The field at DeVault Stadium was empty around 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, as were the bleachers, dugouts and clubhouse.
The marquee that stands prominently near Euclid Avenue was blank with no messages posted informing passing motorists about upcoming game-night promotions or on what dates the Johnson City Cardinals or Pulaski Yankees would be rolling into town.
The kids clamoring for autographs behind the chain-link fence near the first-base line were not there, half-price hot dogs offered in the concession stand in the late innings were not to be had and there were none of the boisterous fans heckling the umpires from the beer garden.
Get used to that silent scene this summer as there will be no Appalachian League baseball in Bristol for the first time in 52 years.
Minor League Baseball officially canceled the 2020 season on Tuesday, issuing a press release at 5 p.m. that none of its teams across all levels – including the 10 squads in the rookie-level Appy League – will be taking the field this summer due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
It was announced on June 12 that the 68-game Appalachian League season had been postponed indefinitely and word came down 18 days later that there would be no season at all.
“It’s been expected, but we all hoped we’d hear the words play ball one more time this summer. It was just not meant to be,” said Bristol Pirates president/general manager Mahlon Luttrell. “It’s just hard for the entire community. For a lot of people it’s a big part of our lives day-in and day-out.”
Tim Landis and his wife, Ann, have been attending games in Bristol for nearly 40 years, cheering on the team during three different monikers – the Bristol Tigers, Bristol White Sox and Bristol Pirates – during that time. They were among the many loyal fans saddened by the news.
“This will be a season of emptiness,” Tim Landis said. “We’ve kind of thought of our baseball nights as date nights out with friends. It will be a hard-to-fill emptiness to share without our friends. And we’ve shared the love of baseball with friends for a good long while. We’re learning how to share hardships while being denied the pleasure of each other’s company because of his COVID thing. Pretty strange to show your love of friends by keeping your distance from them. So, the biggest thing Ann and I will miss as a result of the 2020 season cancellation is the people.”
The Bristol Pirates were originally supposed to play their ninth game of the 2020 season on Wednesday in Kingsport, where fans of the Mets were just as dejected. Among them was Mark Davis, who has attended 804 Kingsport Mets games since 2000.
“The threat of losing baseball this year has been lingering for some time and the writing has been on the wall,” Davis said. “It’s hard for me because K-Mets and Appy League baseball is my passion. I’m invested in this game and extremely saddened we won’t be seeing the guys from around the world living out their dream in our area.”
Those players trying to reach the major leagues will miss a crucial season in that journey; guys like Sullivan East High School graduate Hunter Stratton, who is in his fourth season in the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system.
“This summer has been very odd,” Stratton said. “I can’t help but to feel anxious that maybe we will get the call to start our season any day now, but it never comes. I was lucky enough to find a group of about 10 pro guys that included four big-leaguers to help me stay ready. We would meet four days a week with Tuesday and Friday being our live [batting practice] days. I really hope we do have an extended instructional-style camp or season [in the fall or winter] so we can show our organization that we got better through this pandemic.”
Stratton spent his first professional season with the Bristol Pirates in the Appalachian League and has fond memories of pitching a few miles from where he went to high school.
Bristol has been a continual member of the Appy League since 1969, serving as an affiliate of the Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates during that span. The league’s lineage can be traced back to 1911 and Bristol was a charter member.
Hall of Famer Alan Trammell began his pro career in Bristol, Jim Leyland earned his first managerial win as a skipper of the Bristol Tigers, Dwight “Doc” Gooden of the Kingsport Mets earned his initial professional victory on the mound in Bristol and future Hall of Famer Jim Thome of the Burlington Indians once slugged a homer at DeVault Stadium. Of course, there was the night in 1952 at old Shaw Stadium when Ron Necciai of the Bristol Twins struck out 27 Welch Miners batters in a nine-inning Appalachian League game.
Last season’s edition of the Bristol Pirates made the playoffs for the first time since 2002 with manager Kieran Mattison calling the shots.
No such moments will take place this year as this summer will mark the first time since 1956 there will not be an Appy League season as financial reasons led to the collapse of the league back then.
It was back to business as usual by the summer of ‘57, but the Appalachian League might not be so fortunate in rebounding this time.
Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper first reported in October that Major League Baseball came up with a proposal to eliminate 42 minor league teams following the 2020 season. Bristol would be one of nine Appalachian League teams to be contracted if that took place.
The current agreement between MLB and MiLB expires at the end of September and then the fate of the Appy League will be known.
“We’re in another wait-and-see mode,” Luttrell said. “We’re all going to try to stay positive in the Appalachian League. Like the saying goes, plan for the worst and hope for the best.”
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