Cities stripped of minor league baseball are finding ways forward

Published 12:14 pm Tuesday, June 7, 2022

This is the second summer that minor league baseball is not being played in Elizabethton. Last season Major League Baseball abandoned many small towns such as Elizabethton, Greeneville, Johnson City, and Kingsport, which were members of the Appalachian League.
But not to be denied a summer of baseball, an alternate high-level club made up of college summer league teams is making its second season’s debut in what was once the Appalachian League towns. In Elizabethton, it’s the River Riders and as of Tuesday they were sporting a 4-1 record. The River Riders are owned by Boyd Sport and play their games at Northeast Community Credit Union Park.
Minor League Baseball is more than just a game in Elizabethton. The combination of winning seasons, a strong fan base, and dozens of former Major League standouts that began their career in Elizabethton has made summer baseball a big attraction.
In many towns such as those in the Appalachian League, minor league stadiums have become community pillars. But when abandoned by Major League Baseball, the ten-team Appalachian League rolled out a plan to turn the league into a college wood-bat summer circuit. The teams attract the nation’s top collegiate players and allow local fans to see top prospects and future big-leave stars in their hometowns. As one MLB executive said, “The road to the big league now runs through Appalachian.”
While it means that Elizabethton residents will no longer be able to see future stars with prospect buzz and an immediate shot at the big leagues from the dugouts of their farm teams, however, it does mean Elizabethton still has summer baseball.
Elizabethton has a rich baseball history, dating back into the last century with a pre-TV era of leagues involving factories, businesses, American Legion and men’s leagues. In fact, baseball had its origins in small country towns.
Baseball has long been described by writers in abstract terms. It’s agrarian, nostalgic, pastoral and romantic, it’s said. The Sporting News in 1924 paid tribute to the importance of the rural factor in baseball, and sportswriter and author Roger Angell (“The Summer Game”) described the “country sweetness” of baseball. “Baseball may have been — and may still be — a source of rural nostalgia for city people,” Vaught writes. “For country people, it served as the sport of choice, a powerful cultural agent.
Although the River Riders are not the Elizabethton Twins, it is still baseball. In the summer wood-bat leagues, the players swap aluminum bats for wood and play from June to August in more than 40 states. At every stop, players chase dreams, while players and fans alike savor the moment.
Baseball is a timeless tradition in many small towns across America. It’s sad that Little League baseball is vanishing in so many towns, even Elizabethton.
This summer, take time to enjoy baseball at Northeast Community Credit Union Park and watch the River Riders. You might be surprised at the caliber of players in the league and the fun of an evening of baseball.
Although it is not major league or even minor league, baseball — and, in some ways, town ball — still lives in Elizabethton.

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