PRINCETON — As efforts are being made to keep Mercer County’s two minor league baseball teams, area leaders say the loss of the Princeton Rays and Bluefield Blue Jays would have a multitude of negative consequences on the area.
The issue recently surfaced because the current Professional Baseball Agreement between the Major League Baseball (MLB) and Minor League Baseball expires at the end of the 2020 season.
Negotiations continue but more than 40 minor league teams may be on the chopping block at the end of the 2020 season, including nine of the 10 teams in this region’s Appalachian League.
State and federal elected leaders are involved and trying to save the teams.
Local officials say the impact of losing the teams should not be underestimated.
Dewey Russell, a member of Princeton Town Council and president of the Princeton Baseball Association, said the teams mean a lot to the area in many ways.
“What is disturbing to me is they forget about the importance of a minor league team to communities like Princeton, Bluefield, Bristol and Danville,” he said, referring to other teams in the Appalachian League that stand to be gone. “Last summer, over 44,000 people visited the games (in Mercer County).”
Russell said the association, as the baseball association in Bluefield, maintains the field and keeps it at professional levels with the MLB paying the players.
“We just break even,” he said. “We are not out to make any money.”
The community gets involved as well and helps the players.
“We have an adopt a player program,” he said, with local volunteers acting as surrogate parents for the players who are young and trying to succeed and may be away from the families for the first time.
“It’s a good thing for our communities,” he said, adding that “we have tremendous support from our local businesses as well. It’s a community effort.”
Russell said winter meetings that involve the leagues are set in early December in San Diego, Calif.
“We always send someone,” he said. “We just don’t know how this is going to go.”
But the bottom line, he said, is that for the MLB, it’s about money.
“Money drives the major league teams,” he said. “People drive us.”
Princeton City Manager Mike Webb said he is concerned about the financial impact of losing the teams.
“Multiple communities are being impacted,” he said, adding that having the teams bring in money and help with economic development, affecting a network of communities, not just one.”
Jim Spencer, community and economic development director for Bluefield, agrees.
“It’s not just about the city but the region,” he said, adding that the teams coming in to play stay at area hotels and eat at restaurants and shop. “It’s the financial impact.”
Families of players of visiting teams also come to the area to watch the games, he added, and even use Mercer County Airport on occasion.
Spencer said it’s also about adding a meaningful presence to the area.
“To me, it’s one of those quality of life issues,” he said of the teams that play every summer in .
Bluefield plays at Bowen Field and Princeton at Hunnicutt Stadium.
Spencer is also a baseball fan, he said, and a member of the Bluefield Baseball Association.
Having the smaller farm teams in towns also gives players a chance to move up to the major league who may otherwise not have it.
Spencer said several professional Major League Baseball players have played in this area before being brought up through the system.
“They may never have made it to the major leagues without these local teams,” he said.
The Bluefield and Princeton teams can also be used as a tool to attract business and industry to the area.
Spencer said he has taken representatives from Intuit and other companies to games.
The California-based information technology company announced earlier this year it was locating in downtown Bluefield, eventually bringing up to 500 jobs.
“We have used it (Bluefield Blue Jays) as a business attraction,” he said.
There has been a minor league team in Bluefield for over 70 years and Princeton first got a team in 1988.
“Minor League Baseball is a critical part of West Virginia’s future,” Gov. Jim Justice said last week. “I am working to find a real solution on this issue, starting at the top with (MLB) Commissioner (Rob) Manfred. I am confident we can show Commissioner Manfred what a fantastic partner MLB has in the great state of West Virginia.”
Along with Justice, other West Virginia political leaders have come out in opposition to the proposal, including U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.“Minor league baseball has become a part of the fabric of many West Virginia towns. I have stressed to both Major League and Minor League Baseball my hope and encouragement to work together and also with the impacted communities and franchises,” Capito said.U.S.
Senator Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., issued a statement Tuesday saying that losing these teams would hurt the communities and people that support them.“I will do everything I can to protect minor league baseball in West Virginia because many of these teams have been pillars of the community for decades. I’m contacting everyone I know in the MLB to ask them to consider the consequences of scrapping our local teams.”
A bipartisan letter was sent by 106 members of the U.S. House Representatives led by Congressman David McKinley, R-W.Va., to Manfred opposing MLB’s proposal. The letter was also signed by U.S. Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va., and U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith. R-W.Va.
McKinley and Lori Trahan (D-MA) said the response from the MLB last week was not encouraging.
“We were disappointed by Commissioner Manfred’s dismissive tone toward ongoing negotiations surrounding the future of Minor League Baseball,” they said in a joint statement. “When we lead our bipartisan call with 104 of our colleagues expressing concern with the MLB’s plans to eliminate as many as 42 affiliated teams, we did so on behalf of communities that stand to lose out on the deal – not as a public relations ploy. Minor League teams provide an enormous cultural and economic benefit to the communities they call home. Their abandonment by Major League Baseball would devastate them, their bond purchasers, and other stakeholders affected by the potential loss of these teams. “
They said it’s appropriate that the MLB “fully understands the real impact their plans could have on the communities we represent.”
“Congress has long been a partner with the MLB in preserving and growing our national pastime, and we expect our concerns to be taken seriously as negotiations continue,” they said.
Both Mercer County teams have had numerous top players come through.
Fans in Princeton got to see the current top prospect in baseball Wander Franco in 2018 when he won the Appalachian League Player of the Year.
“Simply put, these teams have to be preserved for all involved and the goodness of our communities,” Justice said.
Contact Charles Boothe at email@example.com