Now that the initial excitement of the announcement has faded, many fans of the newly-branded Bluefield Ridge Runners baseball team will surely be as enthusiastic about the team that inhabits Bowen Field as they were about the Bluefield Blue Jays and, before that, the Bluefield Orioles.
In the meantime, Ridge Runners General Manager Rocky Malamisura wants to be certain all citizens of the Two Bluefields fully realize what a great baseball product the reimagined Appalachian League is going to be.
“What I’m finding is that, one ... we have a lot of people who don’t know that we’re going to have baseball. And two ... they don’t understand the structure. What the league is going to be and what it’s about,” Malamisura said.
“I’ve had people who are like, ‘If these aren’t going to be draft-eligible kids, the baseball is not going to be very good.’ They just don’t understand the terminology of what ‘non-draft eligible means.’”
Because the league will be comprised of off-season college baseball talent, some have come to the erroneous conclusion that the New Appalachian League — as it is so-designated on the league web site — has merely become another pick-up summer league for college players.
That isn’t the case. The Appalachian League is still owned and backed by Major League Baseball. It is also being administered by USA Baseball. The talent is being aggregated differently than it was in the rookie-league era — but it’s also different from the assumptions some folks may already be making about the quality of the talent coming here, Malamisura said. This is an entirely new thing.
“It’s by invitation only. There’s a commission that looks throughout the country. Most of these kids are already within Major League Baseball’s Player Development Pipeline,” Malamisura explained.
“The non-draft eligible aspect of it throws people for a loop. But this just means that when these kids were in high school, they signed a letter of intent to attend college and play baseball for a college. At that point, for two years whether they play or don’t play, they’re not eligible for the draft because they have made that commitment to that school at that point,” the Ridge Runners GM said.
Draft prospects, by and large, are very well educated about the process. The road to the major leagues is such that promising players in the system can find themselves side-tracked by any number of business considerations that can go sideways. A wise prospect wants to obtain as much up-front as possible at the initial signing. In an uncertain world, a back-up career obtained via the college route is also prudent.
“A player may have aspirations to be a doctor or some other career like that further down the line,” Malamisura said.
“There may be kids coming out of high school who may not be that No.1 or that No. 2 round. But they may be a No. 3 and it’s not worth it to them at that point to take their chance. If you had a free ride to UVA or to Vanderbilt — or even a partial — it would be ridiculous to risk that for a chance at a huge signing bonus,” he said.
He noted that even the best-case bonus scenarios these days have not been in line with the expectations of the past. That being the case, it often makes good business sense to play college ball for two years before participating in the draft again. Education is, after all, an asset.
“These are the kinds of questions I’ve been answering and it’s very hard to get folks to understand those things, to be honest with you,” he said.
It’s easy to forget that the rookie league structure of the Old Appalachian League had its virtues — but also its vices. The highest draft picks didn’t always stick around for long. And a lot of free agents who formed the backbone of the rosters could often be as rough-hewn as they were gifted and enthusiastic.
The best way local baseball fans are going get a true feel for the many virtues of the New Appalachian League is to spend the upcoming summer getting extremely well-acquainted with the product.
George Thwaites is the sports editor of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. Contact him at email@example.com