But in the eyes of many Bluefield fans, the 2011 campaign can be judged a success no matter what happens from here on out. For on Wednesday evening, the Blue Jays defeated the Princeton Rays by a score of 4-2. This was the Blue Jays' sixth win against the Rays in 10 games, ensuring that the club had won the best-of-11 season series.
In doing so, they attained bragging rights in what its participants believe is the biggest rivalry in all of Minor League Baseball: Bluefield vs. Princeton, fighting annually for the coveted Mercer Cup.
Upping the ante
The Mercer Cup is named after Mercer County, the West Virginia region that encompasses both Bluefield and Princeton. The two cities, both possessing a history deeply tied to the symbiotic relationship between the coal and railroad industries, are a mere 12 miles apart. This is as short a distance as one can find within the world of Minor League Baseball and, as the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt.
As Bluefield general manager Chris Maxwell succinctly puts it: "This is Hatfield vs. McCoy country."
The Mercer Cup, awarded annually to the winner of the 11-game season series between Bluefield and Princeton, is a tradition that dates back to 1992. The "cup" in question is in actuality an imposing three-tiered trophy, about which Princeton general manager Jim Holland says, "I'm six-feet tall, and it comes up to my neck. It's that big a deal."
The Week That Was
Liddi lofts three
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Cron's '11 cut short
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Lyons' historic no-no
Tyler Lyons threw the first no-hitter in Palm Beach Cardinals history Monday, in a 10-0 rout of Fort Myers.
NYPL All-Star Game
H ost Lowell will see its outfield trio play in the 2011 New York-Penn League All-Star Game on Monday, Aug. 15.
'Catch' McCann's rehab
Brian McCann will be on MiLB.TV all weekend as he rehabs with Gwinnett, which will be hos ting Pawtucket.
Johan Yan keeps Frisco in games and in the race, but a visit to NW Arkansas will pose a challenge.
The Mercer Cup is Holland's brainchild, an idea that he came up with just prior to the start of his first season as the team's general manager.
"I went out to lunch one day in April [of 1992], and this guy stopped me and said, 'I want to be involved with your ballclub,'" recalled Holland. "It turned out he owned a trophy store, and within two minutes, I'd concocted the idea of the Cup. I called [then-Bluefield general manager] George McGonagle and he was all for it, and off it went. It's done nothing but continue to grow and grow, becoming a real conversation piece in this area."
With Wednesday's victory, Bluefield moved to 11-8-1 in the all-time Mercer Cup series. The reigning champ gets custody of the cup for the year, and if one team wins for three years in a row then that particular cup is retired. Bluefield has two retired cups in its possession, while Princeton earned its first after winning from 2005-07.
And to the victor go the spoils.
"The first thing we'd do, whenever we won the Mercer Cup, was take it all around town," said McGonagle, a Bluefield baseball icon with nearly six decades of professional experience. "We'd take it to bank lobbies, the library and places like that. We want people to see it, because they know exactly what it is and what it means."
"Everywhere I go, I'll get asked about the Mercer Cup. It really does mean a lot to the fans," he added. "The more excitement we can provide, the more fun they'll have."
Bluefield's 2011 Mercer Cup win comes amidst a season of significant change for the franchise. This past offseason, the Baltimore Orioles decided not to renew their Player Development Contract with Bluefield, thus ending a 53-season relationship (what had been the longest-running affiliation in all of Minor League Baseball).
But Bluefield remained for the birds, with the Toronto Blue Jays swooping in as the new parent club. Overseeing this new era is Maxwell, who is in his first season as the team's general manager.
"One of the key phrases for us this season has been 'heart in the past, eyes on the future,'" said Maxwell, who previously served as general manager of the Pioneer League's Casper Ghosts. "That's something we've really embraced."
And along the way, Maxwell has received a crash course in small-town West Virginia sports culture.
"It's a different deal here. The fans, they do not kid around. They want to win, and they want to win bad," he said. "A high school atmosphere might be a better way to describe it, there's a lot more yelling back and forth than at an average game."
"If you gave fans a choice whether we could win the Appalachian League championship or the Mercer Cup, a lot of them would say 'Mercer Cup.' I don't think you'd hear that anywhere else in Minor League Baseball."
Indeed, Minor League Baseball is an especially tough environment in which to cultivate true sporting rivalries. For one thing, many fans are lured by the promise of affordable family-friendly entertainment, reveling in the social aspect and between-inning hi-jinx more than the action on the field. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, is the amorphous and ever-shifting nature of Minor League rosters. Promotions, demotions, trades, cuts and injuries ensure that change is the only constant.
Teams in the Appalachian League are somewhat immune from this first factor, as promotional bells and whistles and ballpark distractions are few and far between in such a rustic Rookie-level atmosphere. But the roster instability remains, a point that was made in almost comic fashion on Wednesday night. The Blue Jays' offensive star in the Cup-clinching win was Dalton Pompey, who went 3-for-4 with two doubles and also made a clutch diving catch late in the game. It was the 18-year-old center fielder's Bluefield debut, coming less than an hour after he arrived at Bowen Field after traveling from the Blue Jays' Spring Training complex in Dunedin, Fla.
Though the players might not have the time to immerse themselves in the local culture, they'll soon learn that games between Bluefield and Princeton have an increased importance in the eyes of the fans. The Blue Jays even keep one of their retired Mercer Cups in the clubhouse, as a reminder of what's at stake.
"I want to make the players realize that this is a tradition, and one that means a lot to the people of this city," said Blue Jays manager Dennis Holmberg, speaking on Wednesday afternoon before the Mercer Cup victory was secured. "It would certainly be a prideful moment, to be able to hoist up the Cup after the game."
And indeed, the Blue Jays were able to do just that. But no matter who wins in any given year, the song from both sides is going to remain the same.
"It's great if a rivalry can make the competition more intense, but either way we're going to be hustling and playing hard, and [Princeton] will be doing the same" said Holmberg. "Everyone out there is chasing the same dream."