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Touring the minors: Kingsport

Next up on our trip is Kingsport, home of the Kingsport Mets!

Hunter Wright Stadium
Steve Sypa

Kingsport is a city of roughly 50,000 people located in northeastern Tennessee adjacent to the Holston River. It is the largest city in the Tennessee/Virginia’s “Tri-City” region, composing it, Johnson City, and Bristol.

Organized baseball has been present in the city since 1921, when the second Appalachian League chartered. Composed entirely of independent teams, the Kingsport Indians played in the city from 1921 until 1925, when the league contracted. The third Appalachian League was chartered in 1937, this time composed of unaffiliated and Level-D affiliated minor league teams. Kingsport fielded a team in the league starting in 1938, when the Kingsport Cherokees were chartered. Over the years, they played unaffiliated and with affiliations with the Brooklyn Dodgers- renaming themselves the Kingsport Dodgers for the 1942 season- Washington Senators, Chicago White Sox, and New York Giants. The team shifted from the Appalachian League to the Mountain States League for the 1953 and 1954 seasons, but returned to the Appalachian League in 1955. After a year of dormancy, they would return in 1957 and compete as the Kingsport Orioles. They went dormant after the season and returned as the Kingsport Pirates in 1960, competing under that moniker until 1963. After another period of dormancy, the team returned in 1969 as the Kingsport Royals. They remained affiliated with the Royals until 1974, when they became affiliated with the Atlanta Braves and became the Kingsport Braves.

In 1979, the team ended its affiliation with the Atlanta and switched to the Mets, and the Kingsport Mets fielded their first team in 1980. The New York Mets and the city of Kingsport have one of the longest relationships in all of the minor league baseball. Only seven teams and cities have relationships that go back further: the Reading Fighin’ Phils (1967), Lakeland Tigers (1967), Omaha Storm Chasers (1969), Patwtucket Red Sox (1973), the Elizabethton Twins (1974), the Billings Mustangs (1974), and the Johnson City Cardinals (1975).

Since 1980, the Kingsport Mets have made the Appalachian League playoffs six times. In 1988, they defeated the Burlington Indians 2-0 to win the championship. In 1995, they defeated the Bluefield Orioles to win the championship. One year later, in 1996, they lost to those same Orioles in the finals. After a considerable drought, Kingsport returned to the playoffs in 2013, losing to the Greeneville Astros 2-1 in the Appalachian League semifinals. In 2015, they lost to the Greeneville Astros in the semifinals for a second time. In 2018, they made their final playoff appearance, losing to the Elizabethton Twins 2-1 in the semifinals.

The Kingsport Mets play at Hunter Wright Stadium, opened in 1995. Prior to playing there, the Kingsport Mets played at J. Fred Johnson Stadium, located on the campus of Dobyns-Bennett High School. Built in 1939, the facility was home not only to not only the Kingsport Mets, but also served as home field for the Dobyns-Bennett High School baseball and football teams. The suboptimal timeshare arrangement combined with aging facilities prompted the Mets and the city of Kingsport to agree to build a new facility, built at the cost of $2 million.

The stadium, like the city itself, is unassuming and modest, but is an excellent place to see a ballgame. Set in a secluded area of the city, the stadium is surrounded by lush mountain greenery. Sightlines are excellent, and while the bleacher-style seating might be uncomfortable at times, there isn’t a bad seat in the house. Music and other sound effects are used sparingly and do not oversaturate the airwaves, and food offerings are limited to the tried-and-true classic ballpark foods, a refreshing change from many other stadiums.

In 1995, the Kingsport Mets unveiled their first mascot, Fowl Ball Freddy. An anthropomorphic parrot in a Mets jersey, Freddy faithfully cheered his team on from 1995-2002, and then after a three-year vacation, from 2005-2012. While Freddy was away from the team, his duties were filled in by Homer the Dragon; his relationship to the Charlotte Knights’ Homer the Dragon remains clouded to this day. In 2013, Slider the Dog left his cousin Klutch and moved up from St. Lucie to Kingsport and became their official mascot. Faithfully cheering on the Kingsport Mets since, Slider enjoys the Mets, baseball, dancing, playing fetch, and hanging out with Kingsport Mets Kids Club members and dislikes cats and losing.