Affiliation with Braves severed, Danville baseball forges ahead

In this August 1998 file photo, Patrick Schmidt of the Danville Braves watches the second game of a doubleheader against the Burlington Indians from the bullpen bench. (BEN GRAY/AJC file)

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

In this August 1998 file photo, Patrick Schmidt of the Danville Braves watches the second game of a doubleheader against the Burlington Indians from the bullpen bench. (BEN GRAY/AJC file)

Matt Bell was a young boy when his grandmother told him something that shocked him. Some of the players they were watching on TV — the ones playing for her beloved Braves — once played in their town of Danville, Virginia.

Bell had visited American Legion Field countless times to watch the Danville Braves, dating to the team’s inaugural game in 1993. The young prospects he grew up watching might one day play in the major leagues, she said. That amazed him.

“It gave me something to hope for,” said Bell, who photographed games for local newspapers in 2018 and 2019. “To be able to say, I might see these guys on the TBS superstation one day, that was cool. That was something that we were inspired by.”

Danville served as the Braves’ rookie-level team for 27 years. The organizations cut ties in September as part of a nationwide contraction of the minor leagues, but Danville got a second opportunity.

Under an old agreement, MLB and Minor League Baseball were partners and ran separate operations in New York and St. Petersburg, Florida, respectively. Now the minors are controlled entirely by MLB, which reduced the number of affiliated teams from 160 to 120.

Some teams permanently ceased operation, leaving their cities without professional baseball. In Port Charlotte, Florida, a former Tampa Bay Rays affiliate held a yard sale where customers could buy bats, balls and concession equipment. The Florida Fire Frogs, the former Braves’ High Single-A affiliate, also went out of business.

Danville, however, plays on.

MLB and USA Baseball partnered to resurrect the Appalachian League as a Prospect Development Pipeline where college freshmen and sophomores can compete in the summer. Danville will host one of the 10 teams.

The new wood-bat league has one obvious drawback for fans like Bell: Danville’s coaches and players are no longer destined for the Braves. Brian Snitker was the D-Braves manager in 1996. Stars like Andruw Jones, Rafael Furcal, Jeff Francoeur and Ronald Acuna passed through Danville.

Today’s players will instead return to their campuses and hope to be drafted. The Appalachian League has begun inviting 320 college players to compete in 2021. It’s unclear where the league will fall in the summer college baseball pecking order, which already includes the elite Cape Cod Baseball League and 11 other leagues partially funded by the MLB.

A fresh start presents an opportunity for the Danville team to rebrand itself in line with the local community, General Manager Austin Scher told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The city has deep baseball roots. Its first team was founded in 1905. Ballclubs intermittently came and went in the decades after. From 1945 until 1958, the Danville Leafs played in the Carolina League. The name referenced a tobacco industry that was at one point so prosperous that the city was known as “The World’s Best Tobacco Market”.

The tobacco industry, and then the textile industry, collapsed. Mills closed and the city’s railroad station was abandoned. Eventually, Danville reinvented itself. It renovated the railroad station in 1996 to accommodate Amtrak passengers and a science center. Abandoned warehouses now house residential and office spaces.

The story is a familiar one for Scher, who grew up in Durham, North Carolina, another former tobacco town known for its minor league baseball, including for a while a Braves affiliate.

“The rolling hills, the pine trees, the climate, it’s all very, very similar,” Scher said. “Driving around, (you see) the downtown that is currently going through this reimagination of what it can look like, and what it can do to serve its people and its businesses and its community.

“We feel like it’s a really, really special time to change things up a little bit right to bring baseball back under this new format, to provide new levels of entertainment, to do things a little bit differently than they have been done over the past 27 years.”

A team’s name is an important way to do that, Scher said. He had more than 50 conversations with individuals and organizations before settling on the Otterbots. The name honors the playfulness of otters and the future of STEM education in the city, according to a press release.

“We’ve heard from people that they want to go more traditional with a name,” Scher said. “We’ve heard from other people that they want to go more wacky, as has been the scenario with most minor league baseball rebrands over the past five or 10 years. And then we’ve had some people that have just told us, ‘Hey, as long as we can have fun at the games, just make sure the name is something that we can be proud of.’”

Danville fans are a small but dedicated bunch. An active Facebook group called “Friends Who Like Danville Baseball” has over 200 members. Former D-Braves and Braves catcher Clint Sammons, who played at Parkview High and for the Georgia Bulldogs, said some fans attended games every night to support the players.

Scher controls the team’s social-media accounts, sells the tickets and will manage the interns. Community engagement is the most important part of the job, he said. When he heard about MILB’s contraction, he thought first about the lost opportunities to engage the country’s youth and small businesses.

Minor league baseball helps not just a town’s economy but also its quality of life, Scher said.

“The (new team) seems to be very interested in partnering with the community and making it part of the community. So that’s something we’re looking forward to, as well,” said Bill Sgrinia, director of Danville Parks and Recreation.

The new team is owned by Ryan and Brittany Keur, who bought the club in January after reaching an agreement with the city to use the ballpark. Ryan also owns an Appalachian League team in Burlington, North Carolina. That club uses the Danville Leafs’ old ballpark, moved piece-by-piece and reassembled for the 1960 season.

Scher intends to pursue a fierce rivalry with the Burlington team, despite the shared ownership. He doesn’t intend on establishing a rivalry with Danville’s old parent club. He said Braves fans are welcome to explore the place where Jones and Acuna once roamed.

“If you have not yet been to Danville and you were waiting for that opportunity, consider this your strict formal invitation,” Scher said. “We want every single member of Braves Country to feel like they can have a home up here in Danville.”