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Minor league realignment may make Kingsport redevelopment moot

Some more red tape has been cleared for a new stadium in Kingsport, but it might not matter if Major League Baseball gets their way.

Kingsport mascot Jessica Rudman
Jessica Rudman

The New York Mets and the city of Kingsport have one of the longest relationships in the entire Appalachian League. In 1979, the minor league club there ended its affiliation with the Atlanta Braves and switched to the Mets, and the Kingsport Mets fielded their first team in 1980. While the team itself was loaded with talent- future major leaguers John Gibbons, Lloyd McClendon, Doug Sisk, Darryl Strawberry, and Jay Tibbs all played on the inaugural team- the early Kingsport teams played in suboptimal conditions.

Until 1995, the Kingsport Mets played at J. Fred Johnson Stadium, located on the campus of Dobyns-Bennett High School. Opened in 1939, the facility was home not only to a professional minor league team, but also served as the home of both the Dobyns-Bennett High School baseball and football teams. In fact, the Dobyns-Bennett High School football team was the impetus for the Atlanta Braves ending their relationship with the city of Kingsport. In 1977, the city basically evicted the Braves- who were in the midst of a pennant-winning season- and forced the team to play road games to conclude their season in order to set up the field for the start of the high school football season. The Kingsport Mets were never hassled in that manner, but as the years passed, the suboptimal timeshare arrangement combined with aging facilities prompted the Mets and the city of Kingsport to agree to build a new facility.

Built in 1995 at the cost of $2 million dollars, the 330’-410’-330’ stadium has a capacity of roughly 2,500, with seating composed of premium reserved seats closest to the field and general metal bleachers. Hunter Wright saw its first official ballgame on April 25, 1995, when the University of Tennessee beat Virginia Tech in a game that saw R.A. Dickey get the start for the Volunteers. The Kingsport Mets moved in later that summer, and on June 27, 1995, the Kingsport Mets christened their new home with a win, beating the River City Rumblers 3-0. They would go on to win the Appalachian League championship in 1995, and the division in 1996, but despite a handful of playoff appearances since, have been unable to add to the championship banners flying at Hunter Wright Stadium.

At the end of 2015, Kingsport then-mayor John Clark unveiled a roadmap to make Kingsport the premier city in the area. “For Kingsport to be successful, the city needs to be a destination city on several fronts,” he said. The One Kingsport summit was organized to craft a three-to-five-year road map to better develop and improve the city. Among the many things that were discussed during the meetings was the idea of building a new multipurpose facility that would, among other things, contain a new home for the Kingsport Mets. A highly divisive and touchy subject for local politicians, proposals varied. This past summer, consultants Sterling Project Development recommended that the project continue after conducting a feasibility assessment that planned for a 2,500 seat artificial turf stadium, along with parking spaces and nearby office, retail, and entertainment space at the cost of roughly $14.5 million. The Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted 6-1 to approve the contract to continue deeper analysis into the project, which would be developing the former General Shale property in downtown Kingsport.

The Kingsport Mets drew 29,553 fans in 2019, up from 28,928 in 2018. Over the last five year, they’ve averaged 29,460 and 28,847 for the decade. In 2019, their attendance numbers were roughly middle-of-the-pack, trailing the league-leading Pulaski Yankees, Johnson City Cardinals, Greeneville Reds, Burlington Royals, and Danville Braves but ahead of the Elizabethton Twins, Princeton Rays, Bluefield Blue Jays, and Bristol Pirates.

All of the lower-drawing teams in the league seem to have the same kinds of things in common. Hunter Wright Stadium, like Bowen Field, DeVault Memorial Stadium, H. P. Hunnicutt Field, and Joe O’Brien Field are no-frills, no-nonsense stadiums. The scoreboards are basic, highlighting only the essentials such as the score, the inning, the count, and who is up at bat. The food offerings are limited to the tried-and-true classic ballpark foods. Music and other sound effects are used sparingly and do not oversaturate the airwaves. Seating is straightforward and basic, primarily bleacher-style stands.

Other stadiums in the Appalachian League, such as the John H. Johnson Award winning Pulaski Yankees’ Calfee Field, offer fan experiences that engage the senses far more than that of the lower drawing teams. The Kingsport Mets, Elizabethton Twins, Princeton Rays, Bluefield Blue Jays, and Bristol Pirates all have homes that are perfectly suited for a night out for baseball, but are quaint and spartan. With a new stadium, the Kingsport Mets would have been well on their way to matching the amenities and experience that Pulaski and the other higher-drawing teams in the league were able to offer.

In the wake of the expiration of the current Professional Baseball Agreement between the 30 MLB clubs and minor league teams, the Major League Baseball has proposed sweeping changes to how minor league baseball operates. Citing subpar stadiums and facilities in leagues all across the country, Major League Baseball is interested in eliminating roughly 40 teams. In this dramatic restructuring, the Kingsport Mets- and all of the Appalachian League- would be eliminated.

While this initial proposal is unlikely to be adopted as presented, as the two sides have yet to come to the bargaining table to begin talks and opening gambits are almost always reaches that get negotiated down, the elimination of the Appalachian League would have a major impact on the cities that currently host them. In addition to the economic impact for those cities- and perhaps more importantly- caught in the crosshairs would be the people rooting for those teams. Men, women, and children of all ages would be deprived of a night at the ballpark thanks to the squabbling of billionaires unwilling to invest a little more in their minor league developmental systems.