If it bothers you to spend a bunch of money on a major-league game just to see athletes with seven- or eight-digit salaries not run out a ground ball, pure, old-fashioned baseball exists just 80 minutes upstream on the Monongahela River.
In Morgantown, the West Virginia Black Bears hustle on every play. While major-leaguers bank money like CEOs of huge corporations, these guys get paid worse than hospital volunteers. It’s short-season single-A baseball, a collection of high school- and college-aged aspirants who have to hustle if they ever want to play for anyone other than the West Virginia Black Bears. Maybe they aren’t as polished or proficient as the guys who travel by plane, but in Pittsburgh, we endured 20 years of subpar baseball. How bad can they be?
When a player is drafted into the Pirates organization, there is a seven-step process to PNC Park. First, it’s off to Bristol, Va., to play in the Appalachian League. Players live with residents of the town right on the Virginia/Tennessee border in the place that claims it invented country music.
Morgantown is the second step. If a player advances from Morgantown (as 40 players already have in two seasons), the next step is a move across the Mountain State to the big-city lights of Charleston to play for the Power. Step four is a trip to Florida, the land of sunshine, beaches and odd, toothless criminals. The Bradenton Marauders are the advanced A affiliate. After that, it’s a trip to AA ball in Altoona, the land of Sheetz and Mallow Cups. Once the organization deems you too good to continue as a Curve, Indianapolis is step six before a player makes it to The Show.
Dovydas Neverauskus recently became the first Black Bear to make it. He is also the first Lithuanian player, so he’ll never have to buy a drink again in either Morgantown or Vilnius, Lithuania. So he’s got that going for him. There’s only been one player from Morgantown to make it to the bigs, because this is only the third year of the team’s existence. But the Baby Pirates won the New York-Penn League Championship in their inaugural 2015 season. Yes, that means they’ve already won more baseball championships in two years than Cleveland’s baseball team has in 68. The Black Bears dispatched their Pinckney Division rival, the Philadelphia Phillies-affiliated Williamsport Crosscutters, in the first round. They embarrassed a team that plays in a town where Little League baseball is a bigger deal than the Crosscutters. The Black Bears defeated the Staten Island Yankees right in their ferry-loving backyard to bring the NYPL title to Morgantown.
Jamestown, N.Y., hometown of five-time Emmy winner Lucille Ball, has a statue honoring the television legend. In 2014, Jamestown lost its beloved Jammers when the team moved to a town with a statue of five-time Emmy-winner Don Knotts. That’s right, Morgantown is responsible for bringing Barney Fife from The Andy Griffith Show and Mr. Furley from Three’s Company to life. But despite that, after years of Backyard Brawls and tough, physical Big East Basketball, Pittsburgh fans may still find it hard to embrace a team with WVU logos everywhere. Maybe it’s weird being on the same side as Bob “Huggy Bear” Huggins, but we have to keep in mind that the Black Bears are part of the Pirate family. The Bears share the 2,500-seat Monongalia Stadium with the Mountaineer baseball team. It’s shockingly refreshing to see any venue not named after a bank, energy company or fast-food joint. Either nobody wants to sponsor the team or they have this thing called integrity.
We can also get behind former Pirates closer Joel “The Hammer” Hanrahan. He of 100 major-league saves is starting his first season as an assistant pitching coach for the Black Bears. Wyatt Toregas, who had a cup of coffee in the majors (four at bats with the Bucs in 2011), has had more success as a coach. Toregas is the first and only manager of the team, and he’s already put a ring on it.
The Black Bears technically play in Granville just about 10 minutes from Morgantown. The season runs from mid June to early September. There are 14 teams in the New York-Penn League, which has been around since 1939. Teams from Maryland, Ohio, Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts and West Virginia compete, as well as teams that actually play in the states listed in the league’s name. The best thing about minor-league games is that all the seats are you-know-what. Fans can sit on the grassy hillside of the outfield, concert-style, for only $8.50. If roughing it is not your style, seats are available for $10.50. If you are super-ultra-fancy, you can upgrade those nosebleed seats and sit with the elite for just two more dollars. Mascots — Mo, Copper, Greene Turtle and Pepperoni Rolls — will entertain the kids. Firework nights happen almost every six games.
June 19 is opening day, as the hated Mahoning Valley Scrappers come to town. In early July, the Williamsport Crosscutters return to seek revenge on the Black Bears. Then all the attitude of New York swaggers into town as the Staten Island Yankees and Brooklyn Cyclones come into Morgantown thinking they are better than you.
Morgantown has the Personal Rapid Transit cars that take fans to the game while WVU is in session. The small automated vehicles are technology from 1975, but no other town has anything like it. Morgantown was chosen as an experiment for mass transit, but it never really caught on. The cars still run 42 years later, despite having control boards that look like something out of old NASA footage. Try the unique transportation, eat pepperoni rolls, pay homage to Don Knotts and watch future major-leaguers. Not a bad way to spend a summer road trip.