Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Bluefield Blue Jays 3 at Greeneville Astros 4 (Appalachian League) - July 18, 2016


The final three ballparks on this Appalachian trip are within about 40 miles of each other, making it a great spot to finish the journey as I can relax and do some touring without so much driving. All three towns are in northeastern Tennessee, just south of I-81 and the Virginia border. Elizabethton, Johnson City, and Greeneville are the towns in question, and in fact, Kingsport, the first stop on this trip, is also nearby, while Bristol is less than an hour east. No other circuit has the geographic concentration of the Appalachian League (I'm ignoring the Arizona and Gulf Coast Leagues as true franchises do not play there), which is why it is a such a good destination for a short sports road trip.



The schedule mandated that I visit Greeneville on this evening, as they were completing a homestand against the Bluefield Blue Jays before embarking on a road trip. So after a tour of the Andrew Johnson Historic Site, I made my way to Pioneer Park, my 669th lifetime venue.



The stadium is located on the campus of Tusculum College, a small school that is the oldest in Tennessee. Parking is free as usual in the Appalachian League. Getting out of the car, you might be surprised at this facility as it is the nicest in the league, as you can tell from these exterior shots.



It was opened in 2004 and still looks brand new. It is much more like a typical A-ball stadium, with a single structure, open concourse, and Kelly green seats that hold 4,000 fans.



Tickets here are range from $7 for GA (last 2 sections down each line), $8 to sit behind the visitors dugout, and $9 otherwise. This is slightly more expensive than other Appy venues, a trend that would continue. Note that the protective netting does not even stretch to the edge of the dugout, a rare sighting these days, and one that I appreciate.



Upon entering, you can buy a program for $4, again the most expensive in the league. As is usual, there are prizes given to those with lucky programs, in this case, you will find ads signed by players if you are a winner. You will also find a couple of Astros signing autographs, on the left is Jonathan Arauz (#13 prospect), while on the right is Miguelangel Sierra (#15 prospect), who leads the league in home runs despite being just 17.



Next to the guest services window, you will see a door with a sign "Greeneville Baseball Museum". This is open to the public, and contains three displays behind glass. One just lists the Appy League teams, but the other two are quite interesting; the first is describes baseball in Greeneville...



...while the other discusses the achievements of local boy Dale Alexander, who played five seasons in the majors before a bizarre injury ended his big league career. Alexander was the AL batting champion in 1932; that's him on the far right below, with Lou Gehrig, Smeed Jolley, and Babe Ruth accompanying him.



The Greeneville administrative offices are here as well, and although you can't enter, you can see their 2015 championship trophy (on the right). Amazing that the Appalachian League champ gets a bigger trophy than the World Series winner.



Returning to the ballpark, the concourse is spacious, with a very fancy roof, at least for a rookie league ballpark. There is a tiki hut at the far end of first base (barely visible below) that offers beer, while two concession stands sell fairly basic stadium fare at slightly inflated prices for this level.



In terms of the "Road to the Show" displays, there are posters of former Astros who made the bigs on the support poles around the stadium, including Vince Velasquez, now twirling for the Phillies.



Overall, Pioneer Park is by far the best facility in the league, but that doesn't make it my favourite. At this level, I prefer ballparks with a bit of character, and this is too typical for my liking. It is also too big for the average crowd, there were less than a thousand fans there, so entire sections were empty. These are not complaints, just observations, and by no means should you avoid visiting this very attractive venue. The beauty of the forests behind the park (below) and the museum make a trip here more than worthwhile, so if you are visiting northeastern Tennessee in the summer, stop by Pioneer Park for some Astros action.



The Game

I know these game recaps can be boring, and quite frankly, I put them here for myself to look back on a few years later to see if any of these players made it to The Show. But this game deserves a longer recap than usual, because of all the context.

First, the two teams played 20 innings the night before, with Bluefield losing 5-4. This obviously depleted both bullpens, even though most pitchers threw 2 or more innings. Secondly, the Blue Jays were on a six-game losing streak, including including a game in which they blew a 6-2 lead in the 8th inning. The key at this level is player development, but losing six in a row is not good no matter what.



The most famous name in the game was Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (above), a 17-year old that Toronto signed last year. Despite being born in Montreal, he is an international prospect and the Jays gave him $3.9 million. That may be why he is so happy. BTW, he is now the Jays #5 prospect, not a good sign if you think about it considering he is about 4-5 years away from the majors.



Anyway, Kyle Weatherly (8th, 2016 out of Grayson CC, above) started for Bluefield, while Ricardo Castro was on the mound for Greeneville. The Blue Jays scored in the top of the first when Reggie Pruitt (24th round in 2015, already Toronto's #13 prospect) was hit and advanced to second on a passed ball. After Guerrero flew out, Nash Knight lifted a lazy fly ball that fell in for a single that scored Pruitt. The run was unearned due to the passed ball. Weatherly, a lanky kid with a good slider but poor control, did not give up a hit through four frames, but he walked three and hit a man during that time. He began the fifth with two more walks, but Frankeny Fernandez took off from second before Weatherly had even delivered a pitch, and he was out easily on the rare CS 1-5. Ruben Castro then singled on a hit-and-run to end the no-hit bid, but Weatherly struck out the next two batters to complete his evening without yielding a run.

Jose Espada (5th round, 2015, Jays #15 prospect) came in and pitched two scoreless innings. But in the bottom of the 8th, Greeneville's Vicente Sanchez led off with a double, was sacrificed to 3rd, and scored on a sacrifice fly from Tyler Wolfe (39th, 2016) that tied the game.

In the top of the 9th, the Jays scored two on a triple from Kalik May (35th, 2015), and Espada came out in the bottom of the inning to try to close things out. Remember that 20-inning marathon the night before? I'm guessing the Blue Jays didn't have any arms ready because Espada seemed done. He went to two strikes on Bryan De La Cruz who singled, then went got two quick strikes on Luis Payano, who also singled. Fernandez came up and on an 0-2 pitch doubled down the left field line to score both runners and tie the game. It appeared as if Espada was hurt as the trainer went to the mound, but Espada stayed in. Reiny Beltre popped up but Knight missed the catch at third base and it fell fair. After a groundout advanced the runners, Sanchez was intentionally walked to load the bases. This brought up leadoff hitter Marcos Almonte who lifted a fly ball to right that was deep enough to score Fernandez with the winning run.

Another painful Blue Jay loss, but hey, they say losing builds character. In all honesty, this was a very entertaining game, and I'm glad it ended when it did rather than go deep into extra innings and deplete both bullpens further. As for Guerrero, he went 1-4, but one out was a scorcher that the third baseman caught. He can definitely hit, but it will be interesting to see if the Jays can develop the rest of his game to make him a solid big league player.

Notes

One gentleman makes figurines of the players. He was showing them off to a few Astros and taking orders. Very impressive work, and it was fun to see the young players making requests.



In case you're wondering, the town of Greenville, SC also has a minor league team, the Drive of the South Atlantic League.

Best,

Sean

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