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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

43 Parks in a Year: The Appalachian League
The Tennessee Area

After THE BIG TRIP, I spent a good portion of the next two months spending my weekends going to games at the (generally) much closer Appalachian League parks. The Appalachian League is a high rookie league, which basically means it's the first level at which you have to pay to watch a game, but it's really low on the totem pole. Four of the league's teams are in Eastern Tennessee (Greeneville, Elizabethton, Johnson City, and Kingsport) and a fifth is just across the border in Bristol, Virginia (for now - talk is that Bristol Tn. might snatch it out from under them). A second cluster of teams is on the Virginia-West Virginia line (Pulaski Va, Princeton WV, and Bluefield Va). Finally, there are two teams orphaned out way far away from any others in Danville, Virginia and Burlington, North Carolina.

I'm not going to talk about the Appalachian League by date attended, but by location and today's post is going to focus on the Tennessee Area teams.

Furthest west is the Greeneville Astros. Strangely enough, the team isn't actually in Greeneville. It's in Tusculum, Tennessee at Tusculum College. In fact, the first time I went, I had some trouble even finding the stadium. However, once you get there, the stadium is the best in the League. It is a really pretty brick stadium with plenty of nice seats and it feels like a nice medium sized Single-A stadium. In fact, off the top of my head, I can say it is better than the stadiums of the Asheville Tourists and the Potomac Nationals. And the crowds are pretty good for an area (Greeneville & Tusculum combined) which has a population in the 20,000 range. They even have fairly well done, between innings games and interesting events. Be careful about the last though. I drove the hour or so it takes to get there from my house one day because they were having some sort of beerfest only to find out once I got there and bought my tickets that the beerfest was another twenty dollars. Now, I like craft and international beer as much as the next guy, but I wasn't going to drink twenty dollars worth (especially since I was driving home after the game). I didn't pay. The bait-and-switch left me in a truly foul mood as I walked around for the next hour waiting for the game to start. And they don't sell pennants in their souvenir shop. Overall though, Greeneville has the best stadium and that alone makes the experience more enjoyable.

The Kingsport Mets: This is the nearest stadium to where I live. It is, in a word, functional. Everything is serviceable, but it's right in that zone where there's nothing to complain about, but nothing to brag about either. The souvenir stand doesn't sell pennants. The worst part of the stadium is that it was poorly built in considering shade for the fans. On a hot night you will be broasted. After an hour or so (assuming the typical 7 pm start) shade will cover the first base bleachers, but you're just gonna fry on the third base side until it's just about time for the game to be over. They don't even have any kind of shade over the "good" seats behind home plate. It's a fairly damning flaw that could have been dealt with if the stadium had been built facing east so they could put roofs over the seats. As it is, I don't think it's fixable.  Usually, there are pretty decent crowds, although the weekend crowds seemed to be much more family friendly. Worth going to see a few games each year here (especially if it's a cloudy day).

The Johnson City Cardinals: Okay, so the cardinal sin here is that they are a Cardinal franchise, but I go just because I'm a masochist. Actually, it's an old municipal stadium and if you get seats behind the plate it's pretty decent. And the fans sitting back there showed a lot of baseball savvy during the game. They were discussing prospects for various players and what they were going to have to do to improve. The souvenir shop was in a shack out back - no pennants - and the concession stand was back that way too. The biggest problem with this stadium is if you are sitting in the seats off to the side, behind the dugouts. They are terrible. The seats aren't that bad and they would have a decent view except for the fact that they have chain-link fencing between them and the field. If you look straight ahead you can see okay. However, if you turn your head to view anything at a slant it is bad. If you must go to watch a Cardinals franchise team, you can't go too wrong going here as long as you get tickets behind the plate.

The Bristol Pirates: First of all, the Pirates actually play in Bristol, Virginia. I don't know how long that will be because Bristol, Tennessee has made noises about snatching the team, but for now they are still in Virginia (barely). This is another municipal field and it definitely has its quirks. Again, this field has a shade problem, but everybody knows about it and there is a grassy hill on the third base side where people sit in the shade for the first part of most games. On the first base side, behind the dugout, there is a big concrete block which has tiers cut into it for seating. I don't know what kind of concrete they used, but it stays amazingly cool in the beating sun. The concession stand and souvenir stand are behind home plate. Again, the souvenir shop does not sell pennants. However, it almost makes up for it by selling cool foam pirate swords. I like the people and the quirks of the this place and recommend it to all.

The Elizabethton Twins: This was my favorite Appalachian League experience last year. The Twins are playing in a municipal stadium on a county park, just above a river. Their souvenir shop is small, but it had all the stuff you could want, including - and it was the only Appalachian League team to do this - pennants. The stadium has good seats next to and behind the dugouts. It also has decent seats behind home plate. Between these seats are to raised boxes. One of those appeared to be for press and the other for VIP's. Underneath the boxes were cement areas where people were allowed to bring their own chairs and watch the game fro right up next to the net. The people there were generally the local every night fans who even left their chairs there between games. These are the kind of people who come to the games to have fun and they gave the umps and opposing team players hell the three games I caught there.

Things that happened at Elizabethton which I have never seen at another park. (1) A skunk wiggled under the wall into center field causing the outfielder to retreat most of the way to the infield. The little guy ambled around for about five minutes and then wiggled back out under the fence. Then the game resumed.  (2) I came in the front gate one day to see two cows standing there. Before the game started, they had both teams come out and they had a contest to see who could get the most milk out of the cows. It was hilarious, fun, and entirely unique. I just can't picture that happening anywhere else. (3) I was there the last weekend of the season and they delayed the game for quite a bit of time because rain was coming. I was confused. I'd seen any number of games played in the rain and didn't understand why it was different here. Then the rain started. Some guys ran out and flipped up a cover over a big drain behind home plate. Again, I was confused. And then the rain started flowing down the field toward the river behind the stadium (behind home plate). The water got to at least eight inches deep and it was roaring across the field and down that huge drain (I assume to the river). One of the regulars started talking about how, before the drain was put in the water would get several feet deep behind home plate and just sit there until it seeped away. Anyway, the rain stopped and they whipped that stadium into shape in a half hour and the game ended way too late, but it got played - even without anybody building an ark.

Elizabethton is my favorite of all the Appalachian League stadiums. The people are down-home fun, they try to do some different fun things, and it's just a good all-around experience. I wish I lived close enough to be a regular.


And that's my breakdown of the Tennessee part of the Appalachian League. Tomorrow I'll try to get something up about the West Virginia / Virginia portion of the league.

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