Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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June 24, 2014

The commish speaks

Landers shares view of Appy League

BLUEFIELD — Lee Landers is a familiar face in Appalachian League ballparks throughout the summer season. The league president is in the midst of his first tour of the league this season and this past Saturday caught a morning game in Bluefield and a night contest in Princeton.

“Without rain I hope to visit every club in their home park the first 10 days of the season,” Landers commented.

The Appalachian League was formed in 1911 with teams in Asheville, N.C., Bristol, Va., Cleveland, Tenn., Johnson City, Tenn., Knoxville, Tenn., and Morristown, Tenn. There have been several reformations, those coming in 1921, 1937 and most recently in 1957.

Bluefield became a member of the league in 1946 and Princeton joined in 1988. In total 32 different cities have had teams in the league including Welch, Huntington and Wytheville, Va.

This season the league did not have any cities change in its composition, but there is a new major league affiliate for one of the original cities in the Appalachian League. Bristol, affiliated with the Chicago White Sox for the past 18 seasons, is now the Rookie League entry of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Landers explained how it came to be.

“I know Pittsburgh General Manager Neal Huntington a long time. He was a director in this league when he was with Cleveland, in Burlington,” Landers said. “We needed an affiliate two or three years ago and at that time he said, ‘Lee, we’ve got 105 losses. I’m staying as far away from ownership as I can.’

During last summer my running mate, Dan Mushon and his boys were in Pittsburgh and Neal saw them and came down and said, ‘Tell your buddy we’re doing pretty good right now, give me a call if you have any openings.’ So that’s how we got Pittsburgh.”

Rumors had been about for years that the White Sox were looking to pull out of Bristol for a variety of reasons. Landers said the main reason was the parent team wished to consolidate operations at its new spring training complex and competition.

“They wanted to move all their rehabs to Arizona, and they share a nice new complex with the Dodgers. They (White Sox) felt that they needed a club at a lower level, it was tough competition wise with their first stop being in Bristol, and you could tell pretty much by the standings every year,” Landers said. “They didn’t really start playing well until midway through the season. They felt it would be in their best interest to move and the timing was right.”

The Appalachian League is a unique creature in that each team is owned by the parent Major League Club and the majority of the teams are operated locally.

“The big league club can operate them outright with their own people, or enter into a management arrangement with somebody to operate it on their behalf,” Landers pointed out. “The only teams that operate with their own people are the Atlanta Braves in Danville and the Houston Astros in Greeneville. Last year the New York Mets operated the Kingsport franchise themselves.”

In Bluefield, the Blue Jays are operated by Bluefield Baseball Club Inc. George McGonagle is president of that organization and Jeff Gray is general manager. Princeton is run by Princeton Baseball Association, Inc. Mori Williams is the president and Jim Holland serves as general manager.

Landers talked of the new local management in Pulaski.

“David Higgin, who has multiple auto dealerships on the Motor Mile in Christiansburg (Va.), took over the speedway a few years ago when it was about to shut down and as I understand he does a remarkable job there, he’s coming in with that group in Pulaski,” Landers said. “I met him in April and I sat with him the other night in Pulaski, on opening night, and he’s going to bring some new ideas and he has the backing to do it.

“It’s just a matter of the city getting together with him right now. He owns enough real estate so if that doesn’t work he can build his own ballpark.”

Landers also spoke of a new general manager in Burlington.

Asked what attracts not only fans, but major league teams to the Appalachian League, Landers, league president since 1996, shared his thoughts.

“I think it’s baseball in its truest form. We don’t have household names. As soon as somebody does have a name they get promoted, which is what we are in business for,” Landers said. “What I am most proud of is the way our local clubs are going about it. It used to be, I don’t want to say a mom and pop operation, but they closed as soon as they could after the season was over and in March they’d say, ‘Oh, we’re opening in June. We’ve got to get going again.’ Now everybody is year round.

“I think the promotions are better, I think we’re getting back into the mainstream of professional baseball. If you have a family of four or five, if you only have one baseball fan you’d better have something for everybody to enjoy or you’re not going to get them back. Your concessions have to be good...

“The young people like to run around and they like promotions... If you have a family of four, somebody is going to like some part of the ballpark. It might not be all the same things, but they’re all going to want to go to the ballpark. I take my hat off to our general managers in the league now. They recognize that.”

Prior to becoming Appalachian League President, Landers spent the previous 30 years with the St. Louis Cardinals organization. He resides in Redington Shores, Fla., which is now Appy League headquarters.

— Contact Bob Redd at bredd@bdtonline.com, Twitter @bdtredd

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