Those who love their Minor League Baseball served straight up, no chaser, would do well to spend some time watching games in the Appalachian League.
The Rookie-level circuit -- comprised of 10 teams scattered throughout Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina -- offers an intimate and no-frills setting that is largely devoid of the bells and whistles that have come to characterize the Minor League experience elsewhere. Between-inning games and contests are few, concession options are limited, and bleacher seating predominates.
As part of my current road trip, I visited two Appalachian League ballparks: Burlington's Athletic Stadium (home of the Royals) and Danville's American Legion Post 325 Field. What follows are some anecdotes and observations.
Heckler's paradise: At intimate stadiums such as Burlington Athletic Stadium, fans can make their voices heard. This is especially the case when the crowd is sparse, such as during Sunday's rain-soaked contest against Elizabethton (443 in attendance). Up in the top row of bleachers, along the first-base side, sat a loose conglomeration of fans with chants at the ready. With veteran heckler (and Minor League Baseball memorabilia collector) Randy Fruth leading the charge, these hardy half-dozen souls entertained (and annoyed) the masses with the following routines:
Situation: A Burlington runner reached third.
Chant: Wild Pitch! Wild Pitch! Wild Pitch!
Situation: A wild pitch actually occurs, allowing the runner to score (as was the case in the first inning, when Lane Adams scampered home after Matthew Bashore's wild offering).
Chant: Thank You! Thank You! Thank You!
Situation: Six-foot-7 Appalachian League home run leader Murray Watts comes to bat.
Chant: Mooooooooooooose! (accompanied by two fingers held up behind each side of the head, to approximate antlers).
Result: Watts went with 1-for-4 with a run scored but also swung and "moosed" quite a bit. He struck out twice.
Situation: Right fielder Jorge Bonificio comes to bat.
Chant: Hip Hip Jorge! Hip Hip Jorge! Hip Hip Jorge!
Result: The 18-year-old outfielder went 2-for-3 with a double, hit by pitch and run scored.
And, finally, the coup de grace --
Situation: An opposing coach or manager trudges out to the mound for a conference with the pitcher.
Chant: Yelling "Hup!" in time with each and every step the opposing manager takes, all the way there and all the way back.
Result: E-Twins Pitching coach Jim Shellenback couldn't help but be amused, waving to the fans from the dugout after his journey back from the mound.
"It's a little Rocky Horror [Picture Show]," said heckler Scott Jennings, a Durham Bulls season ticket holder who often makes the trek to Burlington. "But I think that we can get away with it at this level."
But that's not all: The B-Royals' most recognizable fan is 89-year-old Harrison Jones. The World War II veteran and retired builder has sung the National Anthem and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" hundreds -- if not thousands -- of times over the past several decades of Burlington Appalachian League baseball. He was not in his customary front-row seat at Sunday's rain-drenched game but nonetheless popped up in the seventh inning to lead fans through the stretch before departing as quickly as he came.
Sunday's inclement weather also stymied another Burlington tradition, as fan Kristi Parker didn't arrive in time to belt out her signature off-key version of the Green Acres theme song. The conglomerate of hecklers picked up the slack, however, letting it be known far and wide that Green Acres was indeed the place for them.
Brick by brick: Burlington Athletic Park has one of the most interesting origin stories in all of Minor League Baseball. The facility was originally built in Danville and served as the home of the Carolina League's Danville Leafs. When that team folded in 1958, the city of Danville sold the stadium to Burlington. It was disassembled, hauled over the state line to North Carolina and rebuilt in time for the 1960 campaign.
A natural setting: The Danville Braves are currently in their 19th season at American Legion Post 325 Field, one of the most unglamorously named stadiums in all of Minor League Baseball. As the name would indicate, the 2,500-seat city-owned facility also hosts American Legion Baseball, and local high school and colleges utilize it as well.
The stadium is located within 170-acre Dan Daniel Memorial Park, which also includes hiking trails, picnic areas, a playground, youth baseball diamonds, soccer fields and a gleaming Veterans Memorial. This curving 156-foot-long granite wall commemorates local veterans who have been killed in action, from the Revolutionary War through Iraq and Afghanistan.
So many Dans: A visitor to Danville (such as myself) might assume that the town was named after the aforementioned Dan Daniel. This is not the case. The town was named after the 214-mile Dan River, which itself was named by settler William Byrd in the 18th century.
Dan Daniel, meanwhile, was a Danville native and longtime member of the House of Representatives. A Democrat, Daniel was first elected in 1969 and held his position until dying in office in 1988 at the age of 73. A commemorative plaque in the park which bears his name notes that "his fiscal conservatism was exceeded only by his liberal love of family and nation."
Seeing double: No, that is not an error in your gameday program -- the D-Braves do indeed have two outfielders by the name of "K. Fleming". That would be 21-year-old Kenny and 19-year-old Kurt and, yes, they are brothers. Both were drafted by the Braves in 2010 -- Kurt in the eighth round and older sibling Kenny in the 30th.
Regional delicacies: One does not go to an Appalachian League stadium expecting haute cuisine, but there are nonetheless items to keep an eye out for. The B-Royals proudly serve Cheerwine, a cherry-flavored soda found throughout the state of North Carolina (during my travels this week, I found it on draft, in glass bottles and sold as a dessert float).
The D-Braves, meanwhile, offer a "Bologna Burger." I had never ordered such a thing before, and when I told this to the master bolognist working the grill he informed me that "You don't want nothin' on it but peppers, onions and mustard. That's how they serve 'em at the racetrack."