Thanks to a joint proposal by Major League Baseball, USA Baseball, and the operators of the ten teams of the Appalachian League, baseball will continue to thrive in the Appalachian League communities for years to come. For the residents of Alamance County, that means they’ll still be getting to see a high-quality team play at the Burlington Athletic Stadium every June, July, and early August.
And while the team won’t be known as the Burlington Royals anymore, and won’t be fielding minor league players, the talent level could actually wind up getting better.
That’s because Major League Baseball has partnered with USA Baseball to help attract 300 of the nation’s top incoming collegiate freshman, along with undrafted collegiate freshmen and sophomores, to create a new Appalachian League. The league will complete a 54-game schedule and feature numerous college talents from the nation’s top conferences, including the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Pac-12, Southeastern Conference, and others.
“Today is a really exciting day. We’re thrilled to partner with USA Baseball and all the Appalachian (League) communities in creating a one-of-a-kind summer league that is going to attract the nation’s top collegiate baseball players,” said Morgan Sword, Executive Vice President for Baseball Economics and Operations in a virtual press conference September 30.
“We met with all ten of the communities that make up the Appalachian League. It was our goal to honor the rich history of this league, and ensure that the region is going to host future big leaguers for years to come. And we think we’ve settled on something pretty special here.”
“Fans are going to get to see top prospects right in their hometowns,” Sword continued. “Communities are going to see an influx of new revenue opportunities. Players are going to receive state-of-the-art training, visibility to our scouts, and educational programming that is design to prepare them for careers as professional athletes.”
For the 109-year-old Appalachian League, finding out a way to preserve all that history was paramount as Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball organized its new long-term agreement. It had already been announced that 40 minor league organizations - including the Burlington Royals and all but one organization in the former Appalachian League - were losing their minor league status.
But with this agreement, it is guaranteed that all ten of the small towns throughout North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Tennessee that host the “Appy League, as it is affectionately known, will continue to host top-notch talent in their communities for years to come.
“This is one of the last long-lasting leagues in baseball. It’s been there over a hundred and some years. We wanted to keep that alive. It’s so exciting,” said former MLB All-Star and current MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds. “The league itself, the ten teams have a proximity of about 120 miles around the whole league.”
“The Appalachian League has a rich history. It was established in 1911,” added Appalachian League Commissioner Dan Moushon. “Hall of Fame players like Nolan Ryan, Cal Ripken Jr., Kirby Puckett, and Jim Thome all played in the league. In addition to players, numerous Major League umpires, coaches, and managers all got their start in the Appy League. Current St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Schildt started his managing career in Johnson City.”
“We’re grateful to Major League Baseball for preserving this tradition, and for following through on their commitment to keep baseball in our communities. Over the last several months, we’ve been working with USA Baseball and Major League Baseball, with our communities, our league office and local operators, to make the transition to this new format.”
“Combining with the Appy League is very cool,” added Mike Gaski, President of USA Baseball. “There’s a lot of history there. People familiar with baseball know it. And I think our kids are going to really relish the opportunity to be in some of these communities, and learn some about the history of baseball as well.”
“As the first collegiate summer league that is going to be part of this prospect development pipeline, the Appalachian League will hopefully serve as a model for other leagues around the country,” added Sword. “From the start, MLB has made clear that we plan to preserve baseball in every community where it is currently being played. And with this announcement we’re making good on this promise, and furthering our efforts to grow the game. And the support from the communities across this region has been overwhelming. We thank them very much for that.”
Reynolds, who starred for the Seattle Mariners, explained how the new Appalachian League will draw in scouts from all 30 Major League teams, while providing top collegiate players an elite showcase to prove that they’re worthy of getting drafted in the coming years.
“I’ve been fortunate to be able to work on these projects from the prospect development pipeline - the top 80 high school juniors in the country, to now the wood bat league and the Appy League,” Reynolds said. “You’re going to see future major leaguers.”
“It takes about four years to get to the big leagues from A ball. And if you’re looking at the Appy League in 2016, at the four teams that were in the playoffs, 13 of the 149 players are in the big leagues. That’s a little less than 10 percent. So if we’re able to see the growth and be able to target, like we’ve seen before, with the pipeline - you look at last year’s Futures Game, 50 players in the Futures Game last year, and 25 are in the big leagues right now.”
“You take it a little bit farther, to the top high school juniors in the country, of the 80 that were at the PDP at year ago, most of those kids, if they didn’t opt out, all got drafted in the first two rounds of the draft,” Reynolds added. “What we feel like here, targeting the top freshmen, sophomores, and incoming freshmen in college, of the 300 players, you’re probably going to have about 150 guys that eventually at some point wind up in the big leagues. That’s 50 percent of these players you’ll see throughout the summer.”
MLB’s partnership with USA Baseball is going to be critical in identifying players that want to participate in this league in the coming years.
“The relationship with USA Baseball has been important. They’ve been able to really help Major League Baseball sift through the process through scouting and everything else. This is an elite program as we continue to grow baseball,” Reynolds said. “You’re going to have all 30 teams represented. They’ll all have their scouting there.”
“The difference here, a lot of times in Minor League Baseball, a lot of times each time might send their own scouts to scout their league. But when you’re looking at prospects, like we’re going to be here, you’re going to see all 30 teams represented in-depth, sitting in this league for a numbered period of time. That’s the beauty in this. It’s a great opportunity for the student-athlete.”
“You’re getting a different athlete with college players. Infusing in the communities, we’ve challenged some of the local communities to have a College Night, where you have some three or four-year players on the roster talk to kids in your community about their decision to go to college, the thought process and all that. It’s not just baseball. We want to impact the community they’re in. And baseball is excited about doing this,” Reynolds added.
“The prospect development pipeline has been in place a few years, and has been spectacular,” said Gaski. “Some young kids get an opportunity to showcase their talents, to get some education along the way in terms of what it takes to play on a professional level, as well as what it takes to play on a college level.”
“It’s going to give our staff - the USA Baseball staff - a chance to see these guys up close for a longer period of time, as we select our national team. Having that exposure for these guys onhand, it’s going to be a great advantage for USA Baseball as we put competitive teams on the field to compete for world championships.”
“We’re excited and proud that our league is a model on how to retain baseball in your community,” added Moushon. “To mark this moment, all of our clubs will undergo a rebranding, creating names and logos that are unique to their cities. So in 2021, each Appalachian League team will have its own identity. So as a league, we thank Major League Baseball, USA Baseball, and all the local leaders who helped make this a reality for our league.
West Virginia Senators Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito commented on how happy they were to see baseball remain in their state in the Appalachian League towns of Pulaski and Bluefield.
“I just want to say thank you. And I mean that from the bottom of my heart,” Manchin said. “You couldn’t have a state that is more committed, and has a longer tradition and history in baseball. I grew up in the little coal mining town of Farmington, and all I heard about was some of the great coal mill baseball teams they had. All the major coal companies had them. Everybody from Satchel Paige to Stan Musial came through those areas, and we heard so many stories about that.”
“Watching all the talent that we’ve had in Minor League Baseball in West Virginia, and then being able to pick Mercer County and Bluefield/Princeton, you couldn’t have chosen a better place for the Appalachian League to bring in some of the top talent that will go to the Major Leagues,” the Senator added. “To where they’ll be supported with hometown love. They’re young kids. They’re transitioning. They need a feeling where they’re welcomed, and they belong. And they are going to be very much appreciated.”
“I think it’s going to be a win-win for all of West Virginia. Thanks from the bottom of my heart. We think you’ve made a very smart and wise decision. And we’ll make sure we show the hospitality that West Virginia is known for. I believe you have the greatest intentions, so thank you and thank you.”
“I think this is a great day for southern West Virginia to have the Appalachian League being solidified in the two areas, Bluefield and Princeton, of West Virginia,” added Senator Capito. “This is really about saving for communities a great quality of life, but an economic base as well. I want to thank Major League Baseball for recognizing that, and working this out. You won’t be disappointed, I don’t think, for what you’ll see. Overall, I think it’s an exciting way for families to join together in an affordable way to watch baseball, appreciate baseball, and make their communities, working with the different schools and community organizations, to make it a success”