PULASKI — On July 3, Pulaski Yankees radio broadcaster Rick Watson heard an abnormally loud buzz outside his booth.
He glanced around Calfee Park, this ancient stadium carved into the hills more than eight decades ago, then turned to the other workers in the press box.
“Guys,” he said. “Look out there and tell me what’s different.”
They did their own quick survey.
“It’s packed,” one said.
“Yeah,” Watson said. “But how many empty seats do you see?”
There weren’t any. Not in the reserved section or the recently renovated general admission area. Not on the just-built party deck. Not in the new VIP suites.
Those who couldn’t get seats watched the game while standing. Children sat on blankets in the concourse. In all, a record crowd of 4,869 came out to see the Yankees beat the Elizabethton Twins, 4-1.
An atypical night? Sure. Most fans had the next day off for the holiday. A fireworks show, that great minor league catnip, followed the game.
But this is not nearly the aberration you might think.
The Pulaski Yankees do it right.
All of it. From cheap tickets to wide-ranging concessions to prompt service to comfortable seating to a community-oriented atmosphere, they’ve transformed this venue into a New River Valley oasis. You don’t even have to love baseball to love this place.
The turnstiles keep turning here, and for good reason. In 2014, the final year of Seattle Mariners affiliation, Pulaski drew an average of 818 fans per game.
That more than doubled in 2015, after the Shelor Automotive Group bought the park and spent more than $3 million to make it better. The Yankees drew an Appalachian League-leading average of 1,677 in their first season, then 1,871 in 2016. In 2017, that spiked to 2,360. It jumped again last year, to 2,764.
Through 13 openings this season, Pulaski is averaging 3,070 a night. That’s absurd.
“I think it begins and ends with the local ownership, with David Hagan,” said Watson, a Pulaski County High School graduate who started attending games at Calfee Park in the 1980s when the Braves were the parent club. “He understands community being a local businessman and with what he’s done in Christiansburg with the dealerships, and I think he understood Pulaski still had a lot of untapped potential even though it’s been in decline.
“I think he knew that all he had to do was let people know that somebody cares about that part of the community.”
Hagan, who co-owns Shelor Automotive Group, can be found here every night, without fail. He once joked with his operational staff that if he isn’t at the game, he’s dead.
Hagan makes his rounds around the park he’s spent millions to enhance, shaking the hands of fans and corporate sponsors.
“I very much appreciate their being here,” he said.
And why wouldn’t they come? Calfee Park has amenities that most rookie-level teams would kill for. A Jumbotron measuring 35 feet by 22 feet projects images from over the left-center wall. Padded seats comfort the backs of fans in the box areas. Budget-conscious families can get general admission tickets for $6 — with additional discounts for military and seniors — and school kids can get in free with a paying adult.
Little wonder that on Saturday, Ballpark Digest announced that Calfee Park had won a fan-voting competition as the best rookie level ballpark in America, trouncing Elizabethton’s Northeast Community Credit Union Ballpark by a 72-to-28 percent margin in the bracket-style finals.
“We have pretty much a three-headed philosophy,” said Pulaski general manager Betsy Haugh, an Earlysville native. “Goal No. 1 is to create a safe and enjoyable atmosphere for all of our fans. Goal No. 2 is to develop relationships with our corporate partners, and then No. 3 is to give back to the community and get the community involved in as many ways as we can.
“When those three things are functioning, we hit everybody in town. We hit everybody in the area and hopefully give them a reason to want to come out to the ballpark.”
Calfee Park, which was built in 1935, is the oldest stadium in the Appalachian League and one of the oldest in the country.
It doesn’t look like it.
Hagan’s ownership group has spent more than $8 million to improve the stadium and the parking areas that surround it. The most recent additions are the three-tiered party deck in left field and the suites down the left-field line that increased the park’s seating capacity to 3,200.
Another $1.3 million in renovations are ongoing, including a disability accessible ramp and more seating in left field.
“For the accountants out there, do the numbers work?” Hagan said. “Absolutely not. Operationally, we’re profitable. Good, good, good business. What we’re doing with the park and things like that? Very, very long-term thinking. It’s good for the community. Twenty years from now, sure, no problem. A little bit every time, and finally we’ll quit renovating.”
The Yankees have promotions every night — a giveaway, a concession discount, a ticket reduction — that keep the crowds fairly consistent regardless of whether folks have to work the next morning.
“We’re still very realistic about it,” said Haugh, 25, who was named the 2018 Rawlings Woman Executive of the Year last October. “We want these guys to be playing in front of fans, and we want the fans to enjoy the 34 games we have to offer. The summer goes by really quickly. So if they can come out on a Monday night, we want them to do that.”
The main concession stand offers 27 different food items ranging from hot dogs ($2.50) to loaded waffle fries ($5). Supplementary stands on the concourse offer Papa John’s pizza, ice cream and other treats.
A 20-ounce domestic beer is $5, but fans can purchase a $10 20-ounce mason jar and refill it with beer all season long for $4 a pour. The club already has sold more than 700 of those.
“They’ve improved the food, and that’s been huge,” Watson said. “And the service for that food is terrific, too. People here are wanting to help. A lot of ballparks, you don’t get that. You feel like you’re intruding on them. But not here. Not here.
“That’s because the workers come from here, and they know what people expect. They know how hard money is to earn in a community like this, and if you’re spending it on their product, they appreciate it.”
For baseball fans, the feeling is mutual.