Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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June 19, 2014

Diamonds of value: Appy League teams help our region

— — When the umpire yells “Play ball!” this evening, the 2014 Appalachian League season will begin at our two local professional baseball parks.

It’s more than a couple of baseball games, though. The Bluefield Blue Jays and Princeton Rays mean money and prestige for our region.

Combined, the two ballclubs generate around $7 million for the economy, a figure that has grown over the years and is expected to continue to increase, Princeton general manager Jim Holland has said.

Much of this money is flowing in from outside our area. The players, coaches, scouts and instructors are paid by their big-league clubs. Officials are paid by the league. Tourists, parents and friends of players, and even one-day visitors bring additional revenue to the economy.

Most will be eating locally, buying gasoline for their return trip, and perhaps spending a night or two at a local lodging place and taking in a round of golf. That revenue will continue through the end of the season in late August.

The overall impact is “very under-rated,” as Bluefield general manager Jeff Gray said.

The other part of the financial equation is the money spent by local residents that help keep the doors open.

Fans buy tickets, and often get a free giveaway or win a prize as part of their evening. Season ticket holders get an even better bargain on their investment. All receive a low-cost evening of entertainment, whether the home team wins or loses.

Advertisers buy outfield signs and ads in game programs, and some underwrite special promotions at the ballpark, all raising the profile of their business and their perception as good neighbors who support the local team.

It’s “a massive combination that helps support us,” Gray said.

Mercer County is the only county in the United States with two professional baseball teams, and both have drawn upon community support to remain viable over the decades.

Hunnicutt Field, the home of the Rays, is on property owned by the Mercer County school system, while the Blue Jays hold a peculiar distinction of playing at Bowen Field, which is owned by the West Virginia city of Bluefield but lies just across the state line in Virginia.

If you hang around the ballparks long enough, you will hear stories of how players who rose up through the ranks to the major leagues still remember their professional starts in Bluefield or Princeton — particularly the forested mountainside beyond the outfield wall at Bowen Field.

It is with pride and a sense of personal connection that local citizens point to the names of a major leaguer who has helped his team to victory, and remember watching him as an Appy League player for one of our local teams.

There is no long-term guarantee that minor league baseball will remain in either town. Finances are fragile in the minors, and the hard times of our local economy continue to put a damper on the teams’ ability to grow the income sector of their budget sheets.

The support of local businesses and government — and of everyday people buying tickets to the games on a regular basis — are key to the continuation of the tradition of pro baseball in our region.

It makes a big difference, both in terms of finances and civic pride.

The diamonds will shine brightly tonight in Princeton and Bluefield — diamonds that carry a lot of value.

See you at the ballpark.

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