Thrown out of the game: Burlington’s ties to professional baseball severed

As Major League Baseball contracts its farm teams to cut costs, small towns are where the pain is felt

Baseball will be back at Burlington Athletic Stadium next year, but the city’s eight decades with minor league baseball ended when Major League Baseball decided to dissolve the Appalachian League and put a college wooden bat league in its place. (Photo courtesy of Bob Sutton)

BURLINGTON — For Burlington, a piece of baseball’s big time came with having something relatively small on the professional baseball scale.

Still, as one of about 160 communities with a pro team, it provided a coveted distinction.

That has gone away, officially ceasing by late September when the months-long speculation came true — the Appalachian League was going away, at least as a professional circuit.

“It’s just a new era,” said Ryan Keur, who purchased the operating rights for the Burlington club last winter.

Burlington had a minor league team for at least parts of the last eight decades.

In North Carolina’s rich tradition of fielding teams in various minor leagues, Burlington’s club filled a certain role. It was the state’s only rookie-level team — playing what was called a short-season schedule — and the state’s lone Kansas City Royals affiliate.

“There’s a glitz that goes with it,” said longtime season ticket holder David Horne said. “You have that connection that makes you feel you have something big-time. You have a minor league team and you might have watched a player in his first season or even his first game (as a pro player) and the player goes on to the major leagues.”

What Burlington might be missing out most is the exposure and status. For years, hard-core fans in Cleveland and Kansas City knew about Burlington because that’s where they began to track the progress of prospects.

Burlington was tagged as one of 42 minor league teams for elimination as part of Major League Baseball’s contraction of the minors. That included the entire 10-team Appalachian League, where teams also reside in Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

Burlington’s roots run deep in the minors. It had a Carolina League team from 1945-55 and 1958-72, at times holding affiliations with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Texas Rangers. Players on some early Burlington pro teams included Luis Tiant and Jack McKeon.

Burlington Athletic Stadium has a throwback charm, particularly once inside the grandstand. Players and staff for the home team make their ways from the clubhouse to the dugout by walking through spectators, often stopping to sign autographs and chat with patrons.

The stadium had a major facelift following the 2018 season, with the concourse and entrance spruced up, modernized restrooms constructed, and a new building that houses the front office staff, ticket operations and team store becoming among the first markers greeting fans coming from the nearby parking lot.

There will still be baseball, just on a different level.

“We all wish we still had the Royals,” said Horne, who possesses mementos from the days of the Burlington Senators. “It’s a nice consolation prize, but it’s a downgrade nonetheless.”

A college wooden bat league, under the umbrella of Major League Baseball and USA Baseball, will replace the Appy League beginning in 2021. The concept for the league is that rosters will be stocked with top rising freshmen and sophomores as a form of a prospects circuit.

“I think we’re going to get those same guys,” said Keur, a former team general manager whose time with the club began as an intern. “We may get them two or three years earlier than we had been getting them.”

Instead of a 68-game schedule, the amateur league will play 54 games. So Burlington, which usually had 34 regular-season home dates plus an exhibition game (not to mention advancing to the postseason in four of the final 10 seasons), will see about a 20% reduction in home games.

Miles Wolff, the longtime local operator, maintained his control of the team until the sale to Keur in February.

Pro baseball went away previously and then returned to Burlington in 1986, an endeavor spearheaded by Wolff, a Durham man who once owned the Durham Bulls and Baseball America, a baseball trade publication. Wolff also founded the independent Northern League among countless baseball endeavors that had him named as one of the sports most influential figures at the turn of the century.

That new team lured by Wolff was the Burlington Indians, a relationship that lasted through the 2006 season. Those Indians won league championships in 1987 and 1993, something the Royals failed to do despite reaching the finals in 2012, 2016 and 2019.

Ties with the Indians broke off when the Cleveland organization decided for a different structure for its farm system and to go without an Appy League team.

To be sure, the impact of the Indians still exists. There are many Burlington-area baseball fans who call Cleveland their favorite team, certainly stemming from the days of seeing young minor leaguers in the Indians organization. That group included Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, C.C. Sabathia and Brian Giles.

The Royals gladly came on board, sending many of their top prospects this way for 13 seasons. The first of those to reach the big leagues was Salvador Perez, who remains a catcher for Kansas City.

A would-be 14th season never came about with the coronavirus pandemic nixing the 2020 campaign. So the last two games in the history of the Appalachian League’s professional alignment were contested in Burlington.

The Royals won neither of those after capturing Game 1 of the championship series in Johnson City, Tennessee. The Johnson City Cardinals then won Games 2 and 3 at Burlington Athletic Stadium.

Turns out, that was lights out.

Bob Sutton likely witnessed more Burlington Royals games — combined with games in Burlington and opposing ballparks — than anyone other than Carlos Martinez, who saw a few more as the team’s pitching coach from 2012-19. Martinez had been assigned to another affiliate for 2020, though that season wasn’t contested.