Major League Baseball and USA Baseball announced on Tuesday the Appalachian League will become a wood bat summer collegiate league that will feature top rising college freshmen and sophomores beginning with the 2021 season.
Plans include a 54-game regular season that will be played June through August with an annual all-star game. MLB and USA Baseball will provide support for the league’s staffing, player participation and administrative functions.
The Appy League will become part of the Prospect Development Pipeline, a collaborative effort between MLB and USA Baseball to grow the game of baseball and prepare amateur players for professional careers.
MLB and USA Baseball have already begun the process of identifying and inviting 320 players to participate in the 2021 Appy League season.
The conversion of the Appy League to a summer collegiate league is part of Major League Baseball’s plan to cut minor league affiliates from 160 to 120 next year.
The Appalachian League had been an affiliated minor league with professional players since 1911.
The Greeneville Astros played in the league from 2004-2017 at Tusculum University’s Pioneer Park. The Astros withdrew their affiliation after the 2017 season and were replaced by the Reds, who played at Pioneer Park in 2018 and 2019.
While Appalachian League teams will no longer be affiliated with MLB teams, Tuesday’s announcement ensures high-level, wood-bat baseball will remain in the league’s 10-member cities, including Greeneville.
“With MLB contracting minor league baseball teams, unfortunately, it’s not going to work out well for some teams and towns throughout the country,” said Chris Allen, President and COO of Boyd Sports, which operates Appy League franchises in Greeneville, Johnson City and Elizabethton. “So when this option was presented to us, it made perfect sense.
“Having Major League Baseball’s and USA Baseball’s full support and cooperation gives the Appy League a leg up on finding players to play in the league. They have a real plan in place on how they’re going to find these players. I really believe we’ll have some of the best college talent in the country playing in this league right out of the gate.”
Each of the 10 Appy League teams will be renamed and rebranded. Major League Baseball’s design team is helping the league come up with team logos.
“We don’t have a time frame for having teams renamed, but we’d like to get it done sooner than later,” Allen said. “We want to develop team names that represent the communities. We want to get the right team name for each community.
“MLB has assigned one of their graphics guys to each one of our teams and they’re really engaged. I think they’ve created sort of a competition to see who can come up with the most liked logo. They’re taking a lot of pride in it.”
Tusculum University President Scott Hummel said he is excited about summer baseball returning to Pioneer Park.
“While we still have a lot to work out, Tusculum University is excited about the possibility of bringing an MLB presence and USA Baseball to Greeneville,” he said. “This could be a win-win-win for baseball, Greeneville and Tusculum University. The summer collegiate league in our beautiful stadium will make for some magical nights of baseball in Greeneville.”
Allen said details of how players will be housed for the season haven’t been worked out, but he thinks players will stay in college dorms that are vacant for the summer and with host families.
“I’m very familiar with summer collegiate leagues,” said Allen, who got his start in baseball as the general manager of the Wilson Tobs of the summer collegiate Coastal Plain League. “The great thing about this format is players in the league will be engaged with the community more than they ever have been.
“You’re going to see more fan engagement, more community involvement. I think that will grow our attendance. There are a number of teams throughout the country that have seen their attendance increase dramatically after they switched from affiliated teams to summer collegiate teams. We’re hoping to do that in our three markets.”
Troy Hall, a 2015 North Greene grad, pitched in two summer collegiate leagues while playing at Mars Hill University. He pitched for the Nevada (Missouri) Griffons of the MINK League in 2016 and the Forest City (North Carolina) Owls of the Coastal Plain League in 2018.
“I grew up around the Greeneville Astros and watched the Greeneville Reds, but I’m really excited for the community now,” said Hall, who now teaches social studies and coaches baseball and softball at Marist School in Atlanta. “When I was in the Coastal Plain League, players were encouraged to interact with fans. Players would participate with fans in on-field promotions between innings. Players in summer collegiate leagues are just involved a lot more in the fan experience. It’s all about the fans in collegiate summer leagues.”
Hall said another noticeable difference between professional baseball and summer collegiate leagues is how the game is played strategically.
In professional minor leagues, winning often takes a back seat to player development. But in summer collegiate leagues, the top priority is to win.
“On a collegiate summer league team, you know this is our team, the team we’re going to have all summer,” Hall said. “We’re not going to have our best players called up two weeks into the season and then we’re stuck.
“The players in summer collegiate leagues are there to perform well and win a championship. When I went to play in Forest City and Nevada, I wanted to come home with a championship. I didn’t just want to go and do my time there.”