- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2014

PULASKI, Va. — Past boarded gas stations long-since closed, near storefronts desperate for attention and across from modest two-bedroom single-family homes is Calfee Park.

They have played baseball there since 1942. Former major leaguers Mike Schmidt, David Justice, and Steve Avery have pitched or hit on this diamond dropped into the western edge of Pulaski, Virginia, home to 9,000 residents.

Most buildings in town don’t rise above a single level. Vacant, gravel-strewn lots fill spaces between businesses like Jim Dandy Auto Service and the OK Barber Shop, anchored out front by a still and sun-faded pole. Economic challenges have turned Pulaski into a place for leaving, if you can.


PHOTOS: Baseball in Pulaski: A town and its team


In late August, much of the town is scented by fresh-cut grass. There may not be many jobs in Pulaski these days, but there is baseball and plenty of grass. Next year, the grass may be alone.

The Pulaski Mariners, a rookie-level team filled with teenagers, are waiting to hear from the Seattle Mariners. Their contract with the major league club from the Pacific Northwest ends this year, ending a relationship between the locales that began in 2008.

That’s why incoming co-owner David Hagan of the Shelor Motor Mile group is looking at his phone over and over in between bites of pulled pork. The last week of the season has begun, and he’s hoping to receive a decision from the Mariners. Seattle assistant general manager Jeff Kingston has sent Hagan brief, non-committal messages. The big club is considering moving closer to the Northwest — perhaps into the Pioneer League, if it even keeps a team at this bottom-feeding level of professional baseball.

A local who claims to have played for the team when it was the Pulaski Counts — a tale as unlikely as 70-plus years of professional baseball in Pulaski — checks with Hagan for an update. Hagan offers hope, but no news. He looks back at his phone.

Baseball is about the only entertainment option in this five-square-mile town. As factories closed, so did storefronts. The park was built in 1935 as part of the Works Progress Administration, an agency of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, initially hosting football games, fairs and exhibitions before having a full-time baseball team in 1942. Teams have come and gone since. Stability, of the town and for baseball, continues to be fleeting.

***

At a plastic table out of the unrelenting sun, co-owner Wayne Carpenter, 67, explains why it’s time for him to move on. He and four others formed Pulaski Baseball Inc. and bought the team 25 years ago. They put in $1,500 each for the purchase.

Owners at this level of baseball aren’t really owners. They’re more administrators. They lease the park from the town. They run ticket sales, parking, concessions and promotions. The parent team handles the baseball costs.

The idea, Carpenter says, was to run the team so it comes close to breaking even. A family-friendly environment was the focus, as was a reasonable cost for a night at the ballpark.

Carpenter was a banker. One of his customers asked if he might be interested in buying operational control of the team. That’s how his involvement began.

“We’re not in this for profit,” Carpenter said. “We’re not in this because we think we’re going to get rich doing it.”

His love of baseball began well prior. After playing from the days when he was little until a stint in independent leagues following college baseball, Carpenter had baseball pressed into his system in part by the small-time team in his home of Hot Springs, Virginia. The team in Hot Springs was a mix of independent and industrial players, the same formula that initially brought a team to Pulaski.

Pulaski baseball has moved through nicknames, eras and major league organizations. The Pulaski Counts, beginning in 1942. The Phillies, Cubs, Phillies again, Braves, Rangers, Blue Jays and Mariners have come and gone. The Braves stayed the longest, running multiple future major leaguers through a park which is in such a neighborhood setting, it’s accessible by a walking path.

A sign hanging in left-center field thanks fans for the 25 years Carpenter and his fellow owners, Pulaski Baseball Inc. President Tom Compton and Vice President Rick Mansell, operated the team.

On a Monday night with the season winding down, it’s noted over the public address system that the groundskeeper is celebrating his 39th anniversary at the park. Most of the 721 in attendance clap.

A sidewalk sale is going on during the first three innings. The scoreboard shows the time and temperature alternating in red light at the top. Pulaski leads early before losing, 6-5. Baseball in town will be in limbo a week later.

***

The Pulaski Town Council meeting is filled Tuesday. Hagan, who made his money selling cars in nearby Christiansburg, is interested in buying the park from the town for $100,000. He’s been pushing to do so since his group purchased operational control of the team. Hagan has promised development and improvement of the park, namely new clubhouses down the left-field line.

If he’s going to invest in the park, he wants to own it. The town has always leased the park to the operators. When the council first started talking about the deal with Hagan, they had a hard time locating the deed for the property.

Hagan finally has an answer from the Mariners: They are not returning. He says he’s been talking to other teams. The departure of the Mariners appears to leverage his point that the park needs improvements or teams will continue to leave. In this case, the Mariners did not choose another town over Pulaski. They will not field a rookie level team next season. The council decides to proceed with the park sale to Hagan.

“The Town of Pulaski simply does not have the means to support the ballfield in ways that will be conducive to the ballfield,” Vice Mayor Greg East said, according to the Southwest Times. “This is much bigger than Calfee Park. This is the future — in my mind — of the Town of Pulaski.”

Hagan wants to put money into the facility and the area. The Volvo plant up the road has been hiring more. Korona Candles recently moved a factory into the county. James Hardie, which makes fiber cement siding and backerboard, expanded its staff this year. Dollars are trickling in, if not flowing.

“One of the first things you have to understand is the town understands the condition they’re in,” Carpenter said. “They are looking at every opportunity they can to bring jobs here.”

They are again grasping at baseball. Without the Mariners, without the upgrades Hagan is pledging, another team is unlikely for at least next year. Calfee Park will sit without the proverbial crack of the bat over the music during batting practice. The trees flanking the field, home to so many foul balls, will shuffle in the breeze, alone.