The 30-year run of Triple-A baseball in Colorado Springs will end in 15 months.
The Elmore Sports Group announced Wednesday it is responding to “pressure from within Major League Baseball” and moving the Triple-A Sky Sox to San Antonio for the 2019 season and replacing it in Colorado Springs with the short-season Rookie-level team currently in Helena, Mont.
The Double-A San Antonio Missions will move to a new ballpark in Amarillo, Texas.
The Elmore Sports Group owns the three relocating teams.
The possibility of this move was reported by The Gazette in January 2016, and the Elmore family appeared with a team mascot before the San Antonio city council a few months later to announce intentions to relocate to the Alamo City. But the transaction was dependent upon the contingency of San Antonio building a new ballpark to house the Triple-A franchise.
That contingency no longer exists, and the only roadblock remaining is formal approval from the leagues involved.
“Unless something wacky happens, I don’t think there’s anything that could derail this,” said D.G. Elmore, president of the Elmore Sports Group.
The biggest impact for fans in Colorado Springs will be a drop from 70 to 38 home games and the length of time between seeing players at Security Service Field and in big league ballparks.
The team in Colorado Springs will retain the name of the Sky Sox, and the mascot Sox the Fox will still be part of the ballpark experience.
The degree of change on the field will be determined by fans’ ability to discern a difference in talent between the more refined Triple-A and Rookie Level baseball, where players are generally fresh out of college or even high school.
Current stars like Nolan Arenado, Mike Trout, Kris Bryant and Clayton Kershaw logged time in short-season levels.
“Fans are going to still get all the great promotions and see the great talent on the field that they’re used to seeing here at Sky Sox,” said team president and general manager Tony Ensor of the move to the Pioneer League, where the schedule runs from mid-June until early September, “but they’re going to get to do it in the best weather as opposed to coming out in April and May and experience some of those colder temperatures.
“The players are going to be hungry to make an impact in professional baseball, that’s what I’m excited about. Young players who want to put their best foot forward, and we get to see that talent, in many cases, right after the MLB draft and the College World Series. Those players will be coming here to Colorado Springs, and I think our fans are going to love that.”
The Sky Sox provided attendance data showing only 28 percent of its attendance over the past five years was accrued in the months of April and May, a span that accounts for roughly 40 percent of the home dates. Of the games lost to weather since 2006, 81 percent occurred in the time before the Pioneer League schedule opens.
Elmore cited weather as an issue that prompted the move, and weather has certainly played a factor in attendance. The Sky Sox crowds were the smallest in the Pacific Coast League last year and have ranked better than 12th in the 16-team league just once in the past dozen years.
Elmore, who didn't move the team through its consistent years of poor attendance, like the stretch from 2005-08 when it was last three out of five years, said the variable that changed and prompted the move was the impact of the city's high elevation.
The Sky Sox, who moved to Colorado Springs from Hawaii in 1988 as the Cleveland Indians' top farm team, had been the top affiliate of the Colorado Rockies since the franchise joined baseball as an expansion team in 1993. When the Rockies ended that relationship and moved to Albuquerque, N.M., in 2014, Colorado Springs and a stadium that towers as the nation’s highest professional ballpark didn’t make sense as the final player development destination for another franchise.
The Brewers were the last team standing in a multi-team affiliate shift in 2014 and have been paired with Colorado Springs since then by default.
“When the Rockies left there was a lot of pressure from within Major League Baseball to find some place for Triple-A other than an elevation close to 6,500 feet,” Elmore said.
The Brewers are affiliated with the Pioneer League team in Helena as well as the current Sky Sox, but affiliation agreements expire after the 2018 season so it is unknown which team will be tied to the new club in Colorado Springs. The Rockies own the Grand Junction team in that league, making them an unlikely option.
Pioneer League teams travel by bus, which will make for some lengthy trips for the Sky Sox in an eight-team league concentrated largely in Idaho, Montana and Utah.
Elmore, who is chairman of the board locally at Navigators, said he spends a lot of time in the Colorado Springs area and lamented that "it was a hard decision to make this move.”
Largely quiet on the long question of a move away from Colorado Springs, Elmore addressed two longstanding questions on the issue.
First, he said San Antonio was the only destination considered.
Second, he said it would be impossible to say if a new ballpark in downtown Colorado Springs might have prevented this move.
“I don’t know. I’d hate to speculate that, ‘Gosh, if we would have had a downtown ballpark that would have made a difference.’ It doesn’t change the elevation much, I think it’s a few hundred feet,” said Elmore, whose group owns Security Service Field and has pumped more than $10 million in capital improvements in the facility over the past 12 years. “So probably not, but I’d hate to speculate on that.”
The speculation that can finally end is whether or not Triple-A baseball will survive in Colorado Springs, and if a replacement could be found.
“What I think is great about this is it answers all those questions, the rumors, that people have had over the past year, year and a half, about whether the team was going to be leaving,” Ensor said. “This answers that question in spades. The Colorado Springs Sky Sox are not going anywhere. We just celebrated 30 years here. I expect there to be a team to celebrate 60. I think that’s going to give our fans some comfort knowing that top-level, professional, affiliated baseball will be in Colorado Springs from here to eternity. We’re going to continue to create the best fan experience that we possibly can for the next year and a half as Triple-A, and then even more so as a Pioneer League short-season affiliate.”