Lynchburg City Stadium, the home of the Hillcats, is charming, intimate and historic. And, over the past four seasons, it has been considerably transformed.
The Hillcats -- Class A Advanced affiliate of the Cleveland Indians -- played their first season in the Carolina League in 1966 (only Winston-Salem has continuously operated a franchise in the circuit for longer). The Hillcats moniker was first adopted in 1995, marking the first time the team did not adopt the name of its parent club. Calvin Falwell, for whom City Stadium's field is named, brought the team to Lynchburg and served as chairman of the board of the Lynchburg Baseball Corporation (LBC) until his death in 2011 at the age of 90. Falwell's passing came amid a period of uncertainty for the franchise. The LBC came close to selling the team to the Atlanta Braves, who planned to move the franchise to Wilmington, North Carolina. But a proposal to build a new ballpark in Wilmington fell through, and the Hillcats remained in Lynchburg.
Lynchburg City Stadium looms over a large, sloping, recently redone parking lot
Prior to the 2016 season, the Elmore Sports Group bought the club and signed a 10-year lease to keep the team in Lynchburg City Stadium. While this ended the Hillcats' long history of local ownership, the lease agreement signified a willingness to remain in Lynchburg long-term. In conjunction with the sale, longtime team president Paul Sunwall retired and Chris Jones took his place. Jones came to Lynchburg after spending three seasons as the general manager of the independent Sugarland Skeeters. Prior to that, he had had served as general manager of the Lake Elsinore Storm in the California League.
Jones took the Hillcats job sight unseen, remarking that the only thing he knew about Lynchburg going in was "Paul Sunwall, [recently retired general manager] Ronnie Roberts and Liberty University." (Liberty University was founded by Jerry Falwell, Calvin's cousin.)
"[Lynchburg City Stadium] had that old-school feel," said Jones. "Coming from Sugarland, with state-of-the-art everything, to here was, like, the polar opposite. But I saw I could make more of a difference here than in Sugarland. It was like starting over. [The Hillcats] had some loyal fans but as time went on, the fans dropped off. We have had to start getting it back up. It was like a brand-new team coming to town. We had to get involved in the community more. We did everything that you would as a new team coming into an area and just started over.
"We even tried to rebrand," he continued, with a laugh. "That didn't go over so well for us."
The rebranding attempt began during the 2016 season, Jones' first at the helm, with a "Name the Team" contest. Hillcats was included alongside a quintet of far less traditional options: Derechos, Doves, Lamb Chops, River Runners and, most notably, Love Apples. This last option was a reference to "the Lynchburg legend that Thomas Jefferson was the first to bite into tomato (called a Love Apple) proving that tomatoes weren't poisonous."
"I thought it was only fair, to give [Hillcats] a true shot," Jones said. "I would've bet you any amount of money that Hillcats would not have won, and it was ridiculous how much it won by. But I think what it did allow me to do, 'OK, we're not going to change the name but we will still be rebranding.' And I think that helped, with the new logo, colors and everything else. It still gave us a fresh start."
The Hillcats adopted a new look (right) prior to the 2017 season.
With the new look came a series of (still ongoing) enhancements to Lynchburg City Stadium.
"I think the first thing that the Elmores were really big on was getting it up to Minor League Baseball standards, from the playing surface to parking. The parking lot was just an old, broken asphalt lot. But the field itself was the most important. And the netting. The netting was very bad here. Safety first."
Indeed, the netting at Lynchburg City Stadium used to hang from the stadium roof (obstructing the views in the second-level suites) and run down to the playing field. It now extends straight up from behind home plate, extending to the end of each dugout. This allowed the team to add an additional row directly behind home plate while greatly improving overall visibility.
New netting led to the installation of new front row seats at Lynchburg City Stadium.
"Then we got to have some fun," said Jones. "Putting in the party decks and rebranding the concession stands. Like anything else, it's trying to find those social areas. Like what we did with the [right field] Kona Beach Bar, taking the bleachers out. There has to be more of a social aspect."
Further changes and additions include the Devil's Backbone Taproom concourse bar, relocated "Cats Corner" team store and a third-base party deck. A LOVE sign, paying homage to a state tradition, was installed on the first base concourse. Seats at the top of Section 4 pay tribute to the role that area troops played in D-Day; the National D-Day Memorial is located in nearby Bedford, and a plaque explains that this was the community "suffering the largest per capita loss." On the concourse behind home plate, one finds a group of longtime season ticket holders known as the "Hill City Rockers."
"They used to bring their own rockers to the game," Jones said. "It looked like a garage sale, so we fixed it up and got them all matching rockers."
A LOVE sign, a Virginia tradition, sits on Lynchburg City Stadium's first base concourse.
Meanwhile the Hillcats have introduced initiatives that are unprecedented in Minor League Baseball. Director of entertainment Jeff Raymond works out of a booth on the main concourse, serving as both emcee and public address announcer. Dogs are welcome at every game via a $3 ticket; proceeds go to the local Humane Society. Jones even landed an endorsement deal, signing a sponsorship agreement with Rockstar energy drinks.
The end result is a franchise that balances the old and the new and, as a result, feels unique within the Minor League landscape.
"We're making this viable and making sure we're still generating revenue," said Jones. "But at the same time by keeping the name 'Hillcats' we showed 'OK, we'll stick with it.' We'll still try to do a lot of the things the old ownership group did really well."