Summer Collegiate : : Story
Thursday, July 14, 2011

Prospect League All-Star Game

Allan Simpson        

BECKLEY, W.Va.—For most of the crowd of 1,500 who took in Wednesday’s Prospect League All-Star Game, the attraction was a chance to witness the best players in the West beat the best in the East 4-2 in an uneventful contest, to cheer on five home team players chosen to the East squad and watch an impressive post-game fireworks show.

For those who had never seen a game at Beckley’s Linda K. Epling Stadium, the highlight of the night was clearly the ball park.

Beckley is a typical old mining town of some 17,000, buried in the mountains of southern West Virginia, but there isn’t anything typical about the town’s two-year-old baseball stadium, which sits atop a mountain and is constructed on an old strip mine. It is also the home for the Prospect League’s appropriately-named West Virginia Miners, the hosts for this year’s all-star game.

The stadium is not only unique for its breathtaking view of distant mountains and its lavish construction, complete with a high-tech Field Turf playing surface and other modern ball park amenities like a large scoreboard and video screen, but for the inspiration that went into constructing the magnificent 2,600-seat facility, one of the showpiece facilities in all of summer-league baseball.

Beckley’s own Doug Epling and his entire family are the driving force behind the Miners and their Field of Dreams, and the very idea of building the stadium was the brainchild of Kay Epling herself. She determined it was time for her husband, who owns three coal-mining operations in the surrounding area and previously was the chief engineer for the Beckley Coal Mining Company, to construct one more stadium.

Doug Epling had already been largely responsible for the construction of Flying Eagle Park at Beckley’s Woodrow Wilson High, as well as refurbishments to the field at nearby East Bank High, which bears his name and serves as home field for the West Virginia Tech baseball team.

In 2007, Kay Epling, recently retired as a middle-school social studies teacher after 21 years, told Doug it was time for one more field.

It wasn’t even a conversation about baseball,” said Doug. “She said she wanted us to build one more field, and let’s make it a nice one.”

Construction on the stadium that bears Kay Epling’s name began in 2008 and was completed just prior to the start of the 2010 Prospect League season, Beckley’ first foray into Organized Baseball since the town fielded minor-league teams in the Class C Middle Atlantic League and Class D Mountain State League from 1931-38.
A local group tried to find a way to attract a minor-league team to town in the 1990s, but that effort sputtered and failed.

It took the Epling family to put the wheels in motion and make it a reality, and it has been a true family endeavor all the way.

The facility was totally self-funded by the Eplings, at no taxpayer expense. Not only are Doug and Kay Epling visible as co-owners of the team, but their three sons are intricately involved, too, as are several of their grandchildren. Kay oversees the concessions.

Tim Epling, a former college player, minor-league umpire for six years and coach at West Virginia Tech from 2000-08, is the team’s field manager, and essentially doubles as the team’s general manager. He also runs an indoor training facility in Beckley and served as the head coach for the East team in the Prospect League All-Star Game.

I have a passion for baseball,” Epling says. “I was like a sponge in the way I soaked up all the information I could get my hands on when I was a player, umpire and coach, and that has given me an opportunity to combine all those talents with what I do now.”

Gary Epling, Tim’s brother, is the team’s director of security and crowd control, and also serves as a bench coach for the Miners, while Matt Epling, a second brother, is in charge of the team’s entertainment while also masquerading as the team’s popular “Miner Mike” mascot.

Doug Epling, the patriarch of the Epling family, isn’t forthcoming when asked how much money his family has sunk into the construction of and subsequent additions to the immaculate facility, which contains a unique drainage system written up in Turf Magazine, only to say “it’s several million.

But we saved a lot of money, maybe as much as $2 million,” Epling said, “by doing most of the construction ourselves.”

Dave Chase, commissioner of the sprawling 14-team Prospect League, which has franchises in seven states, stretching from Hannibal, Mo., in the west, to Nashville, Tenn., in the south, to Beckley in the southeast, is reluctant to say it, but it’s evident in the way he describes the Miners franchise that it is the crown jewel of his league, even as it is some three hours from its closest neighbor.

It’s one of the best operations in the league, no question,” Chase said. “They have a very aggressive budget, probably the best in the league. But no one in our league strikes a better balance between the game and the business side, and the players totally appreciate that.

Not only do you have a gorgeous setting here, but they’ve sold all their signs and the facility is excellent. You just look at the parking lot. You won’t see any signs of paper or crushed cans. It’s obvious the pride the Epling family takes in operating their team and their facility.”

By funding the construction entirely with their own resources, Doug and Kay Epling wanted to give back to their community. They had a vision to create a quality, wholesome experience where families and friends can gather.

A very religious family, the Eplings prohibit the selling of beer at the facility. The outer walls of the stadium are adorned with bible verses that
Kay selected to show her gratitude for the opportunity that she and Doug have been granted, to be able to create a quality and unique experience for members of their community.

They are very dedicated and committed to making this a family place,” Chase said.

With crowds that typically average 800 to 1,200 fans a night, the Miners and spanking new Linda K. Epling Stadium have become a hit in Beckley and the surrounding area, and
Doug Epling recognizes the special addition to the Beckley community.

We wanted to bring a modern baseball facility to this community,” he said. “This has become the perfect place for people to come and see upper-level baseball.”

The Game

As for the Prospect League All-Star game itself, the West improved to 2-0-1 in the league’s three-year history by scoring three times in the fourth inning to open a 3-0 lead and were never seriously threatened. In all, 59 players participated in the game.

Nashville’s Bruce Maxwell, a first baseman from NCAA Division III Birmingham-Southern, hung around just long enough to earn game Most Valuable Player honors. He went 2-for-2, and it was his fourth-inning double that drove in the first run for the West. He later came around and scored the third run of the inning.

Both teams paraded out 10 pitchers, and it was a late addition to the West team, Dubois County lefthander Sean Manaea, who ended up impressing scouts the most. Though he worked to only two hitters in the ninth, Manaea, a rising sophomore at Indiana State, was clocked at 93 mph.

Hannibal righthander Mark Sappington (Rockhurst, Mo.), the Prospect League strikeout leader with 52 in 52 innings, came on to get the final out, via a strikeout, and technically earned a save in the game, though he also walked a batter.

There was doubt that Sappington was going to pitch at all as he threw 147 pitches in a 5-4 win over Chillicothe three nights earlier. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound’s Sappington fastball was clocked at 92 mph, several miles an hour lower than the 96 he recorded earlier in the season.

A third West pitcher, Terre Haute lefthander Chris Nunn (Lipscomb) also peaked at 92, while four East pitchers, including starter Andrew Smith (Charlotte), topped at 91.

Smith and Quincy righthander T.J. Kendzora (San Diego State), who share the Prospect League lead with five wins apiece, were the two starting pitchers in the game, and ended up working to only three hitters apiece.

Quincy Gems manager Chris Martin, who was picked to lead the West team by virtue of his team posting the league’s best record on the first half, has now won both Prospect League all-star games.

With a limited opportunity to get a look at the Eastern Division teams beforehand because of the league’s geography and unbalanced schedule, he knew what to expect of his team, but not his opponent.

We’ve only played Richmond and Chillicothe from the East, so it was hard for me to know what we were facing,” he said. “But I knew we were good offensively. Traditionally, we have been good offensively and (the East has) had the arms.”

Other All-Star Games

The California Collegiate and Great Lakes leagues also played all-star games Wednesday, while the Southern Collegiate League game in Rock Hill, S.C., was rained out.

In Glendale, Calif., the American team routed the National side 14-3 in the annual California Collegiate League All-Star Game. Eighteen members of the powerful Santa Barbara Foresters were selected to play in the game, with 14 on the American squad.

Foresters righthander Austin Kubitza (Rice), one of the nation’s top freshmen, started for the American squad, and made the most of his one inning of work, striking out one while making just 10 pitches.

He’s a really good pitcher,” said Foresters manager Bill Pintard, who coached the American squad. “He’s the cream of the crop.”

Conejo’s J.C. Aguayo (Northwestern Oklahoma State), the starter for the Nationals, came into the game leading the CCL in almost every statistical category for pitchers. He had also handled the powerful Foresters in two previous league meetings, but was ineffective, allowing a first-inning double to Santa Barbara’s Michael Ratterree (Rice), last year’s all-star game MVP, who eventually scored after an error by Aguayo.

The American team ended up with 17 hits, including a two-run double and inside-the-park home run by the Major League Academy’s Andrew Allen (Cal State Los Angeles), who entered the game as a replacement player. Allen was selected the game’s MVP.

In the Great Lakes League game, played at the Great American Ball Park, home of the Cincinnati Reds, the South beat the North 7-1. The South scored all the runs it would need in the second inning, crossing the plate four times. Xenia shortstop Taylor Kaprive (Palm Beach Atlantic, Fla.) delivered the key blow in the inning, a two-run double, and also came around to score. He was selected the game’s Most Valuable Player.

NEXT: Allan Simpson will report next on Monday’s Coastal Plain League All-Star Game in Fayetteville, N.C.

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