by Fresno. Read more here

So what sort of baseball can the good folks of Lancaster, CA, expect to enjoy in the coming years? Most likely, the JetHawks will follow the lead of their former Cali League compatriots–the Blaze and Mavericks–landing in the Pecos League. Assuming the league structure remains similar in a post-pandemic world, Lancaster would slot in nicely with other SoCal clubs like the Bakersfield Train Robbers and Wasco Reserve, as well as the four other clubs in northern California. 

Lancaster is certainly not the only western team that doesn’t have a simple answer for post-affiliation baseball. While I expect the Pioneer League to continue under the auspices of MLB–probably as a “Dream League” of undrafted players–the current map of teams isn’t that geographically tenable. In the southern portion of the league, the Rocky Mountain Vibes of Colorado Springs are already on something of an island. They are the only club in the circuit in central or eastern Colorado, and their only saving grace is the Grand Junction Rockies on the western edge of the Centennial State. The Grand Junction franchise is owned by the Colorado Rockies, and I have a hard time imagining how a team like that would exist without MLB affiliation. Beyond that, the nearest teams to Colorado Springs are in the Salt Lake suburbs, and you may as well take a plane at that point. The new Pioneer League could be well-served by emphasizing the northern (Montana, Idaho) portion of the map, and cutting some of the southern teams loose. 

Where would baseball teams in cities like Colorado Springs and Grand Junction find a home? Geographically speaking, the Pecos League is the best and only option. Pecos markets like Santa Fe, NM, Trinidad, CO, and Garden City, KS are relatively close to the Colorado markets. Heck, if the Pecos League is really ambitious, they could occupy cities throughout northern Arizona and Nevada, and that could be a future home for Utah-based Pioneer League cities like Orem and Ogden. Suffice it to say that for MLB to honor its commitment to finding homes for teams like the JetHawks and Vibes, some interaction with the Pecos League could be on the docket. For illustration, here’s a map of the current Pecos League teams, with some blue stars added for Lancaster and Colorado Springs. 

pecos with stars

Baseball America‘s J.J. Cooper, the lead reporter on the entire PBA story, has mentioned a few times (not sure which articles/podcasts–they’re all blending together at this point) that at the Winter Meetings in December 2019, MLB officials sat down with representatives of the independent leagues with a plan to keep a closer relationship–fitting in well with Rob Manfred’s “One Baseball” philosophy. I seem to remember hearing that the Atlantic League, American Association, and Frontier League had seats at the table. As weird as it is for me to think about MLB and indy ball on good terms, all three of these leagues’ presence at the meetings makes good sense.

The Atlantic League has already had a partnership with MLB, and last season they famously tested out newfangled baseball rules, including robo-umps. The American Association and Frontier League were a bit of a surprise, though it’s auspicious that indy baseball legend Miles Wolff stepped down as commissioner of the American Association recently–Wolff’s beef with MLB goes back at least thirty years. I suspect inclusion of the Association and Frontier League is due in no small part to the possibility of at least on Association team (the St. Paul Saints) expected to come to affiliated ball, as well as the likelihood that some MiLB teams that are losing their PDC (think Lexington Legends, Jackson Generals, etc.) would be best-served by joining these two central-U.S. indy leagues. What I haven’t heard, however, is whether or not Pecos League commissioner Andrew Dunn had a seat at the table.

A little bit of Googling will tell you that Andrew Dunn has a reputation as something of a loose cannon. I won’t use this space to criticize someone I’ve never met, but let’s just say that Andrew Dunn’s loose cannon reputation makes other loose cannons seem, well, tight. The Pecos League, especially in the early years, was criticized for being a fly-by-seat-of-the-pants organization at best. 

Despite Dunn’s unsavory reputation, he has shown admirable grit in being able to continue to keep the Pecos League afloat and providing an opportunity for indy ball in the southwest. By extension, a great many young baseballers have been able to keep their dream afloat. A Minor League Geek reader who shall remain nameless used to coach in the Pecos League. He had this to say about Andrew Dunn: 

For all his warts he’s provided an opportunity to a lot of guys. I think that league is up to four guys who’ve made it to the big leagues. He’s nuts but a lot of guys have gotten a chance because of his Wild West league.” 

The Pecos League is not going away. If anything, it’s likely to continue to grow. The healthiest thing for all parties is probably for the league to fully embrace being the representative indy circuit for the southwestern US, even if it means buttoning up and meeting the One Baseball zealots halfway. If MLB didn’t save a seat at the table for Andrew Dunn, they should have. Manfred and Co. want to keep their promise to Lancaster (and maybe the Colorado clubs) and they may have no other choice but the Pecos League.

One last thought: the Pecos League really needs a new name. They’ve already far outgrown the regional moniker–how ridiculous is it that the Santa Cruz Seaweed and San Rafael Pacifics play in a league named after a river in New Mexico and Texas? Expansion will only exacerbate the misnomer. Following the lead of the MLG reader I quoted above, may I humbly suggest the Wild West League?

A wild name for wild times. Thanks for reading and keep checking out the 2020 PBA coverage.