DeVault Stadium, Bristol, VIRGINIA
Number of states: 15
States to go: 35
First game: July 23, 2006 (Johnson City Cardinals 5, Bristol Sox 2)
Much like Asheville, I was thrilled that my ballpark travels brought me to Bristol. When on earth would I have ever made it to the Virginia/Tennessee border otherwise? There, I found a gorgeous ballpark in a charming, quirky town. There was a big show on State Street and loads of activity on both Tennessee’s and Virginia’s sidewalks, but we headed a little ways into Virginia to enjoy my first-ever Rookie League game.
The trip there from Hickory, NC was a good chunk of the fun. We took the Blue Ridge Parkway a lot of the way. Who would want to ever
put themselves on an interstate again after that? We were accompanied much of the way by a Christian motorcycle group, and then meandered up to the gorgeous NC/TN/VA tri-point. Even with that much activity, we did make it to the ballpark just in time for first pitch.
On the way in, there’s a plaque commemorating the astonishing accomplishment of one Ron Necciai. The plaque tells us that he pitched what can only be called a mega-perfect game…or so I thought. A little bit of research revealed to me that he didn’t strike out 27 guys in a row. In fact, with two out in the third inning, the catcher dropped one of his third strikes, thus enabling him to move on to strikeout victim #27. One guy managed to make contact, and I’m not certain how many walked…so the accomplishment is a
little misleading. On top of that, this English teacher is a little troubled by a critical misspelling…Necciai’s hapless opponents were the Welch Miners (of Welch, West Virginia) and not the Welsh Miners (who, for all I know, could be from Aberystwyth). Still, it served as an excellent welcome to the stadium. It was nice to walk the lengthy trip from parking lot to stadium and be greeted by a sense of local baseball history.
DeVault Stadium is a part of a high-school complex (signs boast that Virginia High School plays there) in the midst of a gorgeous valley. It does very nicely in the “regional feel” department because, literally everywhere I looked, there was something appropriate to the area. In addition to the plaque, I could look past the outfield fence. Past left field? A valley, lined with trees on either side. Check. Past right field?
A couple of small-towny houses. Check. Where am I? Not far from the mountains in the small-town South.
Bristol manages to be small-town in its presentation as well as its location. As best as I could tell, it was staffed entirely by local retirees–with few exceptions, I didn’t encounter anybody under 65. I’ve got nearly 30 years left, but maybe I can talk my wife into retiring there. Bristol looked beautiful, probably is not terribly expensive, and we could spend the summers of our golden years chilling out at a lovely ballpark. My favorite of the senior citizens was the PA guy. He was so laid-back it was hilarious. As kids got on the field to do the game-opening “find your shoe that we’ve stolen” game, for instance, he didn’t go overboard with the high-pitched, high-volume, the-Hindenburg-is-crashing excitement that so many PA guys are going with. Heck, he barely said anything…something like: “All right. We’re about to do the shoe race…and here it is.” Loved the guy.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the ballpark is the tree-lined hill behind the foul lines. It
provides a place for people to sit back and watch the game and for kids to play ball. It creates a buffer zone between the ballpark and the surrounding neighborhood, which I appreciate. There are even trees that obscure the ballpark in a few places, which somehow adds to the charm.
It was here that I further developed a rule for minor-league ballparks. Many minor league ballparks have grassy hills from which kids can watch the game. Seeing what happens on the grassy hills is a good indication of how seriously a ballpark takes its baseball. As best as I can tell, there are three levels. The l
owest level is a place
where kids are pounding the snot out of each other in a Lord of the Flies
-style melee for nine innings. That means that the baseball is incidental, probably both to spectators and management. The next level up is a place where kids don’t pay attention to the game because they’re playing ball…playing catch, or, in the case of these kids at Bristol, taking grounders off of a wall. The next level features kids predominantly watching the game, although occasionally burning off steam. That’s an impressive level and worth striving for. But at Bristol, I had to invent a new level, because I looked over at one point and found an empty hill. The kids were all in the seats watching the game with their families. That’s an extraordinary achievement. Check out this rule the next time you are at a ballpark with grassy hills.
Further adding to Bristol’s charm:
the least expensive concessions I have ever encountered at a ballpark, with all proceeds going to Virginia High School.
DeVault Stadium also marked the the first time that I encountered visiting play-by-play guys (or at least I think that’s what they were) at the ballpark. I guess that the press box doesn’t offer too much space, because sitting in the top corner of the first-base bleachers were two guys wearing the colors of the visiting Johnson City Cardinals. The play-by-play and color were provided by the same guy, and he didn’t seem to want to talk much. It looks like the other guy is doing a video recording of the game: maybe he wants to critique his performance. Perhaps he’s not the official radio guy for the Cardinals–maybe this is just what he does for fun, much like I would turn down the volume and do play-by-play in my basement as a child. Still, it was bizarre to say the least.
Other things we noticed about the ballpark: They put a radar gun right out
in the middle of the stands behind home plate. Although they have a scoreboard display of the speed of the pitch, it’s pretty cool to be able to walk up to the actual gun.
These are the kinds of touches that made this such a marvelous stadium. It just felt right.
Two bizarre incidents stand out on this night. Michelle and I spotted a young woman who clearly was interested in hooking up with one (or more) Johnson City Cardinals. She wound up hanging out in the stands by the couple of Cardinals who were to chart pitches.
Needless to say, they were not at all interested in their job. In fact, I actually saw one of them give a sustained caress to her butt. She didn’t even recoil a little bit. Hel-LO, kiddoes! There are people behind that behind! Get a room! Looks like somebody doesn’t have enough interest in the craft of pitching to last.
The stud of the night was home plate umpire Tommy Sewell. In the eighth inning, a foul ball smashed off of the dirt and into his left hand. I’m 99% sure it broke his pinkie finger…and yet he finished the game, holding his hand awkwardly on his knee behind home plate. I didn’t see him take so much as an aspirin. Tommy–way to be, dude.
Also, In the midst of the night, Yolonda, the least baseball-crazy of the four of us taking this intense trip, seemed to have something click. Even though we were sitting on highly uncomfortable cinderblocks (if I go back, I sit on the lawn instead), she got the point of these travels we were in the midst of. “I can see the appeal of this,” she said, looking over the diamond at a Virginia sunset.
I’ll try to make it back to Bristol if I ever get a chance.
Regional feel: 8.5/10
Very good here. Geographically gorgeous.
As good as it gets.
Quietly effective. I’m sort of torn here, since I like a few promotions at my low-level minors, but here, the quietness added to the charm.
Team mascot/name: 2.5/5
No mascot–it’d have been nice to have one, but then again, I liked the laid-backness of living without one. The name “Sox” fits in with the Appalachian League naming conventions, sort of. (Why not “White Sox”?)
Architecturally, it ain’t much, but oh those trees and that valley. Flat-out beautiful.
Pavilion area: 5/5
Many, many, many missed decisions.
A great little ballpark in a great little town. I’ll do all I can to get back.
BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:
Henderson Lugo starts the 5-hit shutout…but only lasts four innings. Oscar Lara finishes it with three innings of relief and gets the win.
(Written August 2006.)