TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) The future of the Tri-Cities’ own rookie-class professional baseball league has been uncertain for a long time, with Major League Baseball even threatening to cancel the league altogether amid months of negotiations.
The Appalachian League is here to stay in the Tri-Cities as a new format for the league was announced in a news conference with MLB and USA Baseball on Tuesday, Sept. 29.
“That same feeling will come back again and baseball is baseball whoever is playing,” said Mahlon Luttrell the general manager of the Bristol Pirates.
Even before the pandemic outbreak, the future of the Appy League was in question.
The league will be restructured entirely moving forward. It is transforming from minor league affiliates to a collegiate wood-bat league; a summer league for the nation’s most promising college freshmen and sophomores.
According to a release from the MLB, the Appy League will become part of the Prospect Development Pipeline effort to help create a pathway for amateur baseball players.
“You are going to get some of the best college players in the country from some of the premier programs. Guys in the World Series, they’re going to be coming to Johnson City, Elizabethton,” said Jeff Lantz, director of communications for Minor League Baseball.
Lantz anticipates these college players will bring in a lot of recruits to the region, looking to draft them to D1 colleges, or even to the MLB. Most of these players will likely continue on to the Cape Cod league for juniors and seniors before possibly jumping to the majors.
The release says players in the Appy League will also be instructed by former MLB players and have access to educational programs that prepare them for a career in the MLB.
The league will receive support from both MLB and USA Baseball in terms of staffing, administration and player participation.
The league will also adopt a 54-game regular season and an All-Star Game if plans go accordingly.
From this point on, the Appy League will no longer be affiliated with Minor League Baseball at all. It’s affiliation now lies exclusively with MLB as a collegiate program.
“It is our understanding that the Appalachian League has been the only league selected to be in this premier wood-bat league which tells us it’s an honor to be selected and also to Major League Baseball, it does see the value of the Appalachian League as a whole,” said Luttrell.
Lantz says the MiLB organization is saddened to lose the Appy League, but understands this will benefit everyone moving forward.
“It certainly beats the alternative, which is no baseball in those parks, said Lantz.
The local cities who could have lost their Appy League teams altogether without this agreement include the Johnson City Cardinals, Elizabethton Twins, Greeneville Reds, Bristol Pirates and Kingsport Mets. The economic impact of the league is huge.
“It’s approximately $2.8 million per year for the local economy,” said Luttrell.
It’s a fresh start for the league hoping to knock it out of the park under the new structuring.
“We are back. We have just got some details to iron out and we are in communication with a lot of our fans and sponsors as well but that’s the message, we are back,” said Luttrell.
As the teams will lose their professional affiliation to the Pirates, Cardinals, Mets, Twins and Reds, it gives them the chance to re-brand. Each team will be able to choose a new name, likely with a local stamp.
The release says MLB and USA Baseball have already started the process of finding and inviting the top 320 players to participate in the 2021 Appalachian League.
“We are thrilled to partner with USA Baseball and the Appalachian League communities to create a one-of-a-kind summer league that will attract the nation’s top collegiate players and allow local fans to see top prospects and future big-league stars in their hometowns. This announcement continues MLB’s commitment to preserving and growing baseball in communities around the United States. The road to the big leagues now runs through Appalachia,” MLB Executive Vice President of Baseball Economics & Operations Morgan Sword said in the release.
The MiLB is also undergoing a lot of restructuring as they have lost the Appy League and are coping with the strain of the pandemic and a cancelled season. It has been a tough year of change.
“Our teams are going to really struggle. There are a lot of teams that are really going to have an uphill climb here, this pandemic has really setting things back. It’s probably going to be three or four years before our teams really recover from losing the 2020 season,” said Lantz.
Outside of the Tri-Cities the Appalachian League includes the Bluefield Blue Jays, Burlington Royals, Danville Braves, Princeton Rays, and Pulaski Yankees.
Play is set to return this summer, from June to August.
You can watch the news briefing LIVE on our WJHL Facebook page below.