Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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June 17, 2014

Nearly time to play ball at Bowen once again

BLUEFIELD — Jeff Gray is the first general manager to make it two years in Bluefield since 2009.

His hopes in 2014 is to build on what the Bluefield Blue Jays brought to the region last season.

“I think the first year went well,” Gray said. “I think we had a lot of new things implemented and a lot of different things to improve the fan experience.

“Definitely, year 2, we are trying to top that and make it better experience for the fans to come out and enjoy the game and a great environment here and see the future stars of tomorrow.”

Bluefield will begin its 72th year of professional baseball and 67th in the Appalachian League on Thursday when the Blue Jays host the Johnson City Cardinals at a new-look Bowen Field. First pitch is slated for 7:05 p.m.

Gray is excited to get another season started.

“It is all about the experience and that is what minor league baseball is about,” Gray said. “Hopefully we will have a very competitive team this year and be at the top of the division and do all those fun things and with our promotional schedule and the things we have going on, that will definitely help.”

The Toronto Blue Jays are currently in their fourth year in Bluefield since replacing the Baltimore Orioles in 2011. They’ve done well, reaching the playoffs twice, playing in the Appalachian League championship series three years ago, and have already placed a player in the major leagues.

Attendance, which had been suffering in the final years of the Orioles, seems to have improved now that the Blue Jays have delivered a winning product. Gray hopes to do his part to build it even more with promotions, and lots of them.

“I think the attendance was improved last year definitely. We always want to increase that, hopefully we will help that this year with a couple of extra fireworks shows on the back end of the season,” Gray said. “I think the fans really did come out and support last year, we had a great ball club, that does help, winning does help in this job...

“Promotion-wise, you have to be ready. No matter how well the team plays on the field, you have to be prepared to have a great fan experience for everybody to have fun even if the team is not playing well, but I am sure they are going to be great this year.”

Gray understands it takes more than just baseball to get some folks to the games. That is where his job begins, looking for other ways to get them to Bowen Field.

Among the additions are three fireworks night and possibly a concert late in the season, and numerous promotions, including nights honoring the military, and giveaways such as magnet schedules, T-shirts, logo baseballs, rally towels, mini-figurines, and the list goes on and on.

“We have a lot of stuff up and down the board this season with really something for everybody,” Gray said.

Fireworks nights always bring large crowds, although this year the Blue Jays are on the road on July 4 so the usual Independence Day light show will be held on July 11.

“We will have the fireworks after that game, then we will have a fireworks show in June, July and August. Instead of just two fireworks shows we are going to have three,” Gray said. “I think those are our biggest nights of the year, everybody seems to enjoy those a lot so that will be a little different this year.”

Bowen Field also has a new look, including new turf in the bullpens and plenty of gray paint to cover up the traditional green that has been part of the facility for years. There is also a ‘beer garden’ erected along the left field fence.

“We painted the walls, changed the color scheme in the ball park a little bit, we got rid of the green and went with the gray, I think it honestly makes the ball park look a little bigger,” Gray said. “We have changed the color of the press box.

“We have put in some family sections, some new signage around, we have several great new sponsors along with the ones that we already have. Those really drive us each summer, those sponsors and our fan base.”

The actual field itself it in prime condition, thanks to the tireless work of Bluefield College baseball coach and groundskeeper Mike White and equally dedicated volunteers, led by Rocky Malamisura.

“Mike and Rocky have done an awesome job getting the field ready,” Gray said. “Every year it is a tighter deadline each year with the high schools finishing up and the college on it. We have a lot of play on it, more than most teams in this league and in minor league baseball, it takes a lot to get it done.

“We have made several additions into the ball park this year, definitely worked on some different things that needed to be done. It is stuff the fans may not really notice, but the paint should help and other working things we have done with the stadium.”

It really begins tonight for the team, when the 108th Annual Dinner Meeting of the Greater Bluefield Chamber of Commerce is held at the Bluefield Elks Club, with it being a Blue Jays’ theme.

Former major leaguer Fred McGriff and Toronto senior advisor Mel Didier will be guest speakers, and other officials will be in town, including Charlie Wilson, Toronto’s Director of Minor League Operations and Appalachian League President Lee Landers.

“That is a Blue Jays theme so we are really excited, we have a great group of folks coming in,” Gray said. “Every day it gets larger and larger with the contingent coming from Toronto so that is great, I am definitely excited to have Fred McGriff coming to town...

“We are definitely enthused when folks are coming into town and show an interest in Bluefield and professional baseball in the area.”

The opening series begins Thursday for Bluefield against the Cardinals. The first 1,000 fans will get magnet schedules. That will be followed on Friday by the first of at least six T-shirt giveaways, and Saturday will find Applebee’s sponsoring a brunch for an 11:05 a.m. start due to the Second Chance Rocks the Two Virginias concert next door at Mitchell Stadium.

Saturday will be the first of two day games this season for the Blue Jays.

“We are going to have an 11:05 start on Saturday and at the end of the year we will have a 1:05 start for the Beaver-Graham game,” Gray said. “Our schedule is a little unique in that regards, but a couple of long homestands and a couple of long road trips so hopefully that will help us out to get the fans enthused and ready to come out to the ball park.”

It has been a busy few weeks for the Bluefield contingent, with an eye toward Thursday and the start of another season.

It’s almost here. It’s almost time; Play ball.

“Rocky has done an awesome job helping us out here and putting stuff together, and Mike has done an awesome job getting this field together,” said Gray, who has five interns and a slew of volunteers. “I think it is a lot more work than some people realize to get everything going.

“I am still doing 16-18 hour days two weeks ago, we are at crunch time just trying to get everything ready, all the wall signs went up today.

“It does take an army to get this place going, but I think fans will have a great experience out here.’

—bwoodso@bdtonline.com / Twitter

@bdtwoodson.

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