Today the Appalachian League season comes to an end except for its four playoff teams. The Bluefield Blue Jays will play their last innings of 2012 in a regular-season finale in the mountains of East Tennessee, unlike last year’s squad that reached the Appy League championship round.
The second year of Blue Jays baseball will end with a sub-.500 record, partly the result of a more inexperienced group of players trying to solve the riddle of professional ball.
For most Appalachian League franchises, their fortunes rise and fall not only on the individual talent arriving in town, but on organizational decisions as the season progresses.
Bluefield manager Dennis Holmberg said, “Last year, we were in a position, competing to win a championship, and the organization did what they could do to help. We had a fine ballclub, too.”
This time around, the next level up in the Toronto farm system, the Vancouver Canadians, are fighting to reach the playoffs in the Northwest League.
“So we’re trying to help Vancouver get over the hump,” Holmberg said on Saturday night. “They’ve got about a week to go. We’ve sent a number of guys up ... . We counted up about 13 guys who’ve been here, along with two guys being traded over to the Astros.”
To take their place, players have made their way to Bluefield from the sunny south for the final weeks of the Appy League season. That included D.J. Davis, Toronto’s first-round selection in the June draft.
Of course, Toronto is not the only franchise that shuffles their minor-league rosters as the summer wears on.
Holmberg said, “If you look around the league, there’s been a lot of No. 1 kids that have come up, graduated out of the Gulf Coast League and got into the Appalachian League. Just a little higher level of competition, to see what they can do.”
This year he said there has been “a lot of change, a lot of movement, much more than I’ve ever seen at this lower level.”
After years in the business, he welcomes each arrival as an opportunity to teach.
“You’ve got players sprinkled throughout the organization,” he said. “Some are better than others and some are not as good as others. But each player brings something to the table.”
Pitcher Brandon Dorsett said after his Saturday relief performance, “A guy like me, I’m a senior out of college, I’m out there trying to prove myself every game. That’s what I try to do, not try to do too much, and stay in there mentally. That’s what you’ve got to do.”
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So the rituals played out after Bluefield’s last home game, on Saturday night at Bowen Field.
Players in their bright-white-and-blue uniforms, fresh off the field, sat down in the courtyard behind a long line of plain plastic tables and started signing autographs for fans of all types before the faithful left the ballpark one last time.
The Blue Jays’ 7-0 defeat of Kingsport no doubt helped, but all involved had smiles on their faces as they patiently scribbled their names on baseballs, programs, newly-distributed card sets — and T-shirts on the backs of fans.
Holmberg said of the fans, “It leaves them with a little bit of a good taste in their mouths.”
One of those players was Seth Conner, named the team’s most valuable player by coaches’ vote. He’d been honored at a luncheon earlier in the day.
“It was truly humbling,” he said on Saturday as he signed memorabilia. “I didn’t expect it. It was a really cool experience. I’m grateful to my teammates and to the coaching staff for all the help they’ve been this year.”
He said one of the season’s highlights for him was to help Holmberg obtain his 1,300th managerial win.
“He taught me so much,” Conner said. “Learning day-in, day-out from that guy was just amazing.”
The coaches’ selection as outstanding starting pitcher was Jeremy Gabryszwski and the top reliever was Griffin Murphy. The boosters club chose first baseman Art Charles as its most valuable player, though he has moved up to Vancouver.
Tom Bone is a Daily Telegraph sports writer and editorial cartoonist. Contact him at tbone@ bdtonline. com.