By BRIAN WOODSON
PRINCETON — It happens every summer in Mercer County. Baseball, and plenty of it.
Hunnicutt Field will welcome the first pitch of the 2007 Appalachian League season next Thursday. The Bluefield Orioles will do the same next Tuesday.
For those who haven’t been to a game in a while, or are simply counting down the days until football season, Jim Holland has a message:
“I always tell them it’s one of those things,” said Holland, Princeton’s general manager since 1992. “Try it, you’ll like it.”
Especially this year. Like free stuff? Princeton is the place to be.
“We have a proud history of having a promotion or give-away at every home game since 1991,” said Holland, whose P-Rays will offer five bobblehead give-aways and a pair of figurine nights during its 34 home games this season. “That does kind of put some emphasis on us.
“It’s like a streak of any kind, you feel it and you want to keep it going and you work with it.”
Princeton, which will celebrate its 20th season as a professional baseball franchise this season, will open its campaign on June 21 by hosting the Kingsport Mets.
Not only will admission be free for everyone, but the first 500 fans will receive a P-Rays’ ballbat pen, and the initial 700 through the gate will get a magnet schedule.
That’s a typical night at Hunnicutt. Unlike Major League teams that can depend on its players as a drawing card, the P-Rays have a constantly-changing roster which often requires promotions to entice fans to the ballpark.
“That’s the secret at this level. The actual amount of hardcore, scorebook-keeping baseball fans is small and at this level you can’t market a player,” said Holland, whose P-Rays are entering their 11th season as a rookie league franchise of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. “That’s where your things come in like your bobble heads, your seat cushions, your camouflage caps, etc.
“This has to be treated as a social outing because it’s not as crucial to win here as it is at the big league level and the fact that your amount of hardcore fans is small, we cannot survive on just that core of fans.
“We’ve got to have these other people that are just out to enjoy being with each other. It’s something that doesn’t cost much and you’re getting all these prizes and goodies at the same time. You can’t beat it.”
The ‘Legends of Princeton Baseball’ bobblehead series, which will include Rocco Baldelli, Seth McClung, Wes Bankston, John Stearns and Jamie Nelson, is expected to be popular, along with the figurines that will depict Carl Crawford and Jonny Gomes, all of whom have played or coached in Princeton.
The first of those seven events will be on June 28 when Bankston’s likeness is given to the first 500 fans through the gate. Bankston is currently playing at Triple-A Durham.
“There’s been a lot of excitement about that, and I’m anxious to see how those five nights are going to go,” said Holland, whose Rays will host two noon games this season. “You take those five guys, plus we’re doing a Crawford figurine and a Gomes figurine night on top of that.
“That is on top of all the other give-aways we’re doing so this might well could be our single-best promotional year that we’ve ever done. We’ll just have to wait and see if people are going to step up and see if it will result in some numbers....
“I think it might be the best thing we have ever done and we’ve done a few things. I’m anxious to see how it turns out.”
Holland, his seven interns and groundskeeper Mick Bayle have been working to get Hunnicutt Field ready for action. All 123 light fixtures have new bulbs, the signage on the outfield walls is nearly complete, and the gift shop is stocked with memorabilia for all ages.
All that’s left is the players. They’ll arrive in Princeton on Sunday, followed by three days of practices before the season begins.
The P-Rays will start two days after the other eight teams in the nine-club league. The Appy League is working a team short after Toronto pulled out of Pulaski after last season.
“This year I love the enthusiasm of our staff. Everybody is pumped, there has been a lot of interest in the town, and I really like our schedule,” said Holland, whose Rays won’t play more than four home games in a row all season. “This thing where we’re not going to be home for to many games in a row at a time will bode well for us.
“Also, the reciprocal (season) ticket thing with Bluefield, I think that is going to really go well for both ball clubs and I think we’ll see an increase in attendance from that. The main factor there being that more people will follow their respective club across the county.
“I think we will both benefit from that. Obviously the more people you have in the ball park the better the electricity is so we want to go with that.”
Holland has been busy promoting the P-Rays to the game’s future. The Princeton Devil Rays Little League Caravan has visited eight communities in the two-state area, with a final stop slated for Saturday in Peterstown.
Every kid has received some type of memorabilia, all of which was provided to the local club by the big club in Tampa Bay.
“It’s just a chance to spread the interest of baseball to kids. We’re really proud of our caravan and it wouldn’t have been possible without the Devil Rays sending up these items,” said Holland, who has given away Fred McGriff and Jonny Gomes figurines, Devil Rays’ bat bags and Wade Boggs’ wiffle ball bats. “It’s really been a good time, the kids have enjoyed it
“People know who we are, but there’s people who maybe haven’t taken that first time to stick their toe in the water and see what this is all about so it helps increase awareness.”
The 2007 edition of the Devil Rays will arrive in Princeton on Sunday at 6 p.m. Fans are encouraged to greet the team, and to return on Monday for a ‘Meet the Devil Rays’ night from 5:30-6:30 p.m. The team will hold practice sessions for three straight days before the season begins.
Holland encourages fans to attend all of those. It’s those same people he’s trying to attract that have helped Princeton and Mercer County become a beacon of Appalachian League and Minor League success.
“We’re honored to be one of only 160 cities in the United States and Canada to host professional minor-league affiliated baseball and when you bring Bluefield into the mix, that is a very big honor,” Holland said. “I’m sure any road atlas will show that Princeton and Bluefield are not among the 160 largest cities in the United States or Canada and that can be attributed to only one thing and that is our people.
“That is why Princeton and Bluefield are able to have something here that larger cities don’t have, period, finished.”
That isn’t expected to change anytime soon. The Orioles are celebrating 50 years with the Baltimore Orioles.
“That is exactly why we’re able to do things that larger cities can’t is because of our people,” Holland said. “Whether those people are made up in the form of fans, booster members, directors or advertisers, they make it possible.
“As long as they maintain that faith in what we’re doing and what the Orioles are doing, it will flourish here for years to come.”
—Contact Brian Woodson