The End of One Thing and the Start of Something Else (1)

April 11, 2020
 
Pulaski, Virginia is a small town nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and you wouldn’t find the downtown unless you went looking for it.
 
It is, like a lot of small, rural towns, a place that is dying off. Most of the buildings in the downtown are shuttered, and aside from a hospital at the eastern edge, the economy is limited. The poverty rate is high, and the opioid crisis has taken a significant toll on the community.
 
At the same time, it is a place that possesses an understated beauty. A slow creek runs through the city center before going along miles of parks and trails. From the town center, the roads go up in most directions, offering views of the surrounding mountains. There is a historical district, with stately mansions built for the industry bosses a century ago. On the side streets, many of the houses are small and well-tended, with narrow porches where inexpensive furniture is set out. There are very few fences, giving a sense, at least, that the lines between public and private space are blurred.
 
 
*             *             *
 
I have thought about baseball just about every year of my conscious life. The shape of that thinking has paralleled the ebbs and flows of the season.  
 
In the summer, saturated by the steady progression of games, it is all I can do to follow which teams are rising or falling, to know which players are emerging as stars or finding their limits or reaching the ends of their time. In fall, as the season focuses down to a few teams, my attention focuses, too. The abrupt intensity of the Wild Card games and the ensuing playoff series alerts me to the minutia of each game: to the small decisions and their consequences. Then the season ends, and we enter a period of processing what has happened, which is codified by the MVP and Cy Young Awards and the annual Hall-of-Fame vote.
 
Now we’re in spring, that anticipatory season where every team looks like a contender in the right light, and I realize that I should be writing articles towards that season. I should be making bold predictions about which players and teams will surprise or disappoint us, and what expectations I have about the coming year. But all of that is on hold now, and absent the usual rituals of this hopeful season, my thoughts about the game have taken a step back.
 
This is a step back. It is also, eventually, a challenge. This is the first in a series of articles which I will publish as I write them. I am going to write them quickly, without too much editing. I am not trying for perfection here…just words. I have no clear idea of how many articles will be in the series, but there is a thesis underpinning this effort. If it seems unclear at this outset, that’s intentional. I just ask for your patience.  
 
Besides, you don’t have anything better to do.
 
 
*             *             *
 
The Appalachian League is a rookie league, and the players who play are typically signees from the international draft. Occasionally, a first rounder shows up, but most of the players are lesser prospects. Many of them are, travelling the corridors of I-77 and I-81 and the backroad highways that connect the disparate towns, are seeing America for the first time.
 
It is an unfamiliar America. I have lived in western Virginia for three years, and I’m still not used to it. The mountains here are among the oldest in the world, and so they are soft rises. The major body of water, the New River, is one of the oldest geological waterways in world: it is so shallow that you could walk across in in most places without any possibility of drowning. The towns have histories that I’m not familiar with, and rituals and customs that I only glimpse at a distance.
 
I live in a bubble: a university town that is insulted, at least some, from the places that surround it, and my sense of how life is lived in those other places is limited. Sometimes I have efforted to access that other place, but it frequently feels like a kind of trespass. Once I took my sons to a mud trucking event a few towns over, where generous people sold popcorn and gave away cheap toys at the games they set up, while others drove oversized pickups until they were caked in dirt. All though the experience I felt like a tourist – or worse still, an anthropologist – trying to decode the rules of this new place.
 
And sometimes I have felt that other place draw closer. When I first moved to Virginia I worked as a special education aide in the local public school. I worked with students whose parents were addicts or in prison, students who were growing up raised by grandparents. During my first week I broke up a fight where a white student called a black student a ‘coon’.
 
So that other place is sometimes closer, though I know that it’s likely I won’t see it. I will live here some number of years and raise my kids and go on, and it will remain something distinct from my knowing.
 
 
*             *             *
 
Calfee Park is a small field with sit-where-you will seating along the third-base line, and slightly elevated seats along first base. Beyond right field, a row of prefab houses line an overlooking bluff, and during games the people who live in those houses will come out to watch the games. A ticket to a game costs something in the neighborhood of $4 and $8 dollars, depending on what your preference is. They have dollar nights for beers or hot dogs, fireworks and concerts on the weekends. The concessions area is built behind the home plate grandstand, a new renovation to the field. The parking lots surround the field on most sides, and foul balls will sometimes set off a car alarm. You can usually pull up as the anthem starts and get to your seat before the first pitch.
 
It’s a minor league park, but it’s existence as a professional baseball diamond predates every major league stadium in the country except Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. Built as a project of the Works Progress Administration in 1935, the park has hosted a minor league affiliate for seven major league teams: the Phillies, Cubs, Braves, Rangers, Blue Jays, Mariners, and Yankees. The league goes back further than that: its history traces all the way back to 1911.
 
While I can’t rattle off a list of great players who have stepped up to the plate in that town, I don’t think that matters. What matters is that Calfee Field has existed for nearly a century as a place where professional baseball has been played at a proximity that is intoxicatingly close. If it is difficult to sit in the bleachers in Fenway Park and imagine that one day standing on that distant emerald grass, it is easier to make that child’s dream in Pulaski.
 
And it might go.
 
Baseball is facing an uncertain future, and even before we entered our strange moment of quarantine and COVID, there was a strong possibility that the league would be axed. Calfee Field is well-maintained, and it does good business on game nights, but there are other parks in the league that are less well-maintained, places where the cost of running a minor league team out-paces the return.
 
And what is the point of it anyway? Why should a team like the Yankees support a team as far away as Pulaski, Virginia? Surely, there are other facilities owned by the Yankees where the players could play. And do they really need to play games? Is playing a ‘game’ the best way for these young players to sharpen their skills, or are there more efficient methods?
 
I have some thoughts on this subject, but I will hold my tongue on that for a moment. You’ll have to read on to get to those, which means that I’ll have to write on. I’m trying to force my hand a little.
 
What I’ll leave with, instead, is this point: over years I’ve lived in western Virginia, going to baseball games has been the one experience that hasn’t felt like a kind of trespass. When I pay my money and pass through the gates, I am not an outsider trying to create from a few scant observations some vision of the full arc of a place. Instead, mercifully, I am like everyone else: a person in the cheap seats wanting one more glimpse of a life that has eluded me.
 
 
David Fleming is a writer living in western Virginia. He welcomes comments and questions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com. 
 
 

COMMENTS (8 Comments, most recent shown first)

billsizer
Thank you, Dave. I'm originally from Bristol, a stalwart franchise in the Appy League and a town divided literally down the middle between Tennessee and Virginia. As an insider, I can easily agree that the "Mountain Empire" is unique and probably hard to fathom for outsiders.
6:50 PM Apr 22nd
 
Gfletch
Outsider, interloper...interesting. That's the way I feel about being a member of BJOL.
2:27 AM Apr 12th
 
evanecurb
During my five years in that area, I played in two Appy League parks (Bluefield and Johnson City) and coached at two (Marion and Bristol). And I attended games in Elizabethton and Kingsport. I’ve heard good things above it Calder Park but never been there.
8:56 PM Apr 11th
 
evanecurb
Dave,

I love your description of feeling like an interloper in those towns. My family’s roots are in Bland County, VA and Washington County, TN, but I didn’t grow up there. I went to college in that area and taught for a year in Marion, but I had the same feeling of being a tourist or an interloper.

If the Appy League comes back, you should see a game in Bluefield. Beautiful setting.
8:38 PM Apr 11th
 
doncoffin
I lived in West Virginia for 5 years (1970-1975), and I felt like an outsider the whole time, and a trespasser most of the time...
Almost all of the rest of my life has been spent in cities with populations in excess of 500,000...which has its own drawbacks.

8:29 PM Apr 11th
 
MWeddell
Know that you are a good enough (perhaps I mean entertaining enough?) writer that I (and I suspect we) will read and enjoy whatever you post. Baseball topics are generally preferred but any lively writing will do. Thanks!
4:47 PM Apr 11th
 
steve161
Yes, I'll second that.

Dave, one question from a current expatriate to a former one: do you feel more like an outsider in Pulaski than you did in New Zealand?
2:17 PM Apr 11th
 
Gfletch
Well I'm certainly intrigued as well as entertained. I'm old enough that I won't say I can't wait. But I'm certainly looking forward to more, Dave.
12:55 PM Apr 11th
 
 
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