Doomsday Approaches the Elizabethton Twins
With the City of Elizabethton yanking funding for O’Brien Field’s potential renovation, the final nail in the coffin may have been placed.
This may be one of the worst weeks in the history of Tri-Cities sports.
The Food City 500 was delayed to the point nobody watched it when it was completed.
The town of Unicoi pulled its offer to buy Buffalo Valley Golf Course. It wasn’t going to be accepted because it was such a low ball offer, but the land’s use for sports is probably over.
ETSU had a chance to sweep the Vols in baseball and failed.
And the City of Elizabethton officially pulled its offer of $1.5 million to renovate Joe O’Brien Field last night.
Maybe the latter will ultimately be a positive. If Elizabethton doesn’t renovate Joe O’Brien Field, it will no longer be a minor league baseball park. There may be high school and college games there, but the standards of professional baseball will no longer allow it to hold a pro team until the renovations to locker and umpires rooms are made, let alone the limited view seating removed, as Appalachian League President Lee Landers told me last year on 1420 NBC Sports Radio’s Tri-Cities Sports NOW with Marky Billson.
And if O’Brien Field isn’t a minor league park, then it becomes that much easier for the area to be drafted by a major league organization for a AA team.
But for now, it appears the only way Appalachian League baseball will return to Elizabethton is if the Minnesota Twins continue their desire for an Appalachian League team. Brad Steil, their minor league operations director, told me last year the Twins had no plans to leave the Appalachian League.
But that was last year.
The Minnesota Twins have always weighted Elizabethton with better players than their competition. The Twins have no Pioneer or New York-Penn League affiliate, so essentially Elizabethton often has players who in other organizations would be playing Short Season A ball playing on a Rookie League level.
That’s the reason Elizabethton hasn’t had a losing season since 1988, but when a player is called up the leap to the Midwest League, a full-season A circuit is perhaps the biggest in all of minor league baseball.
With a second year General Manager and President on board, perhaps Minnesota is changing their organizational philosophy on developing baseball players. This one has been in place since Calvin Griffin owned the franchise.
If Minnesota wishes to continue fielding an Appalachian League team, there are a host of suitors. Though there’s no ballpark presently available for them to do so, the Tennessee Smokies are reportedly interested in moving back to Knoxville. Fielding an Appalachian League team with a Southern League club in Smokies Park would ease the future transition, and the Twins would have their Rookie League affiliate playing in a far better ballpark than anything O’Brien Field will ever be. Boyd Sports, which briefly considered running the Elizabethton Twins before pulling out due to the franchise’s instability, could easily take over operations in 2019.
Or, Blacksburg, Virginia would be a possibility, with Virginia Tech’s English Field receiving an $18 million renovation. This would also give Pulaski a travel partner and natural rival.
If the Twins do leave Elizabethton the city could use the $1.5 million bond on road work and renovations to the Bonnie Kate Theatre while continuing to have a viable facility for amateur baseball as the park currently stands.
Fans in the community will have a team only seven miles away with easy access off two highways from Elizabethton in the Johnson City Cardinals, while the Bristol Pirates are an option for other parts of Carter County.
The Appalachian League is at a turning point. The antiquated way of a City Parks and Recreation department running a club on a non-profit basis without a marketing department, as the Elizabethton Twins are, is simply not viable in the future.
While Elizabethton would lose identity, historically when the Twins have played for league championships on an August Friday when Elizabethton High School has a football game, O’Brien Field is empty.
The reality is five rookie league teams in the Tri-Cities are too many, and the Elizabethton Twins have become to the Appalachian League what the Portsmouth Spartans were to the National Football League.