Pioneer Park, home of the Greeneville Astros, is the newest stadium in the Appalachian League. When the stadium opened, in 2004, it marked the first time the venerable Rookie-level circuit had fielded a team from Greeneville since the 1942 Burley Cubs.
Despite this long layoff, echoes of Greeneville's baseball history still reverberate throughout Pioneer Park. The Astros, perennial Appy League attendance leaders, have a strong core of longtime season ticket holders whose steady presence at the ballpark connects Greeneville's present with its past.
During Saturday's ballgame, a six o'clock affair between the Astros and Johnson City Cardinals, I spoke with several of these dedicated fans.
The Greeneville Burley Cubs -- named after the burley tobacco that was one of the region's cash crops -- played in the Appalachian League from 1921-25 and again from 1938-1942. One of the team's most famous alumni was Greeneville native Dale Alexander, a member of the 1923 squad who, in 1932, won an American League batting title as a member of the Boston Red Sox. He went on to work as a scout, and in this capacity discovered Willie McCovey.
Dale Alexander is the most prominent member of a family that is synonymous with Greeneville baseball; a plaque in Pioneer Park's small but lovingly curated baseball history museum explains that "these grandfathers, uncles, fathers, sons, brothers, and cousins have been a part of our community and national baseball history for over 100 years."
This includes Dale's son, Steve Alexander, who was watching the game from the concourse behind home plate. Steve, bespectacled and wearing an orange T-shirt commemorating the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park, will celebrate his 80th birthday this December. His playing days aren't far behind him, however.
"I was a pitcher, and played until I was 76," said Alexander. "I pitched two nine-inning ballgames in the Roy Hobbs Senior World Series, in Fort Myers, Florida."
Alexander's playing career was at the semipro and amateur levels. As he puts it, he didn't have to wait long "for God to tell me that I was a better tobacco farmer than I was a baseball player."
"I couldn't throw 90 miles an hour. I was what you'd call a 'junker,'" he said. "And I was laid back. It didn't bother me if the bases were loaded. I either got 'em out or I didn't."
Alexander attended the first-ever Greeneville Astros game in 2004 and has been a laid-back regular at Pioneer Park ever since.
"I like to win, but I just enjoy the game and the fellowship of the other people," he said.
Norma, Betty and Joyce, sisters hailing from Mosheim, Tennessee, are Pioneer Park regulars.
One of Steve Alexander's many teammates through the years was a man by the name of Bill Yates, from nearby Mosheim. Yates and his wife, Florence, have both since passed, but they, too, enjoyed attending Astros games. It was Florence's love for the team that inspired three of her sisters -- Joyce, Betty and Norma -- to become season ticket holders.
Joyce, Betty and Norma, easily identifiable as sisters via their striking manes of white hair, sit behind home plate. They all live in Mosheim, coming to Greeneville regularly to do their shopping and, in the summer, watch baseball.
"We're just glad Greeneville has a ballpark," said Joyce, the youngest of 12. "It's gorgeous, the best around."
"I love everything about it," added Betty. "It's just exciting to come here."
Joyce, Betty and Norma have seen many players pass through the Appalachian League, but when it comes to picking a favorite they all agree: Jose Altuve, who played in Greeneville in 2008 and '09 en route to becoming an All-Star second baseman in Houston.
"We all loved him," said Betty. "He was a little fireball, a great player."
During Saturday's ballgame, the Astros made the usual array of celebratory PA announcements. But amid the litany of happy birthdays and group welcomes one announcement stood out: "Happy 69th Wedding Anniversary, Arthur and Edith Ricker."
The Rickers were located in their usual concourse-level seats on the first base side of the ballpark. Arthur, a 95-year-old World War II veteran, was wearing a green John Deere cap and a collared shirt celebrating the small Greeneville suburb in which Pioneer Park is actually located: "Tusculum, TN, A Great Place to Live."
Edith, a woman with a ready smile and mischievous sense of humor, explained that "I've been from here my whole life. I've been from here since before I was born." When I asked if I could take a photo of her and Arthur, she replied with "Do you want me to stick out my tongue?"
Arthur, upon hearing that I lived in New York City, reminisced on long-ago trips to the Big Apple during which he visited the Empire State and RCA Buildings. He also spoke about his time during the war; he was an infantryman and, at one point, spent time in "seven countries in 11 months." If Edith thought that Arthur was maybe rambling a little bit, she'd give him a playful slap on the thigh and say "Oh, Arthur!"
After 69 years of marriage, the ballpark was where Arthur and Edith wanted to be. As Steve Alexander had noted, Pioneer Park is a place of fellowship.
"We come to every game," said Edith. "He likes to watch the game. I just like to see the people."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.