Monday, August 24, 2015

Johnson City Cardinals 9 at Burlington Royals 3 (Appalachian League) - August 22, 2015


After watching a AAA game in Charlotte, I drove 90 minutes to Burlington, home of the Appalachian League's Royals. The Appy is a ten-team rookie league, about as far away as you can get from AAA and still be pro. It is much the same as the short-season leagues, with campaigns beginning in June after the draft and many 2015 draftees on rosters. There are a few top prospects here though, but the majority is organizational filler.



The Royals play out of Burlington Athletic Stadium, which is tricky to get to, requiring a few turns once you get off the highway. There's only a single road approaching the stadium and the team draws very well, so it can get crowded before and after the game. Get there early and park near the lot exit to minimize your waiting.



The stadium was originally built in Danville, VA, but disassembled and moved south to Burlington in 1958. It is certainly vintage, with the small ticket window out front the first sign you might have stepped back in time. Tickets are $7 for GA although if you stand at the gate, you might get a freebie as I did.



Most of the seats are in the covered grandstand, which also contains the concession stands in the back, as you can see above. Below you will see the configuration, again get there early as these seats will fill up by game time. If you want a reserved seat, the blue seats below are what you need and cost $9 ($5 on Mondays).



Netting covers the entire grandstand, but you can get a clear view by sitting in the bleachers down the lines. Again, this picture was taken just after gates opened, but by game time, these were full as well. Near the end of the game, you can stand by the gate (open to the right of the photo below) and get great views of the action, something that is slowly disappearing from baseball parks across the land.



The sun sets behind the grandstand, so most of the seats are out of the glare.



The view from the general admission grandstand:



And down in the box seats:



The stadium is obviously very small, and you can complete a tour in about five minutes. As mentioned, few players reach the majors from this level, but those that do are honoured with banners on the grandstand.



Future stars (or busts) sign autographs here as well. Rally towels were given out on this evening and those were common items to be signed. Neither player was in the starting lineup so I didn't get them to sign my scorebook.



The food here was terrible (I tried a hamburger from the "grill", but it had been "grilled" approximately three days prior) but that was quickly forgotten when I found the two small bars next each end of the grandstand (below). They serve small ($3), medium ($4), and large ($5) beers with very good variety for a ballpark. The large come in reusable mugs ($2), a great idea for season ticket holders. They even have seats so you can chat with the bartender should the game not be to your liking. On this night, I guess the bars were full.




Overall, I really enjoyed this place. The crowd was energetic, the reusable beer mug is a great souvenir, and there are few distractions. They just need to upgrade their food offerings to make Burlington a premier minor league destination.

The Game



Another intriguing pitching matchup, with Ashe Russell (21st overall pick this year, KC's #2 prospect, above) taking on Ronnie Williams (2nd round, 2014 and St. Louis' #14 prospect) for the Cardinals. Their parent clubs are the best in the majors, but that success doesn't reach down to this level: Johnson City came in last in their division, while Burlington ranked 4th in theirs.



Both starters were solid through three frames, with Russell giving up a couple of walks while Williams faced the minimum after a single was erased on a double play. In the 4th, Russell yielded a double before retiring two batters. He was then pulled having reached his pitch limit (he tossed 51 pitches). Andre Davis (8th round, 2015) relieved and immediately gave up a homer to Allen Staton, (UDFA, below) that opened the scoring. Xavier Fernandez (11th, 2013) replied with a solo shot in the bottom of the inning to halve the deficit.



Williams was very efficient, having thrown only 49 pitches through 5 frames, but in the sixth he tired, giving up a walk, wild pitch, and RBI single to Tanner Stanley (36th, 2015, below). Williams was replaced by Juan Caballero who gave up a single to Fernandez and an RBI double to Brandon Dulin (12th, 2013) that blew the save. He did manage to record the final two outs of the inning and we went to the homestretch all tied at 3.



In the top of the 8th, Gabriel Cramer relieved and walked three around a single. Christian Flecha was brought in to face Staton with the bases loaded and Staton greeted him with a grand slam that ended the suspense. Another run in the ninth made this another six-spot victory for the road team (Charlotte lost 6-0 earlier in the day). Staton gets the PTW award with two dingers and six RBIs.



This was like two games in one - it moved quickly when the starters were on the mound, as the hitters were unable to do much, but once the relievers came in, it really started to drag. This is entirely to be expected and something that happens often at this level, at least when you have two top prospects.

Notes

This was my first Appalachian League ballpark. Only have the Pioneer League (the other rookie circuit) left. Safe to say I'll be in Montana next year.

One youngster informed me that he would be playing for the Royals when he grew up. I asked him what position and he said second. His confidence came from being the only one on his team having made a diving catch. When I questioned his hitting, he honestly replied "Not the best in the world". That sort of realism from a six-year-old is surprising.

Trivia: Charlotte and Burlington are the two cities with namesakes in the minor leagues: the Charlotte Stone Crabs play in the Florida State League, while the Burlington Bees play in the Midwest League. There are two other location names with two minor league teams: West Virginia and Tri-City.

Best,

Sean

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