Jerry Carter: Notes on the end of another summer wood bat season
The Valley Baseball League and the Appalachian League are separated by just over 100 miles at their closest clubs on Interstate 81. Those clubs would be Staunton (VBL) and Pulaski (Appy) for the Rand McNally fans out there.
Prior to the combination of the COVID pandemic and Major League Baseball trying to realign its farm system, the two long-standing leagues had very little in common other than sharing real estate in our beautiful Commonwealth. My, how things have changed in a very short period of time.
The 10 teams in the Appalachian League were left on the outside looking in after the realignment and suddenly were shifting their operations to a summer wood bat league with the biggest difference being the new project came with USA Baseball financial backing.
Another difference between the two leagues is that the Appy is open to players that have completed their freshman and sophomore seasons versus the leagues that welcome players after their junior campaign.
Tonight’s typing is being done on the campus of Tusculum University just outside Greeneville, Tenn., as the initial season of summer ball for the Happy Appy, as it’s known to many, concludes with a winner-take-all championship game between visiting Pulaski and the homestanding Greeneville Flyboys.
Pulaski clinched the highly competitive Eastern Division over the Princeton WhistlePigs on the next to the last night of the season to earn the trek across the Tennessee state line to face the Western Division champions. The Flyboys played a few less games than the River Turtles due to an midseason issue with the Kingsport Axes, and their higher winning percentage earned the team the right to host the inaugural championship game.
Fans and leaders of the Valley Baseball League might want to pay a little more attention to their neighbors to the South now, as the two groups have switched from apples and oranges to just apples and the southern apples, bigger farmers tending to the crops, if you will.
USA Baseball swings a mighty big bat, pun intended, and there are many ways the Appy operates that might could help the VBL, if they could be duplicated. Not every single idea is a game changer, but quite a few could make a difference between success and failure for clubs struggling with the day-to-day grind of hosting summer baseball.
Let’s start with the format that has me in the greater Greeneville area tonight. By having each team play all the way through the entire schedule and then taking one night off before hosting an everything on the line game, it gives you a multitude of bonuses.
First, it gives every team the opportunity to play for two extra weeks. Yes, you might lose out on some playoff baseball gates under this format, but it gives the lesser teams all of the home gates possible.
Second, it gives players, families, host families, hard-working volunteers and college coaches an exact finish date. This season the players from Covington (COVID), Purcellville and Front Royal had their seasons end much sooner than the four teams that were eliminated in the opening round (Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, Woodstock and New Market). The revolving exit door swung open a third time after Strasburg eliminated Winchester and Waynesboro extinguished the hopes of Staunton in the semis.
Strasburg and Waynesboro battled all the way to the finish line before the Express claimed the championship. Four different departure dates for everyone involved creates a number of logistic issues across the board.
The atmosphere here tonight for the players on both teams is rather impressive in that every player on both teams has been standing on the top step of the dugout from the first pitch. It also gives the league one night to shine and celebrate the regular season. Club officials from around the league can bask in the moment of crossing the finish line together.
Yes, New Market, for example would have lost one playoff gate, but could have enjoyed five more home gates in its place. When the various teams are asking the incredibly dedicated host families to open their homes, they can be given a date that their visitors will be departing.
Another tool that is being used in the Appy is that Bluefield and Princeton, separated by a dozen miles, are allowing their season ticket holders to use their passes at both ballparks. So if the Ridge Runners are on the road on a Friday night, and you still want to catch some baseball, you can head over to the neighbor’s park and get your fill without it costing you anything other than gasoline.
The third noticeable difference with the Appy is that one group is responsible for running the teams clustered just below the Virginia/Tennessee state line. Not sure if this one would fit the bill in the VBL, but it sure gives you a comfortable feeling in that tough decisions would be easier to make with less people trying to protect their own interests.
Pulaski wanted as many of its fans to attend the game as possible tonight, so the team chartered a bus for any fans that wanted to catch the game without having to make the drive down the highway. They are seated in the best seats in the stadium, directly behind home plate. The cost that was charged for the trip was $20, and that included the cost of the prime seats. Quite the bargain price for the loyal fans that came down for the contest.
Greeneville just plated two runs on a flare to right field to tie the game at 6-6, setting up an exciting finish as the clock strikes 9 p.m. Both the visiting fans and the ones rooting for the Flyboys are getting their money’s worth this evening. Night has fallen, and the stadium lights are in full effect at the top of the seventh inning of an exciting ballgame.
The Appy is filled with an amazing history, as is the VBL, and I feel pretty strong about their longevity with the backing they have in place, so let’s embrace our new neighbors, take good notes and do whatever it takes to schedule an interleague All-Star contest.
Story by Jerry Carter