On the Road: Volunteer spirit in Bristol

Nonprofit? No problem. Bristol Pirates exist to benefit community

Boyce Cox Field, the home of the Bristol Pirates, has hosted an Appalachian League baseball team every season since 1969.

By Benjamin Hill / MiLB.com | July 8, 2016 10:00 AM

"The purpose of Bristol Baseball Inc. is to operate a Minor League Baseball team which benefits the local community. Benefits are to allow the city's resources to further other public purposes."

Thus reads, in part, the mission statement of the nonprofit organization that runs the Bristol [Virginia] Pirates, as stated on their publically available 990 tax form. The Pirates have served as Pittsburgh's Rookie-level affiliate since 2014, following 19 seasons with the White Sox (1995-2013) and 26 with the Detroit Tigers (1969-1994). Throughout these 48 Appalachian League campaigns, the franchise has played at Boyce Cox Field, operated by Bristol Baseball Inc. on a nonprofit basis and without the benefit of a single full-time employee.

Tennessee may be nicknamed the Volunteer State, but this spirit prevails just across the state line in Bristol.  

***

Prior to June 28's game at Boyce Cox Field, I spoke with two key members of the Bristol Baseball board of directors: president and general manager Mahlon Luttrell and vice president of marketing Lucas Hobbs. We were situated in Luttrell's office, located on the far left-hand side of the stadium's homey, wood-paneled press box. Affixed to the door was a sign reading "General Manager's Office. No admittance unless you know the secret knock." Somehow, I made it in.

Bristol Pirates president Mahlon Luttrell in his press box office; VP of marketing Lucas Hobbs poses with his daughter, Savannah.

Luttrell, speaking with the self-described "country twang that just about everyone around here has," retired from his position with a local manufacturing firm in 2014. His position with Bristol Baseball remains a full-time job in and of itself, albeit not a compensated one. 2016 mark's Luttrell's 14th season with Bristol Baseball -- he had initially gotten involved via the suggestion of a co-worker who served as a board member. Two years later he was, as he puts it, "wrangled" into becoming a vice president. In 2007 he assumed his current position, taking over the role from field namesake Boyce Cox, who had passed away after suffering a stroke.

"The next thing I knew I was president. I had no clue what I was getting into, but figured it out pretty quick," said Luttrell. "There were a couple of tough years, but we never missed a beat…. A lot of people want to be a part of this, but then I talk about the work aspect. 'Oh, I didn't know I'd have to do all that!' Hanging signs on a Saturday changes people's attitudes a little bit. But it's all good. We've got a lot of good people here."

Luttrell explained that the team "highly relies on volunteers to keep the costs down," and that "pretty much all" of the team's revenue either goes back into its reserves or toward philanthropic efforts within the community. The Pirates are in the process of raising funds for a local school that needs laptops and partnering with a wide variety of local charitable and community organizations via nightly endeavors such as working at the concession stand and selling 50-50 ticket raffle tickets.  

Hobbs, a former federal prosecutor now working for a local law firm, has become Bristol Baseball's jack of all trades. In addition to his marketing efforts, he runs social media accounts, plans promotions, hosts players for the season and assists in the myriad chores that are part and parcel with running a baseball team. On the evening in which I was in attendance, Hobbs had recruited his daughter, Savannah, to serve as a batgirl. Earlier in the day, he had arrived at the ballpark to assist with a beer delivery.

2016 marks the fourth season in which Bristol Baseball has served beer during games, no small feat within a conservative Bible belt community.

"There was some initial opposition," said Hobbs. "But it brings in a steady source of revenue. Like with all nonprofits, all revenue is appreciated."

Assistance of all forms, fiduciary and otherwise, is appreciated in Bristol. Every game is an "all hands on deck" situation for the evening's assorted board members, game day staff and grounds crew members (who are recruited through the local Job Corps center).   

"We've all pulled tarp. That's a standard interview question for any intern," said Hobbs. "We've even had a couple fans help us."

Hobbs' statement prompted Luttrell to delightedly launch into a story about how, in 2009, three off-duty members of President Obama's Secret Service detail attended a ballgame.   

"It started raining, and they were sitting down in the bleachers, so we asked them if they wanted to go upstairs [to the press box]," he said. "It started raining harder and I said, 'I've got to go and pull tarp.' They looked at each other, 'Well, we can help with that!' So we had three Secret Service members on the field pulling tarp. It was a blast, and they invited me to see the President [at a Town Hall Meeting in Bristol]. It was a cool experience."

For Luttrell, Hobbs and their fellow members of the Bristol Baseball board, such "cool" experiences continue to outweigh the stressful and exhausting ones. Their dedication has allowed Appalachian League baseball to survive and thrive at Boyce Cox Field for 48 seasons running.

"There's nothing fancy here, but people enjoy it," said Luttrell. "If we were too fancy, I don't think we'd have been around for this long." 

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

View More