Our view: The misadventures of the Pilots have set back baseball in Grand Forks

Now, the Grand Forks Park District is consulting an attorney to find options – including refunds for this season and to possibly get out of a five-year agreement with the Expedition League.

Herald pull quote, 7/9/22
Herald graphic
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The Red River Pilots, and the Expedition League in general, have set back baseball in Grand Forks, possibly for years.

Late last month, the Pilots’ coach, Matty Holem, resigned. The players are gone, too.

“We’ve had our coach leave us a little high and dry,” Steve Wagner, the league’s commissioner, told the Herald. “We’re reloading and bringing in a new coach and continuing the season.”

Holem tells a different story, saying he left amid complaints of player safety. As reported last week by the Herald , the coach said there were a number of circumstances related to his departure, including pitcher overuse, inexperienced umpires and inadequate travel accommodations. Holem said the team's interns were expected to pay for items out of their own pocket.

Now, the Grand Forks Park District is consulting an attorney to find options – including refunds for this season and to possibly get out of a five-year agreement with the Expedition League.


No surprise here. In 2018, when it was announced the Expedition League was considering Grand Forks, we wrote “the odds are stacked against baseball in Grand Forks” noting that previous attempts – the low-level professional Varmints and the college summer-league Channel Cats – both folded after two seasons.

This summer, Wagner claims Holem is the problem, but Wagner isn’t without criticism. During the offseason, he sued a number of Expedition League teams after they opted to leave the league. In a countersuit, the teams claimed Wagner failed to live up to expectations presented to teams and owners, and that the league “has been plagued by mismanagement on the part of Mr. Wagner and a litany of bad press, all caused by the Expedition League, or those associated with him,” according to a report in the Hastings (Neb.) Tribune. The Tribune also reported that the defecting teams claimed Wagner “left behind trails of unpaid bills” while leaving failed franchises in Montana and Canada.

Even the city of Minot – home to one of the Expedition League’s best franchises – has an uncertain future in the league. That city’s park district is in discussions with the Northwoods League, a much-respected 22-team organization based mostly in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan that also has a team in Bismarck.

In 1996, the issues with the Grand Forks Varmints included unpaid bills and unmet promises. Twice, the team ran out of baseballs during games, and shortages at the concession stand were common.

In 2000, several members of the Channel Cats vandalized Kraft Field. And on fan appreciation night, the team refused to play.

In May of 2001, Herald sports reporter Virg Foss wrote something of a eulogy for adult summer baseball in Grand Forks: “Maybe Grand Forks just had enough of it.”

It took two decades for the community to remove the tarnish left by the Varmints and the Channel Cats. The misadventures of the Pilots aren’t helping, and we predict adult summer baseball in Grand Forks will be hindered because of it.

American Legion baseball is great, and Grand Forks’ program has a fine tradition. But there is something romantic and so American about watching college-level and minor-league baseball on a beautiful summer evening. But to achieve community support, it must be well-run and organized.


Could Grand Forks support a team in the Northwoods League, considering the success of the team in Bismarck and, possibly, one that could be coming to Minot? Perhaps, and especially considering planned upgrades at Kraft Field, thanks to a recent $500,000 donation by Oxford Realty. Unfortunately, after watching Expedition League games the past two years, we’re not convinced.

Going forward, anything less than a team in the Northwoods League should be ignored and outright refused.

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