On the Road: Free Admission in Elizabethton

To see all posts from my June 29 visit to the Elizabethton Twins, click HERE. To see all my posts from my June/July 2016 Appalachian League Road Trip, click HERE. To see all my “On the Road” posts, click HERE. If interested in seeing posts covering a visit to a particular team, search for that team’s name in the blog search bar (it’s to your right). 

As mentioned previously, I spent the first five nights of my Appalachian League trip in Johnson City (the home of the Cardinals). The other four teams in the league’s West Division are all located nearby, but no team is located closer to Johnson City than the Elizabethton (pronounced Eliza-BETH-ton) Twins. Joe O’Brien Field was a mere 10 miles from my hotel, but I still had some trouble finding it

I needed to make a left hand turn onto the downward-sloping road seen in the above photo, but missed it on my first three attempts. It’s a rather unobtrusive road.

img_0182And Joe O’Brien Field is a rather unobtrusive ballpark, gently enveloped by towering hillside trees. The Watauga River runs behind the third base side.

img_0183I arrived just as the gates opened, and was immediately confused. Fans were just walking in; no one was checking tickets. But as it turned out, this was not only the home opener but also one of the team’s “Free Admission Nights.” The Twins, run by Elizabethton’s parks and recreation department, are a community-oriented team and do their best to make a night at the ballpark an affordable outing.

I’m not sure that any team has ticket prices lower than this:

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Upon arriving I spent some time with Twins general manager Mike Mains, whose role with the team is an extension of his position as Elizabethton’s parks and recreations director. My conversations with him formed the basis of this MiLB.com article, which explains more about the team and how it operates. The game at which I was in attendance marked the start of Elizabethon’s 43rd consecutive season as a Minnesota affiliate. There’s lots of history here at Joe O’Brien Field, and it’s a beautiful place to spend an evening.
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img_1702Even though it was Opening Day, the pregame festivities were minimal. As part of a league-wide initiative, pitcher Austin Tribby was interviewed on the dangers of dip. “Don’t even consider it,” said Tribby.

Both teams lined up for on-field introductions prior to the game. In the below photo, Twins manager Ray Smith is trotting out toward home plate. Smith is an Elizabethton icon, as 2016 marked his 30th season on the Twins’ coaching staff. Not only that, but he began his playing career in Elizabethton as a member of the 1977 squad.

img_0195Once both teams were identified and accounted for, it was time for a rousing rendition of our National Anthem.

Soon after the ballgame began, I met with my designated eater. Following standard operating procedure, that will be featured in a separate post. The designated eating took place in the stadium “Skybox,” which offers as elevated a vantage point as one is going to get in an Appy League ballpark. The mountains in the background are part of the Appalachian chain.

img_0204While in the skybox I interviewed Dave McQueen, known throughout the ballpark as “Big Dave.”

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Big Dave has worked with the team for decades, primarily as head of groundskeeping and clubhouse operations. I didn’t quite have the time to put together a story on Big Dave before leaving on my next trip, but he’s a very energetic and colorful individual. Here’s a snippet of the interview. There’s more where that came from, so get in touch if you want to hear more.

And here’s another Sky Box view. There are banners throughout the seating area honoring prominent Elizabethton alumni, such as Kirby Puckett. Puckett made his debut as a member of the 1982 team, hitting a robust .382.

img_0211The Sky Box stairs are not for the faint of heart.

img_0213Back on level ground, I commenced to wandering.

img_0214On the concourse, the atmosphere was sedate.

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While there, I enjoyed this bit of wall art.

img_0217The whole atmosphere was sedate, really. The season had just started, and the fans didn’t seem to be in peak form. They are known for bringing cowbells to the games (Elizabethton is dairy country), and I had been warned that the cowbells can be maddening, but on this Wednesday evening they were used sparingly.

The response to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”, meanwhile, was virtually non-existent. Maybe this Dr. John-style rendition just doesn’t resonate in Tennessee.

Regardless of the energy in the park — or lack thereof — I remained smitten with the Joe O’Brien Field experience.

After a brief stop in the press box…

img_0222…I exited the stadium at the third base side and spent some quiet moments along the banks of the Watauga.

The view looking back toward the ballpark:

img_1722The Elizabethton batters looked good in the on-deck circle.

img_1723But they couldn’t get much going at the plate. Final score: Pulaski, 6 Elizabethton 1

img_0226Before heading on my way I wrote and disseminated a Groundbreak and Subversive Ballpark Joke.

After that, I headed back into the wilderness. Good night from Elizabethton.

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***

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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