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Official Review by David Berger, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
The northeast corner of Tennessee may not strike you as a hotbed of baseball activity, but over the 60-game schedule of Appalachian League rookie ball, there are a plethora of options for catching a game with freshly minted pro players, right out of college, high school or from overseas. There’s no fewer than four teams within a half hour’s drive, including Johnson City, Kingsport, Bristol, VA and the Elizabethton Twins.
Games in the Appalachian League are a bit of a no-frills experience, and can be a nice change of pace from the megaplex of a major league park. Pulaski, Virginia's Calfee Park is in the same league, and is one of the most charming, pure baseball experiences around.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
This is a tough grade, because there are a number of wonderful aspects about the concessions. Food is cheap, tasty and fairly diverse and inventive. Hot dogs are $2.50, bottles of soda are $2 and larger entrees like the nacho salad are $3-$4. Despite these low prices, the club still offers combo deals that reduce the expense even further. Dinner for three, including drinks, was under $20 on my visit. Fried Oreos are available for dessert for $3.
If beer selection is not an issue for you, then this is a 4.5-star place to get your fill at the ballpark. However, the management has decided to go entirely alcohol-free in an effort to achieve a family-friendly environment. As I often see beer selection as a popular criteria in our food reviews, I feel compelled to mention this, but I respect their decision, and it certainly didn't detract from the rest of my visit.
The park is certainly family-friendly. Kids roam free, but are not a nuisance. There's a nice area under the radio booth for disabled seating that has fantastic views of the action at home plate. Reserved seats are $6, and are bucket seats attached to bleachers, raised above field level. General Admission prices are lower, and are all bleacher-only, or bring-your-own chairs.
All seats are behind protective netting. It would be nice if they had an option further down the baselines to get out from behind the nets, but that's not available. Each of the three sections (Reserved and the two baseline bleachers) has a physical gap between them, and it keeps the park from having a cohesive seating "bowl". For us in the reserved seats, there was a disconnect, as it feels like you're only watching the games with the 25-30 people in the reserved seats.
Games only draw a few hundred fans, so this sense of community is really necessary to add excitement to the game, and unfortunately it lacks here. While we were watching a 14 inning nail-biter, it was difficult to feel the electricity of the crowd when it's so segregated into separate spaces.
The immediate neighborhood for Elizabethton is a typical commercial / light industrial district for a small town. There's a high school nearby, as well as many chain restaurants and typical retail.
Where Elizabethton excels is the broader neighborhood. Johnson City is 20 minutes away and is the home of East Tennessee State University. All throughout the area, there are numerous fantastic parks for hiking, biking and enjoying nature. Spend your days along the Sycamore Shoals chain of state parks, and you will not be disappointed.
The people in the stands are one of the best things about the Appalachian League in general. Most of the people who attend games do so religiously. We spoke with a number of people in the reserved seats who were regular host families for players, so they are invested in their success, and really care about the team in a way most larger markets never realize.
Parking is free, and entrance and egress are a breeze. There's never going to be an overwhelming crowd, and there are plenty of streets leading out towards the major thoroughfares, so it's not necessarily one long bottleneck.
You get great baseball and you get to sit really close and wherever you want. There's accessibility to the players, if that's your thing, and food, beverage and tickets are about as low-cost as anything you'll find in organized baseball. If you're travelling, the entire area features tons of low-cost lodging options and things to see and do.
Since there was no place to get a field view without a screen, I spoke to an usher, who handed my phone to a ballboy. He took most of the pictures of the field for me between innings. That's the kind of helpful attitude you don't get in a big park.
I loved talking to the old-timers as well, as they have known the history of this team. There have been a lot of championships over the years in Elizabethton, and they rarely have a losing season. The club has consistently been the Twins for nearly 40 years, and the team is community-run, but owned by the parent club. This seems to be a relationship that has worked well for both sides.
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