"It's like stepping back in time."
That's how Elizabethton Twins general manager Mike Mains describes Joe O'Brien Field, which has hosted the club since its inaugural 1974 season.
"We focus on the community," he continued. "We're laid back, but we take care of the people. We keep the prices low and have lots of free-admission nights."
A night at Joe O'Brien Field may well be the best bargain in Minor League Baseball. A general admission bleacher ticket costs $4, while a fixed seat runs $2 more. No matter where you sit, it'll be in the vicinity of clanging cowbells, a long-established fan tradition. Elizabethton is in dairy country, and an annual pregame cow-milking contest between players on both teams is a staple of the promotional calendar. While I wouldn't necessarily recommend betting on such an endeavor, one fan told me that "whoever wins the cow milking contest wins the game."
I visited Joe O'Brien Field for the E-Twins' June 29 home opener, as the team celebrated its 43rd consecutive season as the Twins' Rookie-level affiliate in the Appalachian League. In a notable break of standard Minor League Baseball operating procedure, the home opener doubled as a free admission night. Fans simply ambled in and out of the ballpark as they pleased; the night's attendance was later announced at 1,003.
Mains is soft-spoken and exudes kindness in his interactions with others. (On two separate occasions during my recent Appalachian League trip, I was told by executives with other teams that he is "the nicest man in Minor League Baseball.") He explained that the team is operated by the city of Elizabethton and that his general manager position is an extension of his role as the city's parks and recreation director. In that capacity, he oversees the use and care of 101 acres of public parkland.
"I was a parks and recreation major [in college] and always wanted to work in pro sports," said Mains, whose father, Harold, serves a dual role as team president and chaplain. "So when this opened, it was perfect for me ... [Joe O'Brien Field] is the jewel of our system."
Being a general manager of an Appalachian League club is a full-time job in and of itself, but Mains has to balance his E-Twins responsibilities with his commitments to the rest of the city's park system.
"There's probably no other general manager who, on July 4th, is preparing a celebration downtown and then back at the ballpark at night for a game with fireworks," he said.
But this hectic summertime schedule is worth the stress, according to Mains. Elizabethton has a population of approximately 14,000; for a town of that size to have a Minor League Baseball team is a particular point of pride.
The 2016 Elizabethton Twins assemble for the National Anthem prior to the June 29 game vs. Pulaski
The team has been a Minnesota Twins affiliate for the entirety of its existence, a 43-season relationship that is the longest in the Appalachian League and the fifth longest in all of Minor League Baseball. A veritable who's who of future Twins stars started their careers in Elizabethton; banners hung on the fences beyond the last row of seats celebrate the likes of Kent Hrbek (1979), Kirby Puckett (1982), Justin Morneau (2000) and Joe Mauer (2001). The majority of the players who have come through have played under the guidance of Ray Smith, who made his professional debut with the 1977 E-Twins and is now in his 22nd season as manager and 30th consecutive as a member of the coaching staff.
"When Minnesota first came here in 1974, it was just on the basis of a handshake," said Mains. "When [current Twins general manager] Terry Ryan is in town, and guys like that, we're all on a first-name basis. It's good."
There is concern, however, that this long-running relationship could come to an end. The Twins have committed to spend approximately $600,000 toward a series of improvements to Joe O'Brien Field, including new clubhouses and the installation of new seats in places of bleachers, but this is approximately one third of what the overall proposed renovation project will cost. Mains expressed hope that the Elizabethton City Council will set aside funds for the remainder of the project, thereby ensuring that the relationship with the Twins continues for years to come.
On June 30, the city finalized its budget without including the necessary funds. Mayor Curt Alexander did remark, however, that the city still had "some money set aside" and there were "some other items we could pull from as well."
In the meantime, an evening at Joe O'Brien Field will continue to be "the step back in time" that makes it such a memorable and endearing place to see a game. A place where a thick-cut bologna sandwich and a bottle of Dr. Enuf soda (a regional favorite) will set you back $5, where the sounds of the Watauga River running beyond third base provide an ambient backdrop and where, of course, the cow bells are omnipresent.
"This is a simple place," said Mains. "And it goes hand-in-hand with baseball."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.