Appalachian League set to open another season

Northeast Community Credit Union Ballpark in Elizabethton. Photo by A.J. Kaufman

By A.J. Kaufman, Managing Editor

On June 4, the Appalachian League kicks off another summer of affordable entertainment across the Tri-Cities and beyond.

And there are new additions, including some economic drivers and large construction endeavors on the horizon.

The Johnson City Doughboys, who claimed the 2023 league championship, will host the 2024 Appalachian League All-Star Game at TVA Credit Union Ballpark on July 22-23. This signature event will be broadcast on national television. Johnson City has consistently led the league in overall attendance.

Over the winter, the Kingsport Axmen and Elizabethton River Riders both installed new field turf at their respective stadiums.

Down the road sits the jewel of Appalachian League ballparks, Pioneer Park. Located on the Tusculum campus, the home of the Greeneville Flyboys opened in 2004 as a philanthropic endeavor from Scott Niswonger.

As reported last August in the Business Journal, a new stadium for the Bristol State Liners hopes to become a reality along Highway 394, near Bristol Motor Speedway and Dragway. The venue, which also will serve as the home field for Tennessee High’s baseball team, plans to open for the 2025 season. Updated amenities reportedly will include new lighting, playing turf, outfield fences, clubhouses, ticket sales areas, souvenir stands and more. The complex already houses several baseball or softball fields and five soccer fields.

As the State Liners won’t be playing in a new stadium this summer, the franchise planned a return to Boyce Cox Field in Bristol, Va. for the 2024 campaign, but those negotiations recently ended. Team President and General Manager Mahlon Luttrell announced in mid-April that the State Liners will play a hybrid-season game schedule in 2024 as the club continues to work toward the new facility in Tennessee for 2025.

The State Liners operate their home clubhouse operations at Pioneer Park and play several of their home games there. The remainder of the team’s home games will be played in nearby Appalachian League facilities.

The 10-team league operates across the Appalachian Highlands, mainly in Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, with one team in North Carolina and a new 2024 team — the Tri-State Coal Cats — playing in West Virginia.

For more than a century, until the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic disruption, the Appalachian League was part of Minor League Baseball, with all teams as affiliates of Major League Baseball franchises.

Several current Appalachian League coaches played in the Major Leagues, including many former all stars. Earlier this year, Appy League alumni Joe Mauer made the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Mauer began his professional career playing for Elizabethton during the 2001-02 seasons. Ten other Appalachian League players have been elected to the Hall of Fame, including legendary pitchers Greg Maddux, Nolan Ryan and baseball’s iron man, Cal Ripken Jr.

After a strong spring training this year, Jordan Leasure — who pitched for Elizabethton in 2021 — became the first Appalachian League player to reach the Major Leagues since the league rebranded as a summer collegiate league in 2021. The 25-year-old right-hander made his debut for the Chicago White Sox with a scoreless sixth inning March 30 against Detroit.

Mainly designed for rising freshmen and sophomores, games run from the first week of June through early August.

All teams in the league employ dozens of local and national employees on a full and seasonal basis, as well as engaging in various community events throughout the summer and entire year.

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