BLUEFIELD, W.Va. -- Opening Day, like summer, comes late to this small city in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
And like summer, the annual love affair between the townspeople and the Bluefield Orioles is intense and short, just 10 weeks from hello to goodbye.
But the here-and-gone nature of the seasons and players, who are either beginning their careers or proving they chose the wrong one, often overshadows something deeper: an unconditional commitment between Bluefield and Baltimore that goes back 46 years -- almost to the beginning of the Baltimore Orioles themselves.
It is major league baseball's longest-running marriage between a parent club and an affiliate. Ask people here if they could imagine a summer without the Orioles and they look at you in puzzlement.
"They bring life to this town," says Molly Robinson, president of the Bluefield Orioles Boosters Club, as she waits for the first pitch of the season. "Everybody looks forward to summer, and these are our boys of summer."
The booster club brims with members willing to feed the rookies, find them lodging, get them a television or an easy chair to help furnish their dorm room or apartment. City officials are always on the prowl for grants and sponsorships to upgrade Bowen Field. This year, a $250,000 state grant paid for new lights to bring nighttime conditions up to minor league requirements.
"When something needs to get done, they get it done," says Lee Landers, president of the 10-team Appalachian League. "These people just don't say, `It was good enough for Cal Ripken,' and let things slide. They take pride in the team as a reflection of their community."
Mayor Bob Perkinson Jr. calls the Bluefield Orioles "one of the bright spots" in a region that has hemorrhaged jobs and residents over the past 30 years. He hopes to use the team and the gorgeous scenery as the foundation for building Bluefield into a high-tech center and a thriving retirement community.
Ripken, who played in Bluefield in 1978, is perhaps the most famous player to pass through the Orioles' talent pipeline. Younger brother, Bill, also started there, as did Boog Powell, Bobby Grich, Luis Matos and Jerry Hairston Jr.
"I was still scared about being away from home," says Bill Ripken, who was sent to Bluefield in 1982 as a 17-year-old. "I was making $600 a month that first year, and I lived with four or five other guys in a four-bedroom house. I think Mom cringed when she first came down and saw my living accommodations."
Powell remembers his arrival in 1959 from Lakeland, Fla. "It was less than the high school stadium that I played in. But at the same time, it was professional baseball, I was 18, and I was excited."
The community also launched the careers of journalists and broadcasters, who found that in addition to covering the Orioles, the region also had its share of news, from coal mining strikes to the prison escape of Charles Manson follower Sarah Jane Moore.
"It was like grad school with a stipend. It was a blast," recalls Wally Bruckner, sportscaster for WRC-TV in Washington, who worked for WHIS-TV for seven months in 1978-79. "It was my first time up in a helicopter and down in a coal mine."
Salary-poor ballplayers and reporters looked forward to meetings of local civic organizations. The athletes would speak, the reporters would record their words and then everyone would enjoy the rubber chicken dinner.
"All of us were the same age and sometimes that was the only meal we had for the day," says Frank Traynor, who was press secretary for Gov. William Donald Schaefer in 1991-92 and went on to become an executive with Bloomberg Financial News. "We'd compare the last time we ate.
"The only other option was the $1.10 special at Bonanza steakhouse, which consisted of a grilled cheese, fries, soda and a lollypop," says Traynor, who worked at the Bluefield TV station in 1977.
"Bluefield is the perfect place for a young man to get his start," says Powell, who turned heads with the teal 1956 Chevrolet convertible he bought while playing there. "There's not a lot of pressure. It's not a big city to get confused or distracted in. The people are wonderful and supportive."
Tale of two cities
Geographically and politically, there are two Bluefields. The ballclub is in Bluefield, W.Va., population 11,190. The ballpark is in Bluefield, Va., population 4,956. That's just the way it happened when the estate of a coal company executive donated 220 acres to the West Virginia city for a park and athletic fields.
"Go out that door and you're in Virginia," says Bluefield's general manager George McGonagle, pointing at one of two doors in the office he shares with grass seed, unused tickets and gear. "Go out that door and you're in West Virginia."
Truth be told, except for size there's not a lot of difference between the cities. But there is a lot of cooperation. When the West Virginia side applied for the grant for lights, the Virginia side was right there supporting the request.