Enjoying Real Baseball in the Appalachian League
I always think of the Appalachian League when I hear that old Alabama song “Cheap Seats.”
“We like our beer flat as can be.
We like our dogs with mustard and relish.
We got a great pitcher what’s his name.
Well we can’t even spell it.”
The country group was singing about following a Triple A team, which would seem a little uppity for a true Appy League fan.
Appalachian League is pro baseball at its grassroots. It’s a rookie league for players starting at about the lowest rung and it’s been in business a long time. The league began in 1937, but precursor teams were around in the area as early as 1911. The oldest Appy team I could determine that’s still around is the Johnson City Cardinals, begun in 1939.
The league has 10 teams divided into two divisions. The East has franchises in Virginia, Kentucky and the like, but the West is almost all northeast Tennessee composed of the Kingsport Mets, Greeneville Astros, Elizabethton Twins, Johnson City Cardinals and Bristol Pirates. The Bristol team, affiliated with the Pittsburgh Pirates this year after a stretch with the Chicago White Sox, is technically in Bristol, Va., but the city straddles the border of two states including our own so we can pretty much claim them too even if they’re not winning.
Legendary Big League General Manager Branch Rickey once said small towns grew ball players like corn, which legend has it is how the term “farm system” got coined. Well, the Appy League has produced its share of corn.
Players like Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Kirby Puckett and, more recently, All-Star catcher Yadier Molina got their start in the Appy.
But, that’s not really what the league is about.
It’s also not about skyboxes, craft beer, instant replay and Jumbotrons.
The Appy is more about Gizmo, the Greeneville Astros’ new mascot, an orange, furry figure that is replacing longtime favorites Tennessee Tex and Tennessee Tess this season. It’s about Dollar Thursday at Hunter Wright Stadium in Kingsport when the hot dogs and soft drinks are $1 each. General admission tickets at Joe O’Brien Field in Elizabethton are $4 (as opposed to $500-plus for a dugout seat at Boston’s Fenway Park). The average attendance at a Bristol White Sox home game last season was 700. Nearby Bristol Motor Speedway, by contrast, holds 160,000. Howard Johnson Field, home of the Johnson City Cardinals, opened for business in 1956. Team merchandise is sold from a little red building called The Birdhouse.
So, you get the idea—hot dogs, metal bleachers, steaming nights in July with moths buzzing the field lights, old wooden scoreboards and outfield fences sporting advertisements for local hardware stores. Baseball heaven if you ask me.
The Pulaski (Va.) Mariners took the league championship last year, but we won’t bring that up. Each season provides a nearly whole new group of rookies. Teams don’t even begin to know who they have on the field until after the Major League draft in early June then have about two weeks before the season begins.
The Appy is what pros call a short-season league with a regular-season schedule from June 19 to Aug. 19 this year.