There was baseball at DeVault Stadium on Saturday.
It just wasn’t who would have been expected two days before the Appalachian League season was slated to begin.
The Bristol Pirates were nowhere to be found, with the Appalachian League releasing a statement last week that the season was being “delayed indefinitely” due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has shut down baseball and sports all across the nation and world.
“That wasn’t a shock,” said Bristol Pirates President and General Manager Mahlon Luttrell, who said several travel baseball teams have been using Boyce Cox Field.
The Pirates would normally have arrived on Friday, began practice on Saturday and opened the season on Monday at Pulaski. The home opener was scheduled for next Saturday against Greeneville.
Those plans were ruined, as were possibly any hopes for a Major League season due to the coronavius.
“Obviously COVID-19 has hit and that has just turned everything upside down,” Luttrell said. “If the virus hadn’t hit we would definitely had a season this year. With the virus hitting and doing what it has been doing and has done, that made it look like there is a strong possibility that it may not occur.”
Bristol celebrated 50 consecutive years of pro baseball last season, with the Pirates advancing to the playoffs for the first time since the Bristol White Sox won the league title in 2002.
Luttrell acknowledges there is very little chance a 51st season will be held, even if the Major League Baseball players and owners had managed to reach an agreement to play during a season that has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I still think it [was] going to be hard for the Appalachian League and the minor leagues to do a season based on all the restrictions and safety protocols that are going to be put in place,” Luttrell said. “Major League, they are banking on the TV rights and potentially going back to playing with no fans. Obviously in the minor leagues we can’t do that. We have got to have fans, we have got to have the income.”
Earlier in the spring it was business as usual for the Pirates in preparations for the upcoming season, but those efforts soon began to slow.
“We tried to prepare as much as we could during all this not knowing which way to go,” Luttrell said. “Then as time kept dragging on we started backing off on certain things that we were doing just because we felt like it was either going to be delayed or may not happen.”
Luttrell figured another reason why this season could have been complicated to pull off was due to the protocols of the four states, including the difficulty bus companies would have had with scheduling and cleaning responsibilities.
“We cross four states and each state has got a different set of rules and guidelines as for when they open up and what they can and can’t do...,” he said. “It is going to be very tough to pull off, but somehow we would have managed if we were given the green light.”
Another issue facing any Appalachian League team is the demographics of the fan base. The older population is reportedly most at risk and many of the local team volunteers and fans are in that age group. Luttrell said they understand how “serious” the coronavirus is.
“We have a lot of young fans, but then we have a lot of mature fans,” he said. “I believe a lot of those folks would have been concerned about coming out anyway. It may not have been the great season that we would hope for. If some fans had showed up then we would have had ball.”
Talks continue between the players and owners of baseball in trying to get a shortened major league season planned, but COVID-19 may have other plans. All 30 baseball spring training sites have been closed for cleaning after several clubs had positive tests on Friday, including the Philadelphia Phillies, who had five players and three staff members on that list.
“You get a little hopeful in one aspect of it, but everything I read with the advent of the COVID kicking back in, I doubt we are going to have a major league season, I really do,” Luttrell said.
While baseball won’t be played on Monday, the Bristol Pirates will honor a trio of 2019 Appalachian League Hall of Fame members at DeVault Stadium, presenting plaques to the families of Boyce Cox, Bill Halstead and Chauncey DeVault.
“Opening night is when we were going to do the awards at each of the ball parks, but then all of a sudden we don’t have baseball,” said Luttrell, who added that all three were very deserving for induction. “We decided to go ahead and do ours Monday because some time in July we will be announcing the 2020 class.”
He expects the shrine to the long-time rookie league to continue on.
“Whatever happens with the Appalachian League, whatever happens to baseball, we want to continue that because there is such a legacy,” he said. “Really it is a shame we haven’t started this thing before the last two years, we should have been doing this for a long time.
“We hope to continue that. Right now it is a good step that we came up with last year so we are going to build on it.”
As for what lies ahead for the Appalachian League, Luttrell figures Major League Baseball’s much-publicized intention to condense up to 40 teams after this season will still occur.
That means professional baseball in Bristol may have ended with a playoff loss last season at Johnson City. Luttrell said there is still hope for some kind of baseball to be played in the future.
“I still think that is going to occur. They are pretty hard set about eliminating 40 teams across the country and they are dead set about eliminating the rookie leagues,” he said. “With saying that, there has been some dialogue potentially of some sort of wood bat league with some major league support, but we have no idea what that means yet or what it will look like or if for sure it will occur.”
It will definitely be a strange summer in Bristol with no baseball ahead. That continues today for Luttrell on what is Father’s Day.
“I have been talking to a lot of different fans and some of our board is kind of like ‘what are we going to do this summer,’” he said. “It is different. This will be my 18th consecutive summer doing this and that meant having 18 birthdays at the ball park, having 18 Father’s Days at the ball park.
“It is going to be different in a lot of respects, but you do get back to a little bit of reality.”