Ballclub's Pullout Caps Va. Town's Run of Woes
Struggling Martinsville No Longer Celebrates Its Boys of Summer
By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 23, 2004; Page A01
MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- If this were a typical June, the home town of the Martinsville Astros would look like this:
Jan Turner would be readying her family's little brick rancher for the minor league baseball players who sleep in the basement during the summer season.
Troy Wells, the high school basketball coach, would be checking the washer and dryer at Hooker Field, where he cleans baseball uniforms for a little extra money and has seen "just about every game for 15 years."
And Sammy Pickurel would be doing what he's done for 29 years: tending the turf he installed at Hooker, with its view of belching smokestacks looming just beyond the right field fence. The vista is a testament to the manufacturing industry that made Martinsville the "Sweatshirt Capital of the World," where hard work and hard play equals success.
Today this once-spirited little city in southwestern Virginia has a 14.7 percent unemployment rate, the highest of any community in the state. Its textiles manufacturing industry has shut down in the past five years, wiping out 10,000 jobs. No sweat shirts have been factory-made here in more than a year.
And the final indignity: the Astros are gone. Martinsville has lost its baseball team.
The team's major league affiliate, the Houston Astros, wanted $1.2 million worth of improvements at Hooker Field, but city officials said the money wasn't there. Now Martinsville is without professional baseball for the first time since 1988.
The stadium-as-moneymaker ethos that drives the big leagues has trickled down to the lowest levels of baseball's minor leagues, and Martinsville found it no longer could keep up -- couldn't offer luxury boxes for patrons or hot tubs for players. The departure of the Martinsville Astros proves that unemployment isn't just about lost jobs but also lost community, lost confidence.
Until January, when the Houston Astros broke the news that it was moving the team to a new $5 million stadium in Greeneville, Tenn., Martinsville was on the circuit of gritty little cities in its region that are treated each summer to professional baseball at its most intimate and bare-bones: rookie ball, the basement of the pros.
In the Appalachian League, where Cal Ripken once played in Bluefield, W.Va., a ballplayer's chances of making it to the bigs are less than one in six. Players make an average of $850 a month during what the minor leagues call the "short season," with nearly a game a day for 10 weeks, from late June to August.
But the Appy League meant everything to Martinsville, whose baseball tradition goes back to the 1930s, when Enos Slaughter played for the Martinsville Manufacturers on his way to the St. Louis Cardinals, the New York Yankees and the Hall of Fame.
Games were the premier summer entertainment. Young and old came to socialize, play musical chairs between innings or walk down to the dugout and get a ball autographed. They looked forward to watching the rookie draft on TV each spring, and when fall came, they'd brag about players who had fallen for "Martinsville girls" that season.
Baseball brought a bit of glamour to town. Only a tiny number of the young men who trained in the clammy Virginia summer arrived with six-figure signing bonuses -- or any signing bonuses -- but all seemed to radiate potential, a sense that greatness could come of hard work.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company