By Dave Ongie, News Editor
For Zac Clark, last week’s announcement that Major League Baseball and USA Baseball had joined forces to create a new format for the Appalachian League felt like a great weight off of his shoulders.
“This winter, we really didn’t know what we were going to do,” Clark, General Manager of Johnson City’s Appalachian League franchise told the News & Neighbor last Wednesday. “We had no idea. To then have this opportunity, it was unbelievable because it’s so much better than we thought.”
Starting in 2021, all 10 Appalachian League franchises will still be in business, fielding teams featuring some of the top rising college freshmen and sophomores in America. The wood bat league is set to start next summer, and Boyd Sports will continue to run the franchises in Johnson City, Elizabethton and Greeneville.
“We are excited for the opportunity to continue to bring our level of high-quality family entertainment to East Tennessee,” Chris Allen, President and COO of Boyd Sports said in a statement. “This new agreement will provide new opportunities to showcase how we can create fun and memorable experiences for our fans. We welcome the partnership with the MLB and Team USA as we look forward to many great years to come.”
While the deal between the Appalachian League, USA Baseball and Major League Baseball is not a long-term agreement, all parties seem confident the new wood bat league is here to stay. Appalachian League president Dan Moushon pointed out the unique partnership between the Appy League and the MLB that existed for over a century has always been done on a year-by-year basis with the MLB reserving the right to pull the plug with a mere six-month notice.
“The league itself has always been year-to-year, so it’s really no different than our operators have had previously,” Moushon said. “But, you know, Major League Baseball has said all along it’s in this for the long term. They want to grow the sport and the business for the long haul.”
The major change in the league is the player development model that serves as its foundation. Since its inception, Appy League teams were affiliated with Major League clubs, who were responsible for signing and assigning players to their Appalachian League affiliates and hiring coaches and trainers to work with the players.
Under the new system, USA Baseball is responsible for assigning players to Appy League teams and hiring coaches and trainers to work with them.
“In this new situation, USA Baseball will assume that farm director role for all the Appalachian League teams, and they will be responsible for the on-field talent,” Moushon said.
While the new model is a drastic departure from the Appy League’s former arrangement, Clark sees many potential benefits to the new model. First and foremost, all the franchises will have the opportunity to create a new nickname and logo for their respective teams. In the case of Johnson City’s franchise, Clark said no substantial changes had been made since Johnson City began its affiliation with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1975.
“This is a huge opportunity, but being that we’re so deeply rooted in this community as being the Cardinals, we know we can’t swing and miss, if you’ll excuse the pun,” Clark said. “We’ve got to get it right. It’s a massive opportunity, but it’s something we’re taking seriously.”
Since Boyd Sports took over operations of the Johnson City franchise in 2016, marketing has been a forte of the organization. The Cardinals routinely led the Appalachian League in attendance, setting and re-setting single-game and full-season attendance records along the way.
Now Clark sees a golden opportunity to market the players who will come to Johnson City next summer to the team’s loyal fanbase. Under the old system, there have been two things working against the front office in Johnson City when it came to marketing players. The first is the MLB Draft traditionally took place right before the Appy League season started, and the team’s marketing department could never be sure which draft picks were going to be assigned to Johnson City until the last minute.
The second thing is that a player who started off the season hot could be called up to full-season Class A or even Class AA team at a moment’s notice. For example, Paul DeJong, currently a fixture in the St. Louis Cardinals’ lineup, started his career in Johnson City but was called up less than a month into the season.
Moving forward, Clark expects to know the makeup of Johnson City’s team at some point next spring, and once players arrive in Johnson City, the team will stay intact for the entire season. Moreover, the rising freshmen assigned to Johnson City next season will be able to return as rising sophomores in 2022, providing even more continuity and allowing fans to become more familiar with the players on the field.
“There’s been talk about possibly releasing (the names of) the players to each of the 10 teams in the league as early as the middle of the collegiate season,” Clark said. “If we can get our hands on it that early, that’s a huge win for us, because normally we don’t get the players until after the draft. You’re talking a week or two before the season, so there’s no opportunity to market any of the players. That’s a big opportunity right there.”
While the Appy League will no longer feature pro players, Clark said he expects the quality of play to be at least as good as it was with a good chance to produce even better baseball than the rookie league format.
“These are going to be top-end, elite level players and coaches,” Clark said. “I think the fanbase and the community will see it when the opening day rolls around. Every single one of these guys should be drafted instead of just a handful. That right there should tell you the level of play will go up pretty substantially.”
For comparison, Clark said the Cardinals had been sending between five and seven players who were selected in the draft to Johnson City in recent years. The rest of the roster was comprised of undrafted free agents, most of whom were not destined to grace a Major League field.
Conversely, the 320 players headed to the Appalachian League next summer will be prospects with a real shot at getting drafted by big-league teams. For that reason, Moushon shares Clark’s optimism that his league could feature a better brand of baseball than it has in recent years.
“A greater percentage of the players you see playing in the Appalachian League will make it into Major League Baseball, which means the chances that on any given night you’re watching future big leaguers are much greater than they were previously,” Moushon said.