When the N.Y. Yankees came to Appalachia

Today is Opening Day, the first day of baseball season. Opening Day means spring — real spring, not this chilly aboration we’re experiencing, but real spring — is finally here.

Opening Day is also as good excuse as any to talk about what is surely one of the niftiest — and most ill-conceived — promotions in minor-league baseball history, and it happened in the town where I grew up.

I’m from a place called Paintsville, Kentucky, population 3,800 in 1980. Paintsville is about 2 hours east of Lexington and about an hour south of the nearest interstate highway. Paintsville isn’t on anyone’s way anywhere, but, in 1978, thanks to the efforts of Paul Fyffe, who owned the town’s only radio station, it landed a minor-league baseball team.

Originally called the Hilanders, it soon became the Appalachian League’s Yankees’ affiliate.

(I posted a version of this story in July when the New York Yankees’ owner, George Steinbrenner, passed away, so, if you happened to read it then, I’ll understand if you click away now.)

In the summer of 1980, Darryl Strawberry signed with the Yankees arch rivals, the New York Mets, and he began his career down in Kingsport, Tennessee. Darryl Strawberry was already a star, a kid everyone knew would make the Hall of Fame someday, and, as luck would have it, he would play his first professional baseball game in Paintsville.

Paul Fyffe was a good businessman, and he saw this is a great way to get folks out to the ballpark. You could get in free if you brought a strawberry to the game, the concession stand sold nothing but strawberry pop, and Paul hired a helicopter to drop strawberries onto the field.

The game was a sellout, but, remember, we were the Yankees, and Darryl Strawberry was signed with the New York Mets, so when George Steinbrenner read in The Sporting News about his Rookie League team in eastern Kentucky throwing a big party for a kid who’d signed with the Mets, he had a conniption, and word was that he threatened to pull the team out of Paintsville on the spot.

I don’t know whether the talk was exaggerated or whether the league wouldn’t let the Yankees move, but the Yankees stayed in Paintsville through the ’82 season. (The Paintsville Tri-County Yankees won the league champion in ’79, ’80 and ’81 and finished second in ’82.)

When the Yankees finally left, Paul brought in the Brewers, but they lasted only a couple seasons, and no one came to replace them.

Strawberry, of course, wound up working for Steinbrenner and retired from the Yankees in ’99.

The high school ballpark where the Yankees played was torn down a few years ago and replaced with a nicer one. We visited my folks last weekend, and when I drove by the school, I missed seeing it.