Baseball is back in full swing this summer, and our two local teams have returned with a new look. The Bluefield Ridge Runners and Princeton WhistlePigs started their 2021 season on June 3. Here’s the lowdown on the new league format and how the seasons are shaping up.
It’s hard to imagine Mercer County without baseball, but back in October 2019, the future of the sport in the county was unknown. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced an end to the 2020 season, a ten-year Professional Baseball Agreement between Major League Baseball (MLB) and Minor League Baseball (MiLB) was set to expire at the end of the 2020 season with discussions to cut down the minor leagues by nearly 40 teams. The two local teams were part of the Appalachian League, but changes from the MLB and USA Baseball, the governing body for amateur baseball, have since caused them to drop their MLB affiliations and rebrand for the new season.
The Appalachian League has since converted into a collegiate wooden bat league in conjunction with MLB and USA Baseball as part of the MLB’s Player Development Pipeline. The Appalachian League is no longer composed of professional rookie-level minor league players but instead features some of the top collegiate players from around the country. From the beginning, the league has noted that most of the new Appalachian League players are considered to be elite prospects to eventually become drafted out of the college ranks.
“With the league now featuring collegiate players, fans can really follow their careers throughout college,” Danny Shingleton, general manager of the Princeton WhistlePigs said. “Since collegiate baseball is before our season, they can go back and look at their stats and get to know the players better so they have an idea about who is on the team.”
Casual baseball fans to self-proclaimed talent scouts will find exciting thrills this year at the ballpark. In addition to the top players from across the country, the MLB and USA Baseball have provided top-notch hitting instructors, pitching coordinators and unprecedented technology to guarantee the highest quality experience for spectators.
“I think we are going to see a little bit of a different brand of baseball than we did with the minor leagues because these kids are very hungry to be noticed by the scouts and are going to put on the best show that they can — game in and game out,” Rocky Malamisura, general manager of the Bluefield Ridge Runners said.
Bluefield Ridge Runners
Formally known as the Bluefield Jays, the Bluefield Ridge Runners chose to honor Bluefield’s heritage of railroad and coal mining history with their new name. The Ridge Runners’ home field, Bowen Field at Peters Park, straddles the state line of Virginia and West Virginia, as did the namesake train in 1964. The Bluefield team has been around since the early 20th century, and like many things in our great state, has a storied past with coal mining. Baseball was encouraged as a morale-booster after the Mine Wars in 1921. Today, kids (and adults) can enjoy a ride on the Ridge Runner Train at Lotito Park, located just outside the right-field wall of Bowen Field. The long history associated with baseball in Bluefield and the community pride are on full display at the Ridge Runners’ ballpark. Families can enjoy good-natured banter and small-town friendliness in a beautiful natural setting.
“In a small town like Bluefield, summer evenings are spent at the ballpark and always have been,” Malamisura said. “It’s one of the few venues where you can go out and spend three hours of your time on a nice summer evening, have that kind of entertainment and feed your family for a great price.”– Rocky Malamisura
The Princeton WhistlePigs, formerly the Princeton Rays and originally known as the Pirates, were established in the 1980s. The development of the new team name had shared input, both locally and from professionals who develop brands for baseball. When Shingleton first arrived in Princeton he noticed the large number of groundhogs roaming around the campus of Princeton High School, so to pay homage to the charming West Virginia rodents, the team rebranded as the Princeton Whistlepigs, a colloquial name for groundhogs or woodchucks.
The future’s looking bright for the Ridge Runners and WhistlePigs, as both teams won their season openers on June 3. Bluefield defeated the Kingsport Axmen 9-6, while Princeton had a late-game rally to beat the Burlington Sock Puppets 9-7. The teams will have a 54-game season from June to August. Fans can view the entire 2021 schedule on the WhistlePigs and Ridge Runners websites.
“It’s a shorter season this year, but I think coming from a place of uncertainty about even having a season last year to a full summer of games is a good reason for our fans to be excited to come back and watch some baseball,” Shingleton said.-Danny Shingleton.
Even with the new beginnings for these teams, the county rivalry is still alive! The Mercer Cup is now retired, but plans to announce a new form of the Mercer Cup are in the works. For now, enjoy the return of America’s favorite pastime to Mercer County and support these local teams this summer!
Main Photo from lord_fife on Instagram.
This post was last updated on July 6, 2021