Getting ready start the season

Princeton Senior High School product, Zach Powell, throws a bullpen session under the watchful eye of pitching coach Hector Mercado during the Princeton WhistlePigs first practice.

PRINCETON — Appalachian League Baseball returned to Mercer County Thursday with a new Appalachian League that differs in several significant ways from the one that last played here during the summer of 2019.

The Princeton WhistlePigs held their season opener Hunnicutt Stadium against the Burlington Sock Puppets Thursday evening with a second game scheduled for tonight at 7 p.m.

In the pre-COVID days of 2019, the two teams were known as the Princeton Rays and Burlington Royals — both being rookie ball affiliates of the same-named major league organizations.

The Bluefield Ridge Runners opened on the road versus the Kingsport Axmen in Kingsport, Tennessee. The two teams were previously known as the Bluefield Blue Jays and the Kingsport Mets, respectively. The Ridge Runners’ home opener at Bowen Field is set for 6:30 p.m. Saturday, when they’re slated to face the visiting Greeneville Flyboys. Princeton, conversely, will hit the road Saturday for a two-game road series at the Pulaski River Turtles (formerly known as the Pulaski Yankees.)

The New Appalachian League is no longer comprised of professional rookie-level minor league players. Instead, the new league is overseen by USA Baseball in conjunction with Major League Baseball — which still owns the Appalachian League — and is part of major league baseball’s Player Development Pipeline. The rosters — most of which were not officially posted on the Appalachian League web site until Wednesday night — are comprised of college players, chiefly rising freshman and sophomores.

From the outset, the league has said most of the New Appalachian League’s players are considered to be elite prospects to become eventually drafted out of the college ranks.

“We tried to get our roster out [on Tuesday night] but we had some issues,” said Ridge Runners General Manager Rocky Malamisura, whose organization was not the only team in the Appalachian League ironing out roster details down to the wire.

Both local Appalachian League ballclubs have begun their respective seasons earlier than would have been the case in the old league, arriving while local high school baseball seasons — both in West Virginia and Virginia — are still under way. The overlap has been somewhat exacerbated by the late starts of prep baseball in both states as a result of COVID altered school athletic calendars for the 2020-21 school year. But a June 3 start is still significantly earlier than past Appalachian League seasons.

A lot of things are different now. The two Mercer county entities that fielded the Rays and the Blue Jays — Princeton Baseball Association and Bluefield Baseball Club — had long worked in a near-symbiotic relationship with the long-established Appalachian League and major league farm system hierarchies. This is the first time any of these teams have worked with USA Baseball — which governs amateur baseball. The new relationship is a work in progress.

“It’s a whole new organization with USA Baseball running it. So we’re trying to get used to the way they want things done ... we’re just trying to follow the guidelines with them,” said Princeton WhistlePigs GM Danny Shingleton.

One thing that is strikingly different at Princeton this year is that there have been no “meet and greet” promotions at Hunnicutt Field arranged where fans will get to mix and mingle with the team’s new players. As stewards of players who also have active, ongoing relationships with college programs, USA baseball has laid down some very stringent COVID protocols at all Appalachian League ballfields.

“All the players went through their COVID testing [on Tuesday]. Right now until everything gets finalized, there will be no fan interaction with players. We’re hoping that within a couple of weeks or a month it will change, but even in that case there will still be social distancing in place, but we’re hoping there can be some access to the players,” Shingleton said.

WhistlePigs Team Manager Patrick Anderson has more than two decades worth of baseball coaching experience — including a stint in the old Appalachian League as a batting instructor for the Burlington Royals.

“I coached a long time ago in the Cape Cod League, so I’m pretty familiar with the college setting with regards to summer ball. That was a while ago, I don’t know how much has changed,” Anderson said.

“The biggest thing is, we’re just trying to get to know these kids and in professional baseball, we get to know them really, really well. This is kind of like the first part ... when kids just get drafted. We get two months with them ... it’s not as lengthy as a full season.

“We’re just trying to get them acclimated to professional baseball ... it’s a matter of playing every day for two months and getting them used to that routine. To learn how to take care of their body and understand what it means to play every single day like in professional baseball,” he said.

— Contact George Thwaites at sports@bdtonline.com

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