In a June 23 article about the Martinsville Astros' departure from Virginia for Greeneville, Tenn., Miles Wolff's Appalachian League team, the Burlington (N.C.) Indians, was misidentified. (Published 6/24/04)
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.
Now when people talk about the Astros, the mood is one of defeat.
"Um, I don't know if you know about Martinsville?" Chris Martin, a 17-year-old pitcher on the high school team, began meekly as he explained why many families couldn't afford to go to Appy League games, even though many of the seats at Hooker Field were lawn chairs and tickets sold for as little as $4.50.
With the collapse of textiles and parts of the furniture industry, the Martinsville area, including Henry County -- has lost so many residents that two of five high schools closed this spring. City teams, historically at the top of Virginia sports, had some of their worst seasons in two decades, said Tommy Golding, the baseball coach and assistant football coach at Martinsville High School.
"We've got two types of families here now -- we have rich, and we have poor," he said. "We're losing our middle-class kids."
People pine for Martinsville's heyday in the 1970s, when the textile and furniture factories were booming and Martinsville had more than 20,000 residents. Now there are about 15,400.
"You think there's a backup on the Mixing Bowl in Springfield! When I came, at the morning and evening shift changes, you could hardly move," said Mike McPeek, who arrived as a state trooper in the 1970s.
"Sometimes when you walked downtown, you'd have to step off the sidewalk and onto the street, there was so many people," Hazel Glenn said one morning this spring at her restaurant, Hazel's Place, where she serves macaroni and cheese with a scooper. "It's all dwindled away overseas. NAFTA. Free trade. We used to be Sweatshirt Capital of the World."
For many, the Astros' exit was inevitable, simply another confirmation that Martinsville is for losers. City officials, who knew for months that the team was dissatisfied with the small, spartan players' facilities and the less durable bluegrass turf, barely put up a fight.
"We're in an economic situation that doesn't lend itself to a can-do attitude," said Mark Crabtree, a dentist who was mayor when professional baseball came in 1988 in the form of the Martinsville Phillies and believes that the city should have agreed to do whatever it took to keep the Astros. "There's a sky-is-falling mentality here."
By the time the Houston Astros decided they wanted out, officials felt there wasn't much they could do.
While most minor league teams are owned by a group of individuals or a corporation, Appalachian League teams are owned by their major league affiliate. The Astros paid Martinsvillle $46,000 a year to use Hooker Field, and the team controlled ticket sales, concessions, advertising and souvenirs -- as well as all the profits.
According to city spokesman Matt Hankins, Martinsville laid out $500,000 during the five years Houston was here, rebuilding the dugouts, repainting the clubhouses and putting in new bluegrass turf -- though it was cheaper than the Bermuda grass Houston wanted.
But in an economic crisis, it couldn't afford the other amenities on Houston's list: a bigger training room, a new workout room, a hot tub.
"The way their economy is now, the priorities couldn't be the stadium," Appalachian League President Lee Landers said.
Houston found what it wanted in Tennessee, where a donor to Tusculum College helped build a stadium with slat-back seats modeled after Camden Yards and a lighting system worthy of the Triple-A league, one rung below the majors. The turf was installed by the company that did the San Francisco Giants' Pacific Bell Park.
Desperately hoping for another minor league team, Martinsville officials are gritting their teeth and trying not to go negative. "In all professional sports, the name of the game is money, unfortunately," said Tony Rinaldi, who oversees the stadium as director of the city's Leisure Services Department. "And they got a better deal, so we don't have any hard feelings."
Apart from money, Martinsville lost intangibles more difficult to measure: the economic development value of having professional baseball in a small city an hour from the interstate, the thrill of fireworks over the field on the Fourth of July, the comfortable, family feeling of knowing who was at the ballpark by which lawn chairs were there.
Minor League Shift
The Astros' move is one more indication that minor league baseball is changing -- becoming a little more high-end each year, more like the profit-driven major league scene fans were fleeing when they flocked to minor league games in the 1990s. Miles Wolff, who bought the Durham Bulls in 1980 for $2,400 and sold the team in 1992, reportedly for $3.8 million, estimates that it is now worth as much as $4 million.
The Bulls play at the top of the minors, at the AAA level. The Appalachian League is four rungs down, below the AA, A and Short Season A leagues. The players are young, the teams' home cities are small and close together and the game at that level is barely profitable. But even Appy League teams can make demands, and cities fight for the privilege of meeting them.
Bluefield, where the Orioles' team plays, spent $250,000 on a lighting system this year. In the past decade, stadiums have been built for Appy League teams in Danville, Va.; Kingsport, Tenn.; and Princeton, W. Va., at an average cost of $3 million after the cost of the land, Landers said. Hooker Field, with its concrete risers, was built piecemeal starting in the 1930s.
"Stadiums have become that much more important to overall success -- that's what changed things," said Bill Collins, who owned two minor league teams and is trying to bring a major league team to Virginia. "And then when you're a more sophisticated operator, you need more talented people to run those operations, like the scoreboard or the music system."
Wolff, who now owns the Appy League's Birmingham Indians, said he was so concerned about the stadium wars that he launched the Independent Leagues, in which teams play in old stadiums and focus on winning baseball games -- not training players for the pros or putting on halftime shows or concessions that he feels are all about making money.
But other baseball executives, including Tim Purpura, director of player development for the Houston Astros, said better facilities mean better baseball. "You get a better standard of play," he said.
No matter where you play.
Martinsville in Mourning
For Martinsville, the loss of its team means that little aspects of the everyday are different.
Jan and Tony Turner said they needed "healing" after finding out the team wasn't coming back.
They immediately sold two of the players' beds and stored hunting gear in the basement bathroom. Jan, who used to make each player a crocheted blanket in the colors of his choice, cries now when she talks about the team's not coming back.
"If I ever won $40 million," Tony Turner said, "there would be a $20 million stadium here. I've already got a piece of property picked out."
Hazel Glenn guessed she'll go to the gym more this year. Mark Crabtree said his family is planning more trips to the lake.
While they adjust to a summer without baseball, their city is adjusting to a new economic reality, retraining textile and furniture workers for telephone and computer jobs in distribution warehouses and call centers.
City officials, meanwhile, are courting minor league teams in hopes of finding one that will be satisfied with Hooker Field.
"It's going to be lonely," said Bill Wyatt, a native who runs the main regional AM radio station and did the announcing for professional games at Hooker Field.
"But people are resigned to the fact that bad things are happening, and this was just another one."
Meanwhile, Rick Martin, head of the city's youth baseball association, said he has arranged for the kids who used to work at Hooker, selling hot dogs and popcorn to raise money for their own league, to work instead at Martinsville Speedway.
Now that the Astros are gone, the two NASCAR races -- one in spring, one in fall -- are the only major entertainment events left.
But Martinsville might be in for another blow.
Last month, NASCAR, which has been racing in Martinsville since 1948, announced that it was changing its racing schedule for next year.
Motorsports analysts say that with the industry trying to move into bigger markets, one city might be wiped off the calendar: Martinsville.