BLUEFIELD — Professional baseball players will no longer be making Mercer County their home every summer playing in the Appalachian League beginning in 2021.
Instead, it will be college players stepping onto the diamonds every summer at Bowen Field and Hunnicutt Field.
Major League Baseball and USA Baseball announced Friday that they will be turning the Appalachian League from a professional rookie league into a summer collegiate league.
The Appalachian League, which is owned by the MLB unlike other leagues affected by the minor league contraction process, was going to be shut down at the end of 2020. The MLB is reducing the number of teams in the minor leagues from 160 to 120 with the current agreement ending Sept. 30.
Both Bluefield and Princeton were set to lose their teams. Keeping high quality baseball here every summer was a welcome development for area officials when the new idea was presented to them.
“We’re about to get not only baseball back in Bluefield, we’re about to get phenomenal baseball back in Bluefield,” said Bluefield City Manager Dane Rideout.
More details will be released Tuesday during a video press conference but the league will feature some of the top college players from every corner of the United States. There will be 10 teams in the league, reportedly all the same teams that made up the Appalachian League, but that will be confirmed Tuesday.
While speaking with officials from the MLB during this process, the focus was on obtaining college players comparable off-season competition so that they could be better evaluated by MLB teams for the next draft.
“They said we want to create a premier wooden-bat league that focuses on freshmen, sophomores, juniors of the NCAA,” Rideout said. “Have them play like-talent with like-talent in an eight-week league. And we want to do that in the Appalachian League.”
The Appalachian League which, was one of the first leagues young players got sent to once they were ready to leave their respective teams’ complexes, has been struggling to keep up with what the teams want in regards to facilities and other team related areas.
With the MLB taking a larger role in the league there is hope that their backing will address teams’ aforementioned concerns and provide the stability for long-term investments to be made.
“I think in the bigger scheme of things, it was the right move and the right time to do it. We’re all looking forward to MLB really taking a hand in this as well and helping with the towns. I think it’s a big deal.” said Princeton City Manager Mike Webb.
Bluefield first fielded a minor league team in 1937 and has had one every year but one, winning 14 Appalachian League championships over that span. Some of the star players passing through over the years include Cal Ripken Jr., Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Eddie Murray and Noah Syndergaard.
Princeton obtained a team in 1988 and won the championship six years later. Hunnicutt Stadium has been home to many top draft picks, including Josh Hamilton and Carl Crawford along with 2018 AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell.
“I’m excited about all of this and I’m not even really a baseball person. I’ve been doing this stuff since 1993 because I love this community. That’s what hurt me when all of this went south at the end of last summer,” said Dewey Russell, the President of the Princeton Baseball Association and a city councilman.
Converting from a league within Minor League Baseball to a league filled with college players will result in every team making wholesale changes to their organizations.
“This will be a complete break from MiLB, entirely. The cleanest thing to do is make that break,” said Bluefield Blue Jays general manager Rocky Malamisura.
Teams are currently deciding on their names and rebranding everything for the new league.
The league will attempt to be similar to the Cape Cod League that takes place every summer in Massachusetts featuring the top college players in the country. Many players have used that summer league to be drafted the following summer. Over one thousand Cape Cod League players have gone on to play in the major leagues.
This will be slightly different, as the MLB will be playing a larger role in the operations of the league running the marketing efforts and helping the league grow.
“This is a new concept for MLB. The Appalachian League is the perfect place to give this is a shot and see how it works out,” Malamisura said.
Benefitted by having five teams located in the Tri-Cities area of Tennessee, the distance between the teams in the Appalachian League is one of the shortest in the country.
For scouts to be able to easily go to different games every day, it was imperative for the teams to be in driving distances of each other.
“It really got down to logistics. The ability for an eight-week season for scouts to actually observe these players in multiple locations in a 24 hour period,” Rideout said.
The average distance between teams in the Appalachian League is 122 miles which is only longer than the aforementioned Cape Cod League by 15 miles.
The two minor league teams had an estimated $10-12.5 million economic impact on the area. There is potential for that impact to be greater with the new teams if it turns into what the MLB has projected it to become.
“If it is the level of play and the level of talent that they are saying [it will be], I think you’re going to see an economic impact across the region, much more so than we saw with both teams in Princeton and Bluefield,” Rideout said.
Only four of the teams in the Appalachian League had average nightly attendances of over 1,000 in 2019 with Princeton and Bluefield at 731 and 674, respectively.
Putting together rosters filled with players who will be drafted in the first 10 rounds of the yearly selection process makes all parties confident that more fans will come through the gates every game.
“We think it’s going to have pretty amazing impact, not only on the economy, but on the attendance of the games,” Rideout said.
Splitting from minor league baseball will mean the end of the Mercer Cup which the two teams played for every year since 1992. A new way to keep the rivalry going is in the works.
“We’re discussing a new venture with that. The Mercer Cup is pretty much dedicated for professional baseball. Danny Shingleton, the general manager over there and myself have been discussing a new venture,” Malamisura said.
As Major League Baseball and its teams change their development process, reduce the number of affiliated teams and have intentions to cut down the number of rounds in the draft from 40, other leagues may be converted like the Appalachian League.
“Having all of these minor league teams… that was the former way. What we’re doing will be the future, in my opinion,” Russell said.