Out of the blue

Sun Staff

BLUEFIELD, W.Va. -- Opening Day, like summer, comes late to this small city in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

And like summer, the annual love affair between the townspeople and the Bluefield Orioles is intense and short, just 10 weeks from hello to goodbye.

But the here-and-gone nature of the seasons and players, who are either beginning their careers or proving they chose the wrong one, often overshadows something deeper: an unconditional commitment between Bluefield and Baltimore that goes back 46 years -- almost to the beginning of the Baltimore Orioles themselves.

It is major league baseball's longest-running marriage between a parent club and an affiliate. Ask people here if they could imagine a summer without the Orioles and they look at you in puzzlement.

"They bring life to this town," says Molly Robinson, president of the Bluefield Orioles Boosters Club, as she waits for the first pitch of the season. "Everybody looks forward to summer, and these are our boys of summer."

The booster club brims with members willing to feed the rookies, find them lodging, get them a television or an easy chair to help furnish their dorm room or apartment. City officials are always on the prowl for grants and sponsorships to upgrade Bowen Field. This year, a $250,000 state grant paid for new lights to bring nighttime conditions up to minor league requirements.

"When something needs to get done, they get it done," says Lee Landers, president of the 10-team Appalachian League. "These people just don't say, 'It was good enough for Cal Ripken,' and let things slide. They take pride in the team as a reflection of their community."

Mayor Bob Perkinson Jr. calls the Bluefield Orioles "one of the bright spots" in a region that has hemorrhaged jobs and residents over the past 30 years. He hopes to use the team and the gorgeous scenery as the foundation for building Bluefield into a high-tech center and a thriving retirement community.

Ripken, who played in Bluefield in 1978, is perhaps the most famous player to pass through the Orioles' talent pipeline. Younger brother, Bill, also started there, as did Boog Powell, Bobby Grich, Luis Matos and Jerry Hairston Jr.

"I was still scared about being away from home," says Bill Ripken, who was sent to Bluefield in 1982 as a 17-year-old. "I was making $600 a month that first year, and I lived with four or five other guys in a four-bedroom house. I think Mom cringed when she first came down and saw my living accommodations."

Powell remembers his arrival in 1959 from Lakeland, Fla. "It was less than the high school stadium that I played in. But at the same time, it was professional baseball, I was 18, and I was excited."

The community also launched the careers of journalists and broadcasters, who found that in addition to covering the Orioles, the region also had its share of news, from coal mining strikes to the prison escape of Charles Manson follower Sarah Jane Moore.

"It was like grad school with a stipend. It was a blast," recalls Wally Bruckner, sportscaster for WRC-TV in Washington, who worked for WHIS-TV for seven months in 1978-79. "It was my first time up in a helicopter and down in a coal mine."

Salary-poor ballplayers and reporters looked forward to meetings of local civic organizations. The athletes would speak, the reporters would record their words and then everyone would enjoy the rubber chicken dinner.

"All of us were the same age and sometimes that was the only meal we had for the day," says Frank Traynor, who was press secretary for Gov. William Donald Schaefer in 1991-92 and went on to become an executive with Bloomberg Financial News. "We'd compare the last time we ate.

"The only other option was the $1.10 special at Bonanza steakhouse, which consisted of a grilled cheese, fries, soda and a lollypop," says Traynor, who worked at the Bluefield TV station in 1977.

"Bluefield is the perfect place for a young man to get his start," says Powell, who turned heads with the teal 1956 Chevrolet convertible he bought while playing there. "There's not a lot of pressure. It's not a big city to get confused or distracted in. The people are wonderful and supportive."

Tale of two cities

Geographically and politically, there are two Bluefields. The ballclub is in Bluefield, W.Va., population 11,190. The ballpark is in Bluefield, Va., population 4,956. That's just the way it happened when the estate of a coal company executive donated 220 acres to the West Virginia city for a park and athletic fields.

"Go out that door and you're in Virginia," says Bluefield's general manager George McGonagle, pointing at one of two doors in the office he shares with grass seed, unused tickets and gear. "Go out that door and you're in West Virginia."

Truth be told, except for size there's not a lot of difference between the cities. But there is a lot of cooperation. When the West Virginia side applied for the grant for lights, the Virginia side was right there supporting the request.

Baseball came to Bluefield in 1882, seven years before the city was incorporated. Railroad men who hauled coal out of the mountains to the cities played on company teams.

Play turned pro in 1924, when the Blue-Grays entered the Coalfield League, an organization that lasted just two seasons. From that time until the late 1930s, baseball fans got their fix watching semipro teams and barnstorming pros.

The first game at Bowen Field was between the Bluefield Blue-Grays, a Boston Braves affiliate, and the Welch Miners on May 14, 1939. From that day until 1953, the team was affiliated with the Braves.

Major leaguers on trains northbound from spring training would stop in Bluefield for a pick-up game to make some walking-around money. During World War II, Negro leagues players such as Satchel Paige and Josh Brown came to Bluefield on barnstorming tours.

The "Appy" League was formed in 1946, flickered out for a year in 1956 and sparked to life again the next season. During that period, Bluefield switched allegiance from Boston to the Washington Senators back to Boston, this time to the Red Sox.

After a one-season fling with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Bluefield and Baltimore got hitched in 1958.

'It's a small town'

Opening Night, 2004, arrives two hours before the first pitch as hundreds of fans come early to get a free baseball, courtesy of a local bank, and size up this year's talent.

The game pits Bluefield against its Mercer County rival, the Princeton Devil Rays, who play just 11 miles up the road. The game is the first of the season's 12 scheduled games between the two clubs, with the winner taking the Mercer Cup. Bluefield wins, 4-1, on the strength of two home runs.

Heber Stafford sits on a wooden bench just beyond the visitors' dugout, keeping score in his own shorthand. At 86, he has marked a lot of sheets with diagonal slashes and K's.

Stafford, a retired power company worker, has been coming to Bowen Field since 1939, although he can't quite say for sure whether he saw the first game. But he knows he watched Stan Musial as a pitcher before an arm injury forced him to the outfield, and cheered Ted Williams on a barnstorming tour.

Asked what the Orioles mean to his community, he stops, looks up from his scorecard and answers simply: "It means we've got live entertainment."

The mountains filter out some of society's ills and frenetic pace, but they also can be isolating.

"It's a small town," says Matos, the Orioles center fielder who played in Bluefield during the 1997 championship season of the Appy League. "You see everybody almost every day if you go to the supermarket or a store. But they love their baseball, and they know the game."

The team attracts about 2,000 people a game, more on giveaway nights. There are a few box seats, but almost everything else is general admission ($3.50 a ticket).

This may be rookie league ball, but the 1,850 grandstand seats are major league quality. They ought to be. They're from Anaheim Stadium, and conveniently sun-faded from red to orange. McGonagle bought them several years ago after that ballpark was renovated.

Before that, spectators brought lawn chairs and blankets to cushion the concrete slabs. When a fire burned down Bowen Field in 1973, the city rebuilt it by the next season, but didn't have money for seats.

"I got twice as good a seat for just half the cost," McGonagle says, chuckling. "Just don't go up and look at the seat numbers because we've got two No. 2s in a row followed by a 27."

Other changes have been made for the players.

The clubhouse of Bill Ripken's day, with its stall-less toilets and malfunctioning shower drain "that made shower clogs a moot point," has been replaced. A building with indoor batting cages hugs the right-field line.

Fewer than one in six Appalachian League players reach the top. The lucky and talented ones move up to the ladder, perhaps to the Delmarva Shorebirds, the low-A team, or the Frederick Keys, the high-A team.

The 29-man roster has 13 players with no minor league experience, 14 players who spent last year on another entry-level team and two players -- Cory Shafer and Henry Guerrero -- who are returning to Bluefield for a second season. Nearly half the team hails from Central or South America, and two players are from Canada.

The oldest Oriole is infielder Denver Kitch, 23. The youngest of the Baby Birds is outfielder Joey Howell, 18. This is the first year of pro ball for either of them.

As Baltimore's director of minor league operations, Darrell "Doc" Rodgers oversees them all. He marvels at the longevity and intensity of the Bluefield commitment.

"Those types of things are rare these days," says Rodgers, who spent two seasons as pitching coach of the rival Princeton, W.Va., Appalachian League team. "Only baseball has those special relationships anymore, and Bluefield is the standard."

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