There’s a new trophy awaiting in the region’s minor league baseball rivalry, and the first volley in capturing that prize for 2014 begins this evening.
The 23rd year of the Mercer Cup commences with the Bluefield Blue Jays hosting the Princeton Rays at Bowen Field, with first pitch scheduled for 7:05 p.m.
“The Mercer Cup, we feel, is probably the best rivalry in minor league baseball because of the proximity of the cities involved,” Princeton General Manager Jim Holland said on Monday.
“No matter what kind of year we are having, or Bluefield is having, there’s always that Mercer Cup there to play for,” he said.
Bluefield General Manager Jeff Gray said he heard about the series between the nearby cities before he even settled into town a couple of years ago.
“Actually, it was from the Blue Jays organization,” Gray said. “I’d heard about it through them and through (Bluefield manager) Dennis Holmberg. It is known all around minor league baseball, as a big rivalry in the Appalachian League and throughout minor league baseball.”
The Cup has been presented annually since 1992 to the winner of the season series between the teams from the two cities. When Holland came up with the idea, the Bluefield Orioles and Princeton Devil Rays were the competing teams.
Bluefield holds a 13-9 all-time lead, including the 1994 season in which the Orioles retained the cup after the series ended with five wins by each club.
The Rays and Blue Jays have alternated the series championships over the past four years. Bluefield took the series 10 games to one last summer — the second-most-lopsided victory margin in the history of the Mercer Cup.
Gray said about the run to the 2013 cup championship, “I think the fans really came together; the players showed a lot of heart and hustle on the field. They showed how much the team means to the area and how much the area means to the team.”
The two clubs jointly purchased a new trophy recently, which was unveiled last month. It will be inscribed with each winner of the past 22 years with room for 18 more.
Gray said, “Jim Holland and I worked very closely over the winter to design something and make something that we think both teams in the area will be proud of, and it recognizes all teams in the league, all the teams that have played in the Mercer Cup ... .”
The giant trophy awarded last summer is still in the Blue Jays’ clubhouse, Gray said.
The new trophy “really recognizes every team that’s won, not just the last few years,” Gray said.
Under the previous rules, if one city’s team won the Mercer Cup three years in a row, that physical trophy would be “retired” and permanently held by that team. A new cup would then be crafted.
Gray said, “It is something that we really feel will be unique this year. We have eliminated the rule that after you win it three straight years you get to keep it. Now it is just going to be a rotating trophy, no matter what.”
Holland said the Mercer Cup competition “gives the fan bases in Princeton and Bluefield just another reason to come to the ballgames. For every game, we want it to be value added for the fans, and this will provide still another extra reason to attend the games.”
Gray said, “I think it draws everybody together, a rallying piece that allows us to rally, not only for the league championship but also the bragging rights in Mercer County.”
The beginning of each Mercer Cup series is a fresh start.
“Every year is different,” Holland said. “The players are different every year. ... But I know, in both organizations, the players know about it. They’ve probably talked about it with other players who have played in the series in the past.”
Holland also mentioned that the two clubs are cooperating in the midst of the Mercer Cup series to help out a local cause, the Jonathan Powell Hope Foundation, with two special evenings to be known as the Jonathan Hope Games.
The home team on July 12 in Princeton and on Aug. 7 in Bluefield will wear special light-blue jerseys. Fans will have the opportunity to until the end of the seventh inning to bid on their favorite player’s jersey, and phone bids will also be accepted.
At each game’s conclusion the winning bidders will be brought onto the field to receive the jersey off the designated player’s back.
All money collected will be donated to the foundation, whose mission is to eradicate childhood cancer through research, advocacy and education, as well as to provide financial and other types of support to children with cancer.
The special jerseys were purchased by Bill Cole Auto Mall, the corporate sponsor for the two games.
Game notes: The promotion for today’s game will be baseballs to be given out to the first 250 fans, with the logos of the Blue Jays and sponsor Kicks radio. ... Probable starting pitchers are a pair of right-handers, Princeton’s Hyrum Formo and Bluefield’s Joey Aquino. Both were collegians in the Southwest — Aquino at San Diego Christian College and Formo in Tucson, Ariz., with Pima Community College. ... The game will be broadcast on the radio by both clubs.
Contact Tom Bone at email@example.com; Twitter @BDTBone. Daily Telegraph sports editor Brian Woodson contributed to this story.