It seems a lifetime ago, but when my baseball playing days ended after four years of college, I put my English degree in the closet and traveled the Western half of the United States while working a sales job. When Mount St. Helens erupted on Mother’s Day that year, I abandoned plans to spend the summer in scenic Coeur d’Alene, Idaho — the volcano’s ash had blown northeast — and went a bit south to Eugene, Ore.
I soon found myself frequenting the minor league ballpark, home to the Eugene Emeralds, a Class A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. The Ems’ best player was a future major league star, Eric Davis, and I’ll never forget seeing him flash his immense skills of power, speed and defense.
The Ems had previously been the Triple-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies, with Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski among the players coming through Eugene.
Playing his first professional games in Eugene was Reggie Jackson, the second pick in the 1966 draft by the A’s (the Mets made long-forgotten catcher Steve Chilcott the first pick).
The Ems are a Class A short season team in the Northwest League now, and the most recent star to play there is Washington’s Trea Turner.
Suffice to say — and Colorado Springs Sky Sox General Manager Tony Ensor has said it plenty — there is a lot of talent at all levels of the minor leagues. And Ensor insists there will still be quality players coming through the Springs even when the Triple-A team leaves town after the 2018 season.
As the Triple-A team moves to San Antonio, Texas, the Class A short season team from Helena, Mont., will move into Security Service Field in the Springs for the 2019 Pioneer League season.
“We’ll have very talented professional baseball players on the field,” Ensor said. “There have been a lot of great players that came through the Pioneer League — like Joey Votto, Kris Bryant, Ryan Braun and Josh Donaldson, and Hall of Famers like George Brett, Andre Dawson and Frank Robinson.”
A dozen former Pioneer League players were picked for the 2017 Major League Baseball All-Star game.
Ensor, who has spent 13 years as Sky Sox general manager, knows that many baseball fans in the Springs are disappointed to lose their Triple-A franchise. Triple-A displays the most advanced minor league talent, and players are hungry to take the final step to the big leagues.
But the writing was on the wall that the Sky Sox would eventually leave the Springs when their 21-year affiliation with the Colorado Rockies was not renewed following the 2014 season. The Rockies opted to sign the Albuquerque Isotopes as their Triple-A affiliate.
The Sky Sox signed a two-year agreement with the Milwaukee Brewers, as their Triple-A franchise, for the 2015-16 seasons and renewed that two-year contract through the 2018 season.
The Class A Helena team is also a Brewers affiliate.
Minor league teams often change affiliation — the Eugene Emeralds have changed 10 times since their inception in 1959 — although the Sky Sox have only been with the Cleveland Indians (1988-92), Rockies (1993-2014) and Brewers (2015-present) since moving here from Hawaii (they were the Islanders) following the 1987 season.
The Elmore Sports Group owns the Sky Sox along with the Helena team and the San Antonio team, which will move to Amarillo, Texas, and remain in the Double-A Texas League. The San Antonio Missions are affiliated with the San Diego Padres.
Ensor, who works for Elmore Sports Group, expects to remain in Colorado Springs with the Class A Sky Sox.
“I haven’t determined that yet. We’ll work it out over the next several months,” Ensor said. “The likelihood is that I’ll be involved with the teams in Colorado Springs and Amarillo, where they’re building a new stadium. I love the Colorado Springs community and want to be part of the team here.”
Ensor said from 2008-10, in addition to being general manager of the Sky Sox, he oversaw the Inland Empire 66ers, a Class A team in San Bernardino, Calif., that is also owned by Elmore Sports Group.
Ensor said his marketing and sales team will work just as hard to sell the Class A team to Springs baseball fans as they do the Triple-A model.
“All the great effort we put into season ticket sales, promotions, corporate outings will be the same — it’ll just be for 38 games instead of the 71 home games we have this season,” Ensor said. “We’ll keep the best promotions like $2 Tuesday and fireworks nights.”
The Class A team’s schedule begins in June and ends about about Labor Day, while the Triple-A team opens its season in often chilly April and concludes the first week of September.
Ensor said the new business model beginning in 2019 will make even greater use of Centennial Banquet Hall, located above the right-field line at Security Service Field. The hall already hosts about 210 events on days there are not games at the stadium.
“Our off-day revenue is very good,” Ensor said. “We have an executive chef and our own catering operation. It’s a unique venue for our city, overlooking the field. We host business groups, networking groups, church groups and military groups. We’ve had Christmas parties there.”
The Sky Sox are enjoying one of their best seasons since coming to the Springs, and are in position to make their first playoff appearance in 20 years. After Thursday’s doubleheader (1 p.m. and 6:40 p.m. start times), the team will have 12 home games remaining, with the possibility of five more home games in the playoffs the second week of September.
Editor’s note: Read more about the economic impact of the Sky Sox moving to San Antonio in the Aug. 11 issue of the Colorado Springs Business Journal.