Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local Sports

June 16, 2014

Blue Jays return to Bowen Field

BLUEFIELD — If first impressions mean a lot, the Bluefield Blue Jays were impressed with their first few minutes at Bowen Field on Sunday.

Literally just off the bus, the 2014 edition of the Appalachian League team trooped through the gate beside the “Railbirds” seats along third base and stood in groups, looking at their new home for the next 2 1/2 months.

A large bunch gathered behind home plate, pointing to the forested mountain beyond the outfield. Some, following a 21st Century tradition, snapped images of the playing field on their smartphones.

“I like the view,” said new outfielder Anthony Alford, a 2012 draftee out of Mississippi. “You’ve got that mountain instead of a chain (link) fence in the outfield.”

He also liked the difference from the hot and humid conditions the team played in during extended spring training in Florida.

When he found out he was being assigned to Toronto’s Appalachian League outpost, he said, “I was excited to play under the lights, to play night games.”

The players soon returned to the courtyard near the entrance gate to introduce themselves to the box-seat holders, sponsors and season-ticket holders who were patiently sitting in wait for their traditional preseason picnic meal and pep rally.

When outfielder Josh Almonte took the microphone, he began by shouting, “Let’s go, Blue Jays!” which garnered applause.

As 6-foot-8 left-handed pitcher Matt Smoral stood before the crowd, one fan jokingly yelled out, “Stand up so we can see ya!”

Dennis Buckner of Bluefield was one of those waiting for the players’ arrival. He said he’d been attending professional baseball games at Bowen Field since the 1970s.

“It’s wholesome entertainment,” he said. “It’s just a good time to be out and socialize with my friends ... .”

“We’re fortunate, not only to have this team, but to have two professional teams in Mercer County,” a reference to the Princeton Rays.

His friend Jeff Tibbs of Bluefield, Va., said, “People really appreciate the Toronto organization for coming in here when Baltimore left, and hopefully (the Blue Jays will have) continued success.”

Buckner said about the upcoming season, “You always wonder what kind of  team we’ll have. You’re always hoping for a winning team, or a competitive team. You just wonder if this is going to be the one.”

The team’s returning manager, Dennis Holmberg, told the media, “This team is young, they’re energetic. I think they’re going to play exciting baseball.”

The immediate task, he said, “is getting them back on the field, getting them under the lights. We played daytime baseball down in extended spring.”

More long-term, he said he wants to produce “a clubhouse of harmony and chemistry ... getting people to play together. Only nine guys can play every night, and we have 31, 32 on the roster. So you’ve got to be patient and wait for your time to play.”

When Holmberg addressed the fans, he said, “We’re happy to be back in Bluefield. We’re very excited to get the season started. Believe me, each and every young man here tonight is very happy to be here.”

Carlos Ramirez, who played two years ago in Bluefield as a position player, is back with the team as a pitcher this season. Asked about his advice to first-time players coming to Bluefield, he said, “Come here to play baseball, and enjoy the city. It’s pretty quiet. That makes it good for playing baseball.”

Holmberg noted that the franchise was “proud owners of (the Mercer Cup) twice in the last three years. These players will be up to speed about its meaning to the fans and the city.”

The Mercer Cup is presented to the team winning the overall season series between the Bluefield and Princeton clubs.

He said in his remarks to the media, “I think they (the 2014 Blue Jays) are all impressed by the ballpark.”

“It’s a great league; great competition,” he said.

He said Bluefield had “a great run last year” with a team that averaged 20.3 years of age.

It’s another young team this year, but among the players are several college players for whom the season is “an opportunity, a chance,” Holmberg said.

He advised that the roster will likely see some changes “in the next two weeks” as players are shuffled among Toronto’s minor-league clubs. Some athletes could be added to Bluefield from the Vancouver farm club, he said.

The bus carrying the team pulled up at the front of Bowen Field just in time, as the hot dogs began to brown on the grill.

The players, coaches and Holmberg emerged wearing large straw hats with the Toronto emblem on the blue hatbands.

The hats came from a promotion that took place about two weeks ago in Toronto. An image of former Bluefield player Kevin Pillar, now with the parent club, wearing the hat showed up on a website.

That got people thinking about outfitting the Bluefield team in the hats.

“We needed about 40 hats,” Holmberg said. “They had that many ... and they just happened to have some people in Toronto who brought them down.”

“I think it’s a nice fit,” he said.

Jeff Gray, Bluefield’s general manager, said a lot of effort has gone into “behind-the-scenes” work to prepare the facility, owned by the city of Bluefield, for this season. That includes work in the bullpens, and painting.

“Every year it’s a new adventure,” Gray said. “I’ve got to credit our interns, our staff and volunteers. It does help to get things ready.”

He said there are six interns at Bowen Field this summer, and two or three key volunteers pitched in to work prior to the team’s arrival.

Gray mentioned the contributions of Mike White, the director of field operations.

“Mike White’s done a great job getting the field ready, given the resources we have,” the general manager said.

Mountaineer Lanes on Cumberland Road in Bluefield is again offering a chance for area youth to bowl free with Blue Jays team members, and get a few autographs, today from noon to 2 p.m.

Bluefield begins its 2014 Appalachian League campaign on Thursday at Bowen Field, taking on the Johnson City Cardinals at 7:05 p.m.

Alford said, “I think we have a lot of great talent. The biggest thing is for us to learn to play together. The main thing is to have fun, and to learn.”

— Contact Tom Bone at tbone@bdtonline.com

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