PRINCETON — At H.P. Hunnicutt Field, the grass is mowed, signs are ready to go up and tickets have been printed for the 2021 baseball season of the new Appalachian League.
When the season begins on Thursday though, things will be different from the Appy League of the past.
The WhistlePigs have taken over.
The league was reinvented over the past year after Major League Baseball (MLB) ended its longstanding agreement to staff Appy League teams with paid players and coaches from its own development systems.
In its place, MLB and USA Baseball agreed to create a summer collegiate league that is part of their joint Prospect Development Pipeline (PDP). That announcement came in September 2020.
National team scouts from MLB clubs and USA Baseball will assess talent through “both in-person observation and state-of-the-art scouting technology,” according to a news release. It said that those assessments may lead to professional baseball careers or consideration for the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team and other future national teams.
The changeover meant that Appy League teams no longer could use MLB identifiers like the Rays or the Reds.
Each Appalachian League team re-branded with a new name, and most attempted to reflect their local heritage or environment with their choice.
Princeton, the last of the 11 Appy League teams to make their selection public, became the WhistlePigs, a nod to the groundhogs known to frequent southern West Virginia.
Much of the behind-the-scenes personnel has remained the same in Princeton. The facility and support operations are still directed by general manager Danny Shingleton. Dewey Russell remains president of the Princeton Baseball Association.
Wes McKinney will call this season’s home games on the radio, and brothers Tom and Eric Lester are again handling public address announcing details at the ballpark.
“We’re excited about the season,” Shingleton said on Wednesday. His weekend will be busy, since the baseball team of Princeton Senior High School will play its last home game of the 2021 regular season on Friday.
“Then we’ll give everything a good cleaning,” Shingleton said.
In April, Shingleton announced that Patrick Anderson will manage the WhistlePigs for 2021, leading the players along with his coaching staff.
Anderson has more than two decades of coaching experience, including seven years as a manager. Six of those managerial seasons were spent with the Hagerstown (Md.) Suns, a farm club of the Washington Nationals. His Suns won the South Atlantic League championship in 2016.
Anderson played college baseball at Mars Hill (N.C.) College and spent three seasons in the Frontier League. He has coached at Gannon and Hofstra universities, and in the Kansas City Royals organization, including a stop in Burlington, N.C., as hitting coach.
Shingleton said in a release announcing Anderson’s appointment, “Patrick has had success at every level he has coached and has emphasized a culture of development that aligns with the values of the new Appalachian League. He is a tremendous addition to our WhistlePigs family and we cannot wait to watch him lead this team this summer.”
Anderson is expected to arrive in Princeton on Monday, Shingleton said.
The vast majority of the players are college student-athletes. The roster for the WhistlePigs had not been released at press time.
The team is to begin workouts in Princeton on Tuesday, but they will do so in practices closed to the public. Shingleton said USA Baseball does not permit pre-season interaction between fans and the public or the media.
Shingleton said that with the new Appy League format, “Fans can follow (the players’) progression through college. … We have quite a few D-2 (NCAA Division II) kids on the roster.”
Joe Szekely, who managed the Princeton Rays in 2008, is on Anderson’s staff as hitting coach. Mac Seibert, a former player in the Tampa Bay minor league system, is the new team’s player development coach. Hector Mercado, a veteran of 112 games in the major leagues, is the pitching coach.
The WhistlePigs’ first opponent is the Burlington Sock Puppets, managed by former Cy Young Award winner Jack McDowell. The two teams will play a two-game series next Thursday and Friday at Hunnicutt Field starting at 7 p.m.
McDowell won the American League Cy Young in 1993 while pitching for the Chicago White Sox. In his 12-year career in the majors, the 6-foot-5 hurler had 277 appearances and recorded 1,311 strikeouts, and was selected an All-Star three years in a row.
Turning to coaching, he has worked at both the minor-league and collegiate levels over the past decade. He was the first ever head baseball coach for Queens University in Charlotte, N.C., in 2018-19, and managed two outposts in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ farm system.
Princeton’s first games against the new Bluefield franchise, the Ridge Runners, will take place on the Hunnicutt turf on June 14 and 15.
The regular season is scheduled to end on Aug. 7, when the WhistlePigs will again be playing at home. The Appy League championship game is set for Monday, Aug. 9.