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Mudville: January 25, 2021 6:02 pm PDT
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Men can move mountains. Ballparks, too.

Sixty years ago, the Danville Leafs, a team in the Appalachian League ceased to exist. Burlington, North Carolina needed a ballpark. Not a team. A ballpark. So they purchased Danville’s ballpark for $5,000, disassembled the structure and piece by piece moved the ballpark by train from Virginia to Burlington. The ballpark was reconstructed.

It is the only ballpark in the country that was not built in its original location.

That ballpark is still with us today in Burlington with upgrades. Change happens.

The Appalachian League as a league affiliated with major league teams is no longer around. With the restructuring of Minor League Baseball this pro league, which has been around in some shape or form since 1911, is undergoing a complete change. It will become a college summer league, featuring freshmen and sophomores, under the umbrella of MLB and USA Baseball.

Here at BallNine we bring you answers to baseball questions. We dig deeper.

Imagine what kind of undertaking it is to make such a significant change. Minor League Baseball is a way of life in the USA. It’s tradition, and the fans’ love for their local team is pure.

Now, that life has undergone drastic changes with MLB’s new structure.

Here is a look at what life is like for one franchise undergoing such a significant change, and the challenges ahead.

Ryan Keur, 31, is the owner and president of Burlington Baseball, Inc. The franchise had been associated the last 35 years with the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals. The working relationship with the Indians lasted through the 2006 season. The Royals had been the affiliate the last 14 years, even though there were no games this last season due to Covid.

In 2017, Keur was named Minor League Baseball’s executive of the year by Baseball America. At the time, he was president of the Daytona Tortugas of the Florida State League and had such fun nights at the ballpark like Bob Ross Night. Ross was born in Daytona Beach in 1942.

Bob Ross, who died in 1995, was the landscape painter that instructed people how to paint on TV in The Joy of Painting and received a cult following for his efforts and soothing voice. On this  night, certified Bob Ross artists came to Jackie Robinson Ballpark and ended up teaching a Bob Ross certified painting class to fans on the field before the game. Bob Ross bobbleheads were also handed out.

Now that’s one creative night.

Keur in his new role is painting a new picture of success for Burlington and the Appalachian League. He knows it will be quite the challenge, but is not afraid of change.

Personally, I hate to see minor league franchises having to go through these alterations or being completely shut down. The Trenton Thunder lost their affiliation with the Yankees after such a wonderful relationship. But it is happening and that’s why Baseball or Bust is taking a look at the process. The intricate puzzle of Minor League Baseball across the country has been thrown up in the air with pieces flying everywhere.

Burlington Athletic Stadium

Burlington Athletic Stadium - photo from ballparkreviews.com

Keur is picking up the pieces in Burlington, a proud franchise, a proud league that has always been there for its fans. In Burlington, the likes of Jim Thome, CC Sabathia, and Manny Ramirez established baseball roots here on their way to Cleveland. Then came the Royals and such players as catcher Salvador Perez. A minor league community cares for its players and feels a part of their success. That will no longer be the case. Keur says the process is a little different now. Talent will still be coming through Burlington, just a few years earlier in their careers, before players are drafted by Major League teams.

The great Luis Tiant played in Burlington in 1963 when he struck out 207 batters

over 204 innings while Jack McKeon played in Burlington in 1953 and caught 139 of his team’s 140 games. McKeon still lives in the area. Keur, like McKeon, is a product

Ryan Keur

Ryan Keur

of nearby Elon College and perhaps McKeon, who would love to manage at the age of 90, may get a one-day contract to manage in Burlington in the summer of 2021, if baseball is played.

The draft has been moved back to July in 2021. There used to be a 68-game season in the Appalachian League, a short-season league, 34 home games plus playoffs. Now it is a 54-game season. That is just one of the significant changes being made.

“It’s been a challenging year,’’ Keur told BallNine. “Not only in the sports industry, but in our country and the world. Trying to figure out how to pivot within our business and continue to see how we can be good community stewards is really the primary focus of ours.

“As I look back on the year and acquiring a team in early March and then a pandemic that ensues right after the fact, you can look at it as a ‘Woe is me’ or you can try to figure out what’s the best solution,’’ Keur said. “Figure out where we fit into the puzzle of the major league’s One Baseball concept.

“Between the great community support we have had here in Burlington, a really good relationship with the city and then really good partners in the Appalachian League, we were able to develop a really strong strategy to figure out how the Appalachian League fits in this One Baseball premise.’’

“There’s nothing better than having a hot dog and a beer, watching your kids jump on the bounce house and watching the game and the fireworks afterwards.’’

Yes, that’s a lot to handle. Keur was the general manager of the team from 2014-16 before moving onto Daytona so he understands the community.

“This is a gorgeous part of the country,’’ he told me. “The Appalachian region – and all these small little towns throughout – and some of these communities have had baseball for 50, 60 years, some of the longest affiliations in professional sports that will end here in 2020.

“For a lot of these communities and for Burlington in particular, the baseball team is the summer fun. That’s the place to be, that’s your summer family. The challenging part of 2020, not only was this going to be our last year affiliated with the Royals, but that people didn’t have the ability to come out and socialize and enjoy that summer family that has been built throughout all these different communities throughout America.’’

That is such a great point. There was no time to say goodbye to the way baseball has been played in Burlington as a minor league affiliate. The Appalachian League will become a part of the Prospect Development Pipeline, the collaborative effort between MLB and USA Baseball for a path to the majors.

Baseball, at its heart, is small town America. It’s apple pie, hot dogs and in Burlington, BBQ. It’s a place to relax and unwind. A place to see baseball friends and neighbors in a fun atmosphere. No hustle. No bustle. Just fun.

The Royals flags wont be flying this year in Burlington, but baseball is still going to be played.

If Burlington Athletic Stadium looks familiar to you, it should. Parts of the classic film Bull Durham were filmed at the ballpark. Miles Wolff was the longtime local operator of the franchise until the sale in February. It was Wolff who once owned the Durham Bulls and Baseball America. Wolff remains a consultant to the Burlington franchise. The team was known as the Burlington Royals, but they will have to come up with a new nickname now and there is a fan contest going on to pick a name.

The park looks and feels exactly how you would expect minor league baseball to look in the Appalachian League. There is beauty in simplicity. There is peace.

To have all that ripped away would have left such a gaping wound. So now it is Keur’s job and the rest of the Appalachian League owners to figure out a way to make summers feel the same again; though the game has changed and now it is a wood bat league featuring college freshmen and sophomores.

“There are so many people coming to the game for the love for the game,’’ Keur said. “But there also are some people coming for the community feel, just a nice out with your family. There’s nothing better than having a hot dog and a beer, watching your kids jump on the bounce house and watching the game and the fireworks afterwards. It’s a pretty cool way to spend three or four hours of your evening.’’

Maybe you will see a future star in the process. The difference now is that future star could get drafted in a couple years and wind up with any team.

You can still sell the experience in a different way. That’s the new challenge. That’s the mountain that has to be moved in Appalachia.

You can be sure it will include Margaritaville jerseys one night for the players and all kind of other promotions.

Mascot

No matter what jersey the mascot is wearing next year, you can be sure the people of Burlington, NC will be having fun at the ballpark.

What about selling this level of talent?

“We are going see players a little bit earlier in the player development cycle,’’ Keur said. “What we saw here over the past 35 years was a natural affinity towards the Cleveland Indians and the Kansas City Royals because a lot of players came through and then four or five years later they saw them in Cleveland or Kansas City.

“So now if you backtrack two years before they are Jim Thome or Salvador Perez drafted by the Indians and Royals, we are going to see a lot of these guys before they are drafted. Imagine a Mike Trout coming through Burlington after his senior year of high school – two months prior to the Major League draft – then he is drafted by the Los Angeles Angels. There’s hope that two months spent in Burlington allows him to build up that player profile so people know who Mike Trout is even before he is drafted by the Angels. So it’s not just Mike Trout out of Millville High School, it’s Mike Trout out of the Burlington baseball team where he just spent the past two months competing against some of the best players in the country.

“For 10 communities, now we have the opportunity to create a unique branded identity that really resonates with our town. For 35 years we’ve been the Indians and Royals and we had an unbelievable relationship with both of them. That’s something Minor League Baseball has been able to do, to build a unique identities that the community rallies around that speaks specifically to that community and region.’’

It’s about making the best of a new situation in a ballpark that holds 3,500.

“The ideal scenario is to remain status quo with the Royals,’’ Keur said. “We had an unbelievable setup here and we loved our partnership with them. But it is exciting to turn the page on this new fresh era. It’s really going to depend on what our organization puts into it. How exciting? How creative? How passionate are we going to be able to be and then how do we then continue to tell that story to our local community?

“This community thought they were going to lose baseball for good when the list came out. They thought the Appalachian League was done and Burlington Athletic Stadium would not host baseball again outside of some Mom and Pop games. The fact that we have this clear alignment with Major League Baseball and USA Baseball and there is a vision for the future for our stadium is really encouraging. Now it’s our job to go out and tell that story and to make sure when fans walk through our gates that they have an unbelievable experience.’’

The game will be viewed in a different light here now, a changing landscape.

“We’re excited about the next chapter of Burlington baseball,’’ said Keur, who grew up in New Jersey before going to Elon College.

Players will be housed in a hotel, basically the same setup as the Royals players had going.

Spencer Torkelson was the first player selected in the 2020 draft, taken by the Tigers.

If this new system would have been up and running a few years ago, “You’re looking at Spencer Torkelson from Arizona State who gets drafted one overall,’’ Keur explained. “Spencer Torkelson may have been in Burlington a year or two before he ends up getting drafted.’’

Players will still go to the Cape Cod League with the draft being pushed back, but before that glorious New England summer, they could play in this league the previous year or two. It will be a youthful league.

“USA Baseball is involved in the player procurement,’’ Keur said. “This is part of the prospect development pipeline that has been created from a National Team perspective. So they have the relationships with the college coaches. They put out their top 300 freshmen and top 300 sophomores so that is where a lot of the applications into the Appalachian League long-term will come to really streamline the scouting services for Major League Baseball teams.’’

The Burlington area is growing, nearly 35 percent from a population standpoint over the last 10 years. The new Appalachian League is trying to grow in a different way.

44+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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