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Appalachian League Baseball Returns with new College-Era Player Format

(Jeff Bossert/Radio IQ)

Minor league baseball has returned after being shut down in 2020 due to the pandemic. 

But the ten Appalachian League cities, including Pulaski, are now hosting college-level players instead, hoping to provide a boost to their career in front of major league scouts.

Saturday night brought baseball back to Pulaski for the first game in more than 600 days.  Jerry Spence grew up with Pulaski baseball, with memories of taking family to minor league games for about 40 years.

“My dad actually owned a business in Pulaski, so bred and born and raised right here,” he said. “Nieces, nephews, sister, brother-in-laws… it’s been fun.”

Spence admits it was tough with no games to see in 2020.

Roy and Bonnie Mitzel of Marion attended their first game in Pulaski Saturday, but have been making a hobby of seeing amateur and minor league teams in the region. 

Roy has volunteered to coach players in the Dominican Republic through a church ministry.

“It’s called ‘Play Ball,” he said. “They have people everywhere, and just watch kids play.  We had a 16-year old boy – (who threw) a 102 mile an hour ball!”

As teams in the Appalachian League ended their big-league affiliations because of MLB's downsizing of the minor leagues, they changed their names. 

Formerly the Yankees, Pulaski is now home to the River Turtles, who hosted the Princeton Whistle Pigs Saturday.

“All these kids are going to want to play professional baseball,” said River Turtles Manager Clark Crist. “I can give them a perception of what a scout looks for.”

Crist played in the minors, and spent 40 years as a major league scout and coach. He’s excited for the new-look Appalachian League, and what he can do for the players.

Credit (Jeff Bossert/Radio IQ)
Pulaski River Turtles infielder Connor Gore is cheered by fans after his 8th inning 2-run homer Saturday.

“It is working with young kids – who are up and coming, and giving them the perspective of professional baseball, you know, what it’s like to be a professional player,” Crist said.  He's quickly learning about his players – rosters were only announced last week, and the season started right away. 

Pulaski lost its home opener to Princeton.  But one of those kids, second baseman Connor Gore, made a good first impression, hitting an 8th inning 2-run home run that cut the Whistle Pigs’ lead to 6-3. 

The rest of the year, he plays ball at Oklahoma State.

“The fans are awesome – to see them get all get rowdy like that it was really cool,” Gore said.  “We got here, and we have one practice and we start playing, and all the guys are awesome. It’s really cool to meet each other really quick, and you just fall in love with each other and become best friends.”

Appalachian League players like Gore are chosen by a committee comprised of USA Baseball (the governing body for amateur baseball), Major League Baseball staff, and representatives from MLB clubs and college coaches.

Some of the teams won’t see their full roster for a few weeks, as some players selected are still wrapping up their high school or college postseason.  Those players include Lebanon, Virginia high school standout pitcher Matthew Buchanan, who hopes to make it to the state baseball championships late this month.

When his season ends, he’ll join the Appalachian League’s Bristol State Liners.

Credit Matthew Buchanan
Lebanon High School Pitcher Matthew Buchanan, who will pitch for the Appalachian League's Bristol State Liners.

“I’ve never really paid attention to the crowds or anything,” he said.  “It honestly helps you, because I feel it keeps you more dialed in and keeps you more focused on the game. Especially with the big crowd. I’m excited for that.”

Buchanan will attend the University of Virginia this fall.

Appalachian League teams have just over two months to build relationships with fellow players, and show their skills before big league scouts. 

The season ends with a championship game August 9.

The Appalachian League has also announced Pulaski’s Calfee Park will also host its All-Star Game in late July. First built in 1935, it's listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and voted as one of the best ballparks in America by Ballpark Digest.

The game will be carried on MLB Network.