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The Commonwealth of Baseball
By Eric Angevine
Touching base with Virginia’s minor leagues
Baseball holds a unique place in American culture. Although soccer is more popular worldwide, and football and basketball have dominated the televised era of sports, nothing is quite so ubiquitous in this country as baseball.
It’s a staple sport in high school, and considering that the 175 official minor league franchises brought in a record of 42.6 million fans in 2007, it seems as if every town of any size has a minor league baseball team, too.
In the Commonwealth of Virginia, one is rarely more than a two-hour drive from the classic American experience of a day at the ballpark. There are eight stadiums in the state, each unique and charming on its own. As you pass through, enjoy a helping of Southern charm, courtesy of our nation’s pastime.
The Appalachian League
When top U.S. prospects finish high school, they are eligible for the Major League Baseball (MLB) draft. Many ball players who are unhappy with their draft position will enroll in a college program to play under rules of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). The others undertake a long odyssey through the minor leagues.
Most will start with a short season in rookie ball, the most common entrée into professional baseball. First-year free agents from South and Central America, the Caribbean and Asia also get their starts at this level. As the rookie leaguers don’t make a lot of money, they do their own laundry, often stay with host families who live within the community, and spend most of every day either in the clubhouse or on the road.
The nine Appalachian League teams are sprinkled in and around their namesake mountain range, confined mostly to Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia. In 2006, the Commonwealth had a team in Pulaski, Va., which rounded the league out to 10 teams, but affiliations changed and left the ballpark empty – hopefully temporarily.
Bristol’s DeVault Memorial Stadium sits less than a mile north of the border that separates the Commonwealth from the Volunteer State. It is a gem, with wooden grandstands supporting the box seats, friendly groundskeepers, and a sign promoting “VFW Bingo!” by the right-field foul pole. A bronze plaque touts the 27 strikeouts that were thrown by a Bristol stadium legend in a 1952 no-hitter.
The metal benches in the hometown Sox’s dugout might seem slightly uncomfortable, but on the opposite side of the diamond, only a concrete berm welcomes the visiting team.
The shady park surrounding the stadium is fully integrated into the neighborhood. It also offers a football field and play equipment for the smaller kids. Graduates of Bristol have had their eyes on making the parent club on the South Side of Chicago ever since 1995.
Roughly 200 miles to the east lies Danville, home to the Atlanta Braves’ “Appy” League entrant. The Danville Braves play at American Legion park, the crown jewel of the community’s spacious Dan Daniel Park – just a long fly-ball from the North Carolina state line.
Danville Braves games are heaven for kids. Fenced-in space behind the bleachers fills with Little Leaguers still in uniform, playing catch and tag. Local teens dispense Southern charm at the concession stands, along with peanuts, hot dogs and fresh-made snow cones. My son loved the shaved ice so much that he enjoyed two of them.
It does get hot on a summer’s day in Danville, so I highly recommend asking the Ticket Teepee attendant to upgrade your seat to the covered area near home plate, where languid ceiling fans help keep the humidity down. Hang around until the game is over and watch the kids get their chance to run the bases with the D-Braves’ mascot, Blooper. Baseball dreams are born on days like this.
The Carolina League
The classic baseball movie Bull Durham made the Carolina League famous, delivering fairly accurate depictions of long bus trips, tiny locker rooms, and dreams of future stardom. Oddly enough, the Triple-A Durham Bulls do not actually play in this league. These clubs are called A+ for short, and players at this level begin to really find out if they have what it takes to move up.
The headquarters site for this venerable league is in North Carolina, as are two of the current teams, but a full three out of eight call Virginia home. One team, the Potomac Nationals, plays home games in a suburb just a handful of miles from the parent club in D.C., where fireworks and patriotic colors never go out of style.
The Salem Avalanche operates in one of the most comfortable lower minor league stadiums I have ever had the pleasure to visit. I took my wife, kindergartner and retired mother-in-law to Salem Memorial Stadium, and we found no bad seats. Even the outfield rows have chair backs and armrests. The crowd is a mixture of citizens, some from Salem proper, and others from just up the road in Roanoke. In the grassy area behind the third-base stands is a playground filled with inflatable slides and moonwalks, beside the delightfully cool outbuilding where T-shirts and other memorabilia are sold. The Houston-affiliated Avalanche team also sports two mascots – a smiling dog along with a decidedly more menacing representative, meant to embody the snow-slide of the team’s official logo.
The food was absolutely incredible. Everyone in my family went for the mouth-watering BBQ sandwich, served with cole slaw inside the bun and crinkly fries on the side. In addition, our visit coincided with a promotion in which each adult was given a loaf or two of sliced bread to take home. Bring your appetites.
The third Carolina League team in the area is the Lynchburg Hillcats, who send their best players up the ladder to Pittsburgh. The growing central Virginia town rolls across seven hills, and City Stadium sits high atop one of them. Once a run-down remnant of World War II, the Home of the Hillcats has been renovated and is now a nicely appointed A+ facility.
My friends and I attended the final home stand of the season in late September, and the park was full to the rafters with families, civic groups and cheerful students from nearby Liberty University, all there to watch the diminutive Pedro Powell steal one of the 67 bases he captured in 2007.
The International League
The International League (IL) and the more westerly Pacific Coast League represent the pinnacle of minor leagues. Teams play in large stadiums located in medium-size cities, and rosters are stocked with aging veterans and top-notch prospects that can instantly fill a need in the majors when called upon.
The concrete pillars that support The Diamond in Richmond are adorned with banners that depict the famous faces of the Atlanta Braves. John Smoltz played here. So did Chipper Jones, Deion Sanders and Tom Glavine. And that’s just the short list.
The Braves are renowned for building division champions from the bedrock of their farm system, so note well the names in your R-Braves program. You’ll likely be seeing them on television before long. In fact, three of the players I saw in August were in Atlanta by September.
The crown jewel of Virginia ballparks has to be Harbor Park in Norfolk, home of the Tides. The warm, sandstone-colored façade is visible from the interstate, but the highway is not the best way to get there.
For a unique experience, find your way to the park-and-ride on the other side of the Elizabeth River and take the ferry across. Passengers disembark just outside the left-field wall. The stadium itself was built by HOK, a world-famous firm specializing in sports venues. The Kansas City-based firm has designed some of the signature stadiums of Major League Baseball in recent years, including Camden Yards, where Big-League-ready Tides go when they are called up.
The staff at Harbor Park aims to please, as well. The young men and women who run the attractions are unfailingly kind and helpful to younger fans. My young son was thrilled with his Tides sojourn, and so was I.
Feel At Home
Wherever you might hang your hat while visiting Virginia, you won’t be very far away from a ballpark. Minor league teams are an interesting conundrum: the players change every year, and a team that was tied to one Major League parent might suddenly switch during the off-season. But the teams, themselves, belong to their towns in a way that is not affected by time. If you really want to make friends with a town, make your way to the ballpark. You’ll be cheering like a native son in no time.