Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Appalachian Action


One of the best things about my recent trip to the Appalachians was that the ballparks are all close together, so I had time to do a bit of touring during the day instead of driving six hours to the next stadium. Here are a few of the places I went.

Pikeville, KY

Although none of the stadiums I visited are in Kentucky, I did drive through the state between Kingsport and Charleston, making a stop in Pikeville. This place is famous as one of the sites of the Hatfield-McCoy Feud, particularly the courthouse where several Hatfields were sentenced and Ellison Mounts was hanged. There are several historic markers around town and a small museum that includes a display on the feud. There is also a university whose teams play in the NAIA, known as the Bears. Perhaps for this reason, there are bear statues in odd costumes all around the town, including Banjo Bear (below).



Charleston

The area around the West Virginia Capitol building (below) is reasonably nice, but the main attraction is the State Museum just next door. It's free, very well designed and extremely informative, with a path taking you from the state's beginnings right up to present day. Each decade is clearly presented, and I learned a lot about a state that gets little press nationally. West Virginia has had more than its share of disasters (particularly mine collapses) and they are presented in detail here, so if you have a morbid side, you will enjoy this museum.



Pipestem State Park

Just north of Princeton, WV is Pipestem State Park, which includes an aerial tramway that takes you to the Bluestone River Gorge, a National Scenic River. There are several hiking trails here, the shortest of which takes you the top of a hill where you can walk up a lookout tower that has 360 degree views from 3,000 feet above sea level. The view of the surrounding countryside is incredible, though the picture below does not do it justice. There is also a lodge for overnight staying and a small nature center for kids. All in all, a nice quiet afternoon can be spent here without spending a dime.



Andrew Johnson Historic Site

Andrew Johnson was vice-president when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, thus becoming the 17th president.  He spent most of his adult life in Greeneville, TN, and the National Park Service now has an impressive historic site in his honour. There are four parts, including his old home (below), his original tailor shop next to the visitor center (a brick structure surrounds it to protect it from the elements), his homestead that he used after his presidency, and his grave, which lies atop a hill and is part of a national cemetery. There are several other historic homes in town, so take your time before an Astros game and drive around for a bit of a history lesson.



Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park

The first settlement outside of the 13 colonies was at Sycamore Shoals, on the Watauga River in what is now Elizabethton, TN. Later on, it was the muster site for the Overmountain Men, who won a key battle in the American Revolution at Kings Mountain in South Carolina. These days, it is a state park with a small hiking trail and a few reconstructed buildings that tell the story of the area. The river is quite scenic and worth the short walk from the visitor center.



Another interesting spot in Elizabethton is the covered bridge just east of downtown. Well, interesting might be a stretch, but you can wade or swim in the river there, and just a block away is Jiggy Ray's, an excellent pizza place.



Bristol Motor Speedway

History is everywhere in the Appalachians, but there is plenty of sport too, with racing one of the highlights. Perhaps the biggest attraction is the Bristol Motor Speedway, where two NASCAR races are held every year. When there are no races being held, you can take a tour for $5.46, a bargain even with the tax included.



Out front are some plaques honouring past NASCAR stars, such as Dale Earnhardt.



The tour begins in the suite level, where you get a great view of the track. Bristol is a short track, so you can see the entire race from any seat.



You are then brought down to the track itself and the van, which seats 10 tourists plus the driver, does a few laps, which is quite fun even at 50 MPH or so. The track is banked quite steeply on the turns, a feeling that you don't get on regular roads.



On this day, the dragway was closed as they were preparing for the Junior Nationals, so the tour was slightly abbreviated at about 45 minutes. Afterward, you can enter the seating bowl by yourself and snap a few more pictures.



You might notice the football field layout in the middle of the track; there will be a college football game held here in September between Virginia Tech and Tennessee (Bristol is on the border of those two states). Already 150,000 tickets have been sold, so it will be the largest crowd to see a college football game in history and quite the spectacle.

Best,

Sean

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Kingsport Mets 6 at Elizabethton Twins 5 (Appalachian League) - July 20, 2016


The last stop on my trip was Elizabethton, home of the Twins Appalachian League affiliate and also birthplace of Jason Witten of the Dallas Cowboys.



The Twins play out of Joe O'Brien Field, right next to the scenic Watauga River (just a couple of miles along the river is Sycamore Shoals, the first settlement outside the 13 colonies). As with all Appy League parks, parking is free, though the lot here is gravel. They've done a nice job landscaping the area in front of the ballpark too.



There is a single ticket window, with GA seats going for the ridiculously low price of $4, while reserved seats behind the plate are $6.



The benches along first base (below) are more popular because they are not blocked by the protective netting and are more spacious than the seats along third.



You will note that each section is denoted by a famous Twin or two. The middle section below is Morneau, while the one on the right is Mauer, both names recognizable to fans everywhere. The far left, however, is the Smith & Reed section. Smith refers to Ray Smith, who played here in 1977 and enjoyed a brief MLB career, hitting a single home run in 1981 off Jerry Don Gleaton. Reed is Jeff Reed, who began his pro career as a 17-year-old in 1980 and ended up in the majors for 17 seasons. It is amazing what you can find on the internet these days. The third base side is much smaller and only Kent Hrbek is celebrated there.



Other more recent Twins are honoured on the back of the seating structure.



There are picnic tables underneath here as well, so you can enjoy a meal before the game. The concession stand is called Miss Jane's Hardball Cafe and offers some unique fare for a ballpark, including a grilled chicken salad and fried crown bologna. I had eaten beforehand at Jiggy Ray's, a nearby pizza joint (highly recommended) so had to limit myself to a giant pickle at the ballpark, a bargain at $1. Interestingly, alcohol is not sold here, one of two Appy League stadiums so restricted.



Below is the view from first base. The protective netting only blocked the view of the batter, at least from where I was sitting.



The full view from the reserved seats below. This picture is taken through the netting, which is held up by poles that further block your view, another reason to buy the cheaper seats.



One touch I liked is having the updated league standings posted in the outfield.



Overall, Joe O'Brien Field is another delightful Appy League ballpark, simple and affordable. I really appreciate these smaller venues, where a thousand amenities and distractions are not required to have a nice night out. The focus is on baseball, which is the way it should be.

The Game



After seeing some pretty decent contests over the past few nights, I had a hunch that this one would be messy, and I was right. The Kingsport Mets were in town with Chris Viall (6th round pick in 2016 out of Stanford, above) taking the hill, while the Twins replied with Domenick Carlini (16th, 2016). Down 1-0 in the top of the second, the Mets had two runners on when Raphael Ramirez (18th, 2014) laced one that went all the way to the wall in center field. Ramirez raced around the bases and was waved home, beating the throw by a half second for the inside-the-park homer, an exciting play at any level.



The Mets added two more in the fourth when Cecilio Aybar reached on a throwing error by third baseman Trey Cabbage (4th, 2015, Twins #19 prospect, signing autographs above). Ramirez singled Aybar to third, and a wild pitch brought him home. Ramirez later advanced to third on another wild pitch (Carlini threw 4 on the evening) and scored on a groundout to make it 5-1. With a man on first and one out in the bottom of the 5th, Viall induced a perfect double play ball to short, but Aybar dropped it, thus costing Viall the win, as he had reached his pitch limit. He was replaced by Jose Carlos Medina (not to be confused with Mets outfielder Jose Miguel Medina) who snuffed out the rally with no further damage.

The game moved slowly through the middle innings with lots of baserunners, but none of them made it home. In the top of the 8th, Patrick McGuff came on in relief for Elizabethton with men on first and second and 2 out. Surprisingly, he tried to pick the guy off first, but threw wildly, allowing the Mets sixth run to score. There was a full moon above center field (below) which may explain all the weirdness.



With Kingsport up 6-1, it looked like the game was over, but Lewin Diaz (#29 prospect for Minnesota) hit a three-run bomb in the bottom of the 8th to make it 6-4, leading to an exciting finish in the bottom of the ninth. Adrian Almeida was pitching for Kingsport and hit a batter and unleashed two wild pitches that allowed him to third. He also walked another while getting two strikeouts. Travis Blankenhorn (3rd, 2015, #16 prospect) popped out to seemingly end the game, but the Mets let it fall in for a single that scored a run and made it 6-5. Alex Kiriloff (15th overall pick in 2016) came up with a chance to tie the game, but struck out as the Mets held on for an ugly 6-5 win.

In the end, there were 6 errors and 7 wild pitches as the game took 3:23 to complete. Not pretty, but still memorable and glad the Mets won to end the trip.

Notes

For some reason, I always thought this town was pronounced Elizabee-thon, similar to the adjective describing the era of Queen Elizabeth I. I didn't even notice the 't' after the 'h', and had spelled it incorrectly in all my previous posts. I was only advised of the proper pronunciation when I asked a waitress. It is simply Elizabeth-ton and I have corrected it elsewhere.

Next Up

I've got one more trip planned in August that will take me back to Tennessee and the Carolinas to complete a number of minor leagues, including the Appalachian. I'll post the schedule in a few days, so check back for that.

Best,

Sean


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Greeneville Astros 3 at Johnson City Cardinals 4 (Appalachian League) - July 19, 2016


The last two games on the trip are at ballparks that are just eight miles apart, giving me a chance to look at the pitching matchups and promotions before deciding on what game to see. I was originally going to see Elizabethton on Tuesday and Johnson City on Wednesday, but changed my mind because Kingsport was visiting Elizabethton and Jake Simon was starting for the Mets; I had seen him just last week in the first game on this trip and wanted to see another Mets prospect. So I headed to TVA Credit Union Ballpark instead.



This stadium was originally built in 1952 and has undergone a few upgrades in the intervening 64 years. It goes by many names, the current sponsor only acquired the naming rights for this season, so other monikers are still applied, such as Howard Johnson Field at Cardinal Park, which is still the name shown on the Cardinals website. The official name is TVA Credit Union Ballpark at Howard Johnson Field, which is really just too long. I'll call it TCUB going forward.



Located a couple of minutes east of I-26, TCUB has a large free parking lot just off Main Street. The box office (above) is next to the main entrance. General admission tickets are $5 and these are what you want to get as they are under the roof, while the $7 box seats are mostly uncovered during the early innings. As you can see below, much of the seating bowl is under the roof, but there are two sections further down the lines that are slightly separated from the rest of the stadium.



The GA seats are benches, but not that uncomfortable as they have backs. Note that there are posts supporting the roof as well as thinner poles for the protective netting, so a perfectly unobstructed view is difficult when you are behind the plate.



The sun sets behind third base, so your best bet is to sit under the roof for 3-4 innings and then move to the open bleachers along first base.



There is a small walkway between the two levels of seats, so you might want to avoid the first couple of rows in the GA section.



There are no lights under the roof, so if you are scoring, you will need to sit in the open air once the sun disappears.



The main breezeway leads right behind home plate, with standings and starting lineups posted here. The person that posted the lineups screwed up 6 of the 9 positions for the visiting Astros, earning my Intern to Ignore award for making my scorecard a mess (update: the team told me that the Astros manager changed the lineup late, thus he earns my ire). You might note that there is a MacDonald on Greeneville, that's Connor from Brisbane, Australia, the only MacDonald in the minors.



There is a single concession stand next to the breezeway with a few interesting options. The Waffle Sandwich is apparently rather soggy, so I went for the $3 bologna burger and can recommend that. There are picnic tables but even those umbrellas can't protect you from the blazing sun, so they were not being used on this night.



There is no "Road to the Show" display, though a few former Cardinals are shown on bathroom doors, such as Yadier Molina.



That's about it. This is a very simple facility that draws a pretty decent crowd on most nights. In the Appalachian League, that means more than 1,000 fans and they are pretty vocal, adding quite a bit to an already enjoyable atmosphere. Check out TCUB next time you are in Johnson City, you won't be disappointed.



The Game

It was Tennessee Pride Night, so the Cardinals wore special powder-blue jerseys with the three stars of Tennessee on one arm.



Greeneville was in town after their come-from-behind win last night over Bluefield. They started Jorge Guzman, while JC countered with Frederis Parra. Both teams scored a run in the first and another in the third, and then the Astros scored another in the fourth to make it 3-2. Guzman was taken out after just 2.1 innings and replaced by Ben Smith (17th round in 2014 out of Coastal Carolina) who kept the Cardinals off the board until the 7th, when a walk, double, and sacrifice fly tied the game. It was still 3-3 as we entered the bottom of the ninth, with Lucas Williams (40th, 2016) on in relief of Smith. DeAndre Asbury-Heath (15th, 2013) led off with a double, was sacrificed to third, and scored on a single by Allen Cordoba as the Cardinals won 4-3 in walkoff fashion. Parra gets my Player to Watch award for his 6 innings of work without giving up a walk.

Estalin Arias got the win with a perfect 9th for Johnson City. This was another fun game to watch; I've been lucky over the past few days with some well-pitched games, something I didn't expect at this level.

Notes

Elizabethton won 8-7 in walkoff fashion, but the game took 3:27 (compared to 2:56 at Johnson City) so it looks like I made the right decision so far.

Ever since I got a foul ball at an Albuquerque Isotopes game earlier this season, I've been trying to get one ball for every minor league, without having them tossed to me. As I drove to the ballpark today, I turned into an alley behind the fence of the stadium, thinking it led to a parking lot. It did not. But there was a ball lying there, so I stopped to pick it up, thus adding to my total. I've now got balls from 5 minor leagues (IL, PCL, Eastern, Texas, and Appy), which leaves 9 to go.

This was my 670th venue and 260th ballpark lifetime.

Next Up

As you probably figured out, the last game on the trip will feature Kingsport at Elizabethton. Check back for a recap tomorrow.

Best,

Sean

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