Zach Helton 

The summer may never be the same here in Appalachia.

This week would and should have marked the 2020 version of the league that was once proving grounds to future Hall of Famers like Cal Ripken Jr., Greg Maddux, and Nolan Ryan. The thought of the Appalachian League ceasing to exist hurts not only the heart of myself but seems to be just another dagger aimed at a region whose coal helped build this nation. As someone who has been around the league their entire life, it’s almost like losing a close friend.

For most of my childhood, my grandfather and I spent many nights on the then-concrete seats of Bowen Field, building my love for baseball. Collecting foul balls, overeating popcorn, and trying to figure out what is happening in front of me were all part of the fun. Whether it was the Phillies of Martinsville, the Braves of Danville, or whatever organization Pulaski and Burlington were supporting at the time, I just enjoyed being around and learning the game besides my grandfather. Now with COVID and the MLB dictating the ‘new normal,’ Appalachian youth and adults alike may be finding their baseball elsewhere. That is if they haven’t already written off the game entirely.

Those seats beside my grandfather were the best in the house, no matter where the location in the ballpark. Over the past two seasons, though, my perch has been in the press box of Bowen Field as the Bluefield Blue Jays radio broadcaster. Despite the lack of air conditioning and sun beaming straight into my line of sight for the first three innings of most games, I wouldn’t trade my seat with anyone. From my view, I not only saw the most beautiful piece of flat land in the two Virginias, I had the luxury of watching everyone enter the park for that night’s game. Kids with gloves, older kids with scorecards, scouts with radar guns, all were welcomed by Henry “Double-Out” Belcher’s salesmanship of the 50-50 drawing. I don’t ever recall a frown roaming through those gates.

My job with the Blue Jays has allowed me to live a dream that the kid from Raven would have never even thought of obtaining. I have got to be a part of a great organization, meet some tremendous people, all while bringing the game to family and fans who could not be there in person. I have been privileged to meet prospects, their families, and even Smoky the Bear. I have met young team executives, and broadcasters, looking to climb the ladder just like the players they represent. Without the Appalachian League, all involved will be looking for games to call, promotions to sell.

In this region, TBS brought some of us the Atlanta Braves, HTS brought others the Baltimore Orioles, and other outlets kept fans of Pittsburgh and Cincinnati informed. No one in Bluefield would care how their former adopted son Vlad Jr. would be doing with the Blue Jays in town, likewise with the Mets of Kingsport, or the Royals in Burlington. Without the Appalachian League, and the other organizations on MLB’s chopping block, some players who were not giant prospects out of school would not get their shot on the field either.

Sadly, the summer of 2020, one that may have been the last of the historic league’s life, may not happen at all. Baseball is missing a great opportunity to not only grow the game in a time that most are longing for an outlet but also in a region searching for a ray of sunshine as well. Baseball fans in the Appalachian region, me included, are holding out hope for another summer watching in person the stars of tomorrow. I hope to be back in the ballpark soon, looking down from the press box as grandfather and his grandkids settle in for the best game ever invented.

Zach Helton

Voice of the Bluefield Blue Jays and Appalachian League fans everywhere. He also broadcast games for Richlands High School and the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.

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