Joe O’Brien, Home of the Elizabethton Twins, Should NOT be Renovated

Marky Billson, Host of Tri-Cities Sports NOW

Today the Elizabethton City Council will vote on spending $1.5 million to renovate Joe O’Brien Field to keep the Elizabethton Twins in town for a minimum of five years.

Among the renovations that must be made to be compliant with professional baseball are larger clubhouses and umpires rooms.

There’s no question the ballpark needs renovation. The signage “Welcome to the Show” that still greets the fans at the ballpark is from 1995.


The problem is this money was originally slated to be spent on renovating the Elizabethton Police Station and building a sports arena at Cherokee Industrial Park.

That’s not a good swap.

It could be argued having a professional baseball team in town makes Elizabethton one of the more famous small towns in America. It’s a line on the back of a baseball card or in various sports pages across the country (though often misspelled as Elizabethtown) and certainly every baseball fan in Minnesota knows where the home of Milligan College and Jason Witten is, even if they don’t make the connection.

Professional sports add a cosmopolitan feel to a city. They are why Oscar Goodman, the former mayor of Las Vegas, was so adamant his city, hardly short on entertainment, have them.

Now Vegas is a place to live, not just visit.

But Elizabethton is NEVER going to be cosmopolitan.

The problem with the Appalachian League is with so many franchises in one metropolitan market they don’t bring a cosmopolitan feel. They bring a high school mentality. Instead of a metropolitan area united around a single sports franchise, like East Tennessee State should be and the Tennessee Volunteers are, it’s still Elizabethton playing against Greeneville like the Cyclones will play the Greene Devils tomorrow.

Only in pro baseball there aren’t local players. There’s a reason why on the overlapping high school football Friday nights the high school football stadiums around here have fans but the minor league ballparks are empty.

And frankly, the talent in the Appalachian League is dubious. Maybe three or four players on a team will ever play in the majors. A smaller percentage will become notable players, and they will just pass through.

Even the way the major league teams slot their talent in the Appalachian League isn’t equal. The reason why the Elizabethton Twins win so much is Minnesota ranks their Appalachian League team higher on player development chain than any other major league franchise. The Appy League isn’t even the best Rookie League. That’s the Pioneer League. Frankly of all the professional leagues designed to draw fans, the Appy League ranks at the very bottom of the talent pool.

Don’t the Tri-Cities deserve more? As a Top 100 TV market the area is ripe for having better professional sports, such as, if a new arena was ever built, the ECHL, G-League, and Indoor Football.

Or AA baseball. Which could replace the Appalachian League, give the entire team a market to rally around, certainly be more professionally run, give the area more of a cosmopolitan feel, and offer recognizable players on their way to the majors.

The area would have to be drafted, but a team could, at least in the short term, play at an existing ballpark in Greeneville, Johnson City or Kingsport.

The Cincinnati Reds are moving their AA affiliation from Pensacola to Chattanooga. Why couldn’t that have been the Tri-Cities? The policy of most major league teams is to have their AA team nearby for an easy call up and to breed fan support. It’s the same distance from the Tri-Cities to AAA Louisville or Cincinnati by car and the Reds could grow their Tri-Cities fan base.

Chattanooga will always be an Atlanta Braves town. It’s simply a matter of geography.

And the City of Elizabethton, and Bristol in the future, would not be asked to spend millions of dollars better served for an entity that doesn’t keep the area down.

The agreement to be voted on tonight would have the O’Brien Field operations joined by a third party. If it is Boyd Sports, then four of the five professional sports franchises in Northeast Tennessee (Johnson City Cardinals, Greeneville Reds, Tennessee Smokies) would be run by this less-than-media-friendly organization.

It appears the renovations to O’Brien Field are a done deal. If approved by Elizabethton City Council tonight, construction on the new ballpark is slated to begin tomorrow.

But the fact the government officials, City Managers and Mayor, have rejected all inquiries I have made for two years to discuss this matter on my talk show, Tri-Cities Sports NOW, comes with the appearance of shoving this through. If the news comes out more than just a few days ahead of the vote the money for O’Brien Field will come at the expense of police and youth sports, it’s very likely the residents of Elizabethton would think driving seven miles to Johnson City to see a minor league baseball game is a good alternative.

And that would provide the opportunity for the area to become more cosmopolitan instead of keeping the small-minded status quo.

Or at least have more competitive balance in the Appalachian League for as long as the Tri-Cities has it.

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