Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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Sports column

June 15, 2013

Column: Appy League players talented, but mostly unknown

— By the time the Appalachian League season has ended in early September, the players’ names for the Bluefield Blue Jays and Princeton Rays will be familiar to anyone who reads the local sports pages.

As least for now, the names could be changed to protect the innocent, and very few would even know.

How strange it must be for these ultra-talented athletes who will comprise the rosters of the local baseball teams this summer.

It is not like big-time football or basketball players, who we all know just from the sheer exposure of the college game. Baseball players, at the college or prep levels, receive little national attention, and only the most avid fan will recognize their names.

These are the best of the best on their high school or college baseball teams, but they will be just another talented player when they arrive in what will be their summer home for the next two-plus months.

It is strange enough for the supporters of the Jays and Rays. In reality, the fans really are cheering for the uniforms. The players change. The threads, they rarely do.

Every year in the middle of June, a different collection of baseball players arrive in Mercer County, and they become our own ‘boys of summer’ for the next 70 or so days.

And, just when you get to know them ... they are gone, and many of whom will never heard from again.

No matter how good a player may have been here in rookie ball, the obstacles that remain are huge. There are three — yes, three — levels of A-ball in most every organization, and most every player has to maneuver through those before finally reaching AA and then hopefully AAA.

Get through all those and perhaps then you can dream of a big league promotion.

Whew. That is a tall order.

Yet, for all the kids — me included — who dreamed of one day playing in the majors, there are only a select few who at least get the chance to try, and those folks will arrive in town tonight, all with a dream and a goal to attain.

These players will go through three days of workouts and community functions, followed by the start of the Appalachian League season on Thursday, with Blue-field hosting the Greeneville Astros at Bowen Field,  and Princeton traveling to face the Danville Braves.

Who are the players who will comprise the rosters of the two teams? As of Thursday night as this is being written, we still don’t have all the names.

One thing we have learned is getting rosters of the arriving teams is almost as hard as winning the Appy League title, something Bluefield has done 14 times — but not since 2001 — while Princeton won it once in 1994.

What awaits is a diverse collection of athletes. As for the names, those are secrets that even the general managers, Jim Holland in Princeton and Bluefield’s Jeff Gray, aren’t able to crack.

Some of the players, much to their dismay, will be back, having to play another season at the Rookie League level in the Appalachian League.

Some have already played a year or two on the professional level, perhaps in Florida’s Gulf Coast League, or in Venezuela or the Dominican Republic  — and those guys also face the ‘double-whammy’ of having to play baseball in a country where they can’t even speak the language.

Some of these players have been at spring training in Florida since February, and stayed there when the major leaguers and higher-level prospects moved on at the end of March.

For the last two-plus months, their lives have revolved around baseball, practicing and playing simulated games in the hot sun with more mosquitoes in attendance than people.

Some were drafted in last week’s amateur draft, either college or high school athletes, who will begin what they hope is a long baseball career in small towns in West Virginia, North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee that their parents will have to find on the map to prove they actually exist.

What they will learn is this is the 72nd season of professional baseball in Bluefield, with all but 67 of those as part of the Appalachian League, and 55 of those have been in a row. That includes the previous 52 years with the Orioles and the last three with the Blue Jays.

Princeton’s baseball history isn’t near as long, but this will be their 26th season and 25th year with a professional team, a tenure that began in 1988.

Yet, in all those years, only a few dozen players have ever made it big.

Players in Princeton will hear all about the exploits of Josh Hamilton, Carl Crawford and — more recently — Matt Moore, who started their careers at Hunnicutt Field and are now major leaguers.

Players in Bluefield will hear about Hall of Famers such as Cal Ripken, Jr. and Eddie Murray and borderline Hall of Famers Don Baylor and Bobby Grich, all of whom got their starts at Bowen Field with the Orioles.

Yet, the list doesn’t go on for very long. For every player from the Appalachian League that makes it to the big leagues, there are literally hundreds — and possibly even thousands —  that never do.

Still, the dream is alive.

Every player that arrives in Mercer County tonight, and throughout the season, will dream of playing at Baltimore’s picturesque Oriole Park at Camden Yards or the Rogers Centre — formerly the Skydome — in Toronto, or any other major league park with a team that will give them a chance.

Just who are these guys?

We will all find out over the next two-plus months. Beginning on Thursday, the Jays and Rays will play 68 games — 34 at home and 34 on the road — with just four scheduled days off.

It will start on June 20, and end — unless the teams make the playoffs — on Aug. 30. It might not seem that long, but when you are dining on fast food, living in hotels, feeling the pangs of loneliness for family and friends, and doing nothing but playing and practicing baseball day after day, it has to be a grind.

Professional baseball at this level isn’t glamorous, no matter whether it is the “bonus baby” — as they used to be called — that received a seven-figure signing bonus or Kevin Pillar, who played for Bluefield two years ago after signing a bonus of $1,000.

Some of those high-priced stars are struggling to advance, while Pillar has already reached Class AA, having compiled an overall minor league average of .323.

That is how is goes. A high-priced prospect might struggle to adjust, while a player like Pillar — who was a 32nd-round draft choice — is getting closer every day to playing in Toronto.

That is what makes the Appalachian League so much fun. Who really knows which of the players on any of the 10 teams will make it to the big leagues?

Only time will tell.

Who are these guys? We will know soon enough.

What they have to do now is make sure we remember their names.

*****

Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. He encourages feedback at bwoodson@bdtonline.com.

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