By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
It hasn’t always shown in the attendance figures, but baseball might just be back in Bluefield.
Even though the Blue Jays had to watch the Johnson City Cardinals celebrate a second straight Appalachian League championship on Sunday night at Bowen Field, all was not lost.
The way Dennis Holmberg looks at it, the Blue Jays won three championships — the Mercer Cup, the East Division title, and defeating Elizabethton to advance to the finals for the first time since 2002.
The way Chris Maxwell described it in a somber clubhouse after the 4-1 loss, the Blue Jays helped reinvigorate baseball in a community that was reeling at this point last year with the loss of the Orioles after 53 years.
“You made a town that was dead ... baseball was dead here,” Maxwell said. “They didn’t care, they didn’t love it, they couldn’t get behind it, they struggled, they thought they were going to lose it ... .”
It had shown on the field. The Bluefield Orioles had eight straight losing seasons, never finished higher than third and the dwindling interest was evident by the empty seats, and lots of them.
A new bird flew into town from Toronto, and Maxwell told the Blue Jays’ players that they had a brought with them renewed excitement for baseball that played out every night on the field.
“What you have done more than the Mercer Cup and more than anything else is you have brought life and love and baseball back to this community,” Maxwell said. “It is going to be an easy go for us now. You have built a foundation.
“This first year people loved it, I can’t tell you how important that was more than anything else, for the Toronto Blue Jays and this city.”
Led by Holmberg — Bluefield’s first manager of the year since John Hart in 1982 — the Blue Jays were paced on the field by a trio of all-stars, including batting champion Kevin Pillar, RBI leader Art Charles and steady Chris Hawkins.
“I am very proud of the team and their accomplishments, not only on the field, but off the field,” Holmberg said.
“To me that is very important, the character and make-up of the guys, it is not just what you do out there, it is what you are going to do in the community, where you are staying, where you are going to eat, how you dress, how you walk, how you talk.
“They have to move on with this experience and remember it. They are champions, in my mind they are winners and take it with them next year with whatever club they will play on.”
Few, it any, will be back. That is just part of baseball in the minors. They certainly won’t forget their time in Bluefield.
“It was something I will remember for the rest of my life, going through this, the playoffs and over the season,” Charles said. “The new kids on the block, coming in and making a statement and throughout the playoffs, it was unbelievable, I loved it.”
Bluefield simply couldn’t get runners on base in the championship series with Johnson City.
They only managed three hits in two games, but the Cardinals still needed a ninth-inning rally to win the opener, and then got just enough production and a spectacular leaping catch to rob Pillar of a home run to wrap up their second straight title.
“Right now it is disappointment, but when you look back on the whole year, just from the camaraderie standpoint and what we accomplished,” Pillar said, “we had goals along the way, winning the Mercer Cup, winning our division and getting to this point in the championship.
“The season wasn’t unsuccessful. We just fell a little short.”
Minor league baseball isn’t — ultimately — about winning championships. It is about developing your game and then moving forward in the system, with an eye toward the big leagues.
No one developed more than Pillar, who began the season barely playing, and ended it as perhaps the best player on the team. He gives the credit to the Toronto organization, and particularly to hitting coach Kenny Graham.
“It was stuff I knew I was capable of, but he allowed me to bring it out every day, he got the best out of me every day,” said Pillar, a 32nd round draft choice in June from Cal State Dominiquez Hills. “For that I thank him tremendously.”
“The season personally was a success, but when you play a team sport it is about this, a championship game.”
It hasn’t been an easy climb for the Blue Jays. The roster has changed often, especially late in the season when starting pitchers Noah Syndergaard and Aaron Sanchez joined another former Jay, David Rollins, with a promotion to Vancouver, and Mitch Taylor was sent home for disciplinary reasons.
There was a revolving door at times, but Holmberg couldn’t complain. That’s part of the game.
In fact, only moments after Bluefield’s loss to Johnson City on Sunday, he met with Tyler Ybarra and Ajay Meyer and informed them that their season would continue in another playoff series in the Toronto system.
“They are here to get better and show improvement and arms like Snydergaard and Sanchez have great futures and they weren’t rushed,” Holmberg said. “They just wanted to let them get to the next level to expose them to maybe a little better competition.”
When Baltimore left and Toronto arrived in Bluefield, the Blue Jays brought with them a philosophy to build through their system, something the Orioles used to do.
It has shown this season for the Blue Jays, and not just in Bluefield. Of the seven teams in the Toronto system, five made the playoffs, and they had four managers of the year.
Bluefield will return as defending East Division champions. Who will be part of the team won’t be known until next June.
“Next year’s cast of characters will be totally different with the exception of I don’t know who, but certainly everyone here should be moving on to some extent,” said Holmberg, a veteran manager who won’t know his own destination either for a while.
What lies ahead for this year’s edition of the Blue Jays remains to be seen. They will leave behind a select group of baseball fans who will endure the next nine months without minor league baseball by remembering the magical season it was.
As for the players, most won’t be back, but Bluefield will always be part of their lives.
“I loved every minute of it, it was competitive baseball out there and it was close games,” said Charles, another Californian drafted in the 20th round in 2010, who was then listed as a pitcher, not a slugging first baseman.
“The fight is what I will remember the most, it was great going through the season with my teammates. It was a wonderful group of guys, the team chemistry was off the charts. Our manager, our staff, our hitting coach, everybody throughout the season was great.
“It is something I am going to remember for the rest of my life. I loved every minute of the season.”
— Contact Brian Woodson