Inside Baseball’s Most Unique RivalryAugust 8, 2015
Stretching sportsmanship 12 miles from Bluefield to Princeton, WV
It’s said to be the closest rivalry in baseball, and some would even call it the fiercest.
They say familiarity breeds contempt, and while the relationship is much more playful for the Princeton Rays and Bluefield Blue Jays, closeness definitely underscores the competition. Their home fields are in the same county— in fact, they’re a mere 12 miles apart— making them natural rivals.
“The rivalry takes the game to a whole new level. The fans follow the bounce of every ground ball a little more intensely."
Each year, the players face off in 11 games, and the winning team takes home the coveted hometown trophy, the Mercer Cup.
“The rivalry takes the game to a whole new level,” said Jim Holland, the Princeton Rays General Manager and founder of the cup. “The fans follow the bounce of every ground ball a little more intensely. Sometimes the fans get so caught up, they say they’d rather win the Mercer Cup than the series.”
The 2-team county doesn’t exist by chance. Baseball has been a professional institution in Bluefield since 1924, and has built a solid reputation for churning out great talent. About 100 Major League ball players began their careers in the town.
In 1988, a fan in the neighboring town dared to wonder: “Why not here?” So Princeton set out with something to prove: it had a big enough, passionate enough fanbase to support a second team on top of Bluefield’s success.
The Major Leagues seemed to agree, and the town’s pitch took faster than they expected. They had an affiliate ready for the next season… but no field.
Just as they’d predicted, a dedicated crew of fans were at the ready. They pulled together to build a field in only a few months’ time. It was validation that they hadn’t been given the chance on a whim. Mercer County was a baseball haven, just meant to be a 2-team county.
Built on such a rich sporting heritage, the county is still renowned for cultivating top talent.
In the Mercer Cup championship’s 23-year history, Bluefield has taken home the title 14 times, and Princeton 9. But the teams fight for it hard, and the scores are almost always tight, sometimes taking the tension all the way through the 11th hour (or 11th game).
“I think we’ve got it this year… but I think that every year.”
Last year, Bluefield was trailing 3 games to Princeton’s 5, meaning Princeton only needed one more win in the final 3 games to take home the cup. But Bluefield had an epic comeback, taking the first 2 games, and bringing the whole championship down to the last matchup.
Sitting behind at 2-3 in the 8th inning, the Blue Jays pulled off an incredible down-to-the-wire play, slamming a homer with 2 on base. Those 3 runs pulled them into the lead 5-3, and that won them the game— and the cup.
And sometimes the stakes were even higher than usual— when one of the teams wins a 3-year streak, the current trophy is retired, and becomes theirs to showcase while they vie for a new cup. Blue field has done this twice, and Princeton has done it once, though it’s come close to another.
This year, Bluefield’s got the lead so far, only one win away from teh cup. But that doesn’t mean Princeton doesn’t still have a chance to pull ahead— after all, it’s happened before!
“I think we’ve got it this year,” said Princeton fan Lisa Smith. “… but I think that every year.”
Agree to Disagree: Building a clash from cooperation
Behind the scenes, the fierce rivalry is driven by partnership. Both teams promote The Mercer Cup to rally community support. After all, it’s the ticket sales that keep the game going, and continuing their passion is the true #1 goal for both sides.
“We just want to get as many people out to the ballpark as we can,” said Jeff Gray, General Manager of the Bluefield Blue Jays. “The cup games are our big nights. It’s so close, a lot of people can travel to watch. They’re intense, action-packed games, and really enjoyable.”
He plays up the competition with ‘Mercer Cup Champions’ t-shirts, and by carting out the towering trophy to local businesses so townsfolk can see it in all its gleaming glory. At about 5 feet tall, the triple-tiered cup definitely imposes a sense of pride.
“It’s built its own mystique. People know about it nationwide.”
It certainly captivates the crowds.
“It’s built its own mystique,” Jim said. “People know about it nationwide.”
The competitive nature really draws in the local supporters.
“We’ll fill up the stands on our side with our church,” said Jerry Flannigan, a regular Princeton fan. “They’re very vocal. And usually our preacher is leading the way, so we don’t feel too bad.”
That’s the real heart of what keeps the stands pumping— community pride. The Mercer Cup makes the games more personal, because it brings the honor home. Instead of building team support on baseball alone, fans build their interest on the love of both towns.
“It’s a good, friendly rivalry,” Jerry said. “Even when things get serious, it’s good for both communities.”
In fact, community involvement is what started the cup championship in the first place. Jim came up with the idea when a local business owner who ran a trophy shop asked what he could do to help support the team. From that simple request, the legend was born.
“I’m proud of it,” Jim said. “Everyone wants to have something positive and bold attached to their name, and this cup series will go on. I don’t see it ever ending.”
A Rivalry on Re-start
The rallying keeps the rivalry going strong in town, but no matter how much hype there is, the competitive spirit starts from scratch each year for the players. The rosters change each season, so new players come in unaware about the cup or its prestige.
But they sure do learn it quick.
“Both teams learn about the cup in spring training, but they don’t get the full effect of the importance until they get around people who live here year-round,” Jim said.
“It’s true baseball at this level. They’re all out there working as hard as they can trying to make it upstairs to the big leagues.”
The rivalry, in a sense, overcomes the marketing challenges of a rotating team: while fans can’t follow their favorite players from year to year, they can grow their investment by following their team’s Mercer Cup record. It creates a history and legacy that can be built upon year to year, even when the individual player stats and contributions don’t carry over.
That doesn’t stop the fans from getting to know the players that represent their team each year, too. Lisa, who is also invested as an advertising supporter, said she and her friends always make an effort to meet the new crop of players.
“We like to get to know them, and make them feel welcome while they’re here,” she said. “We also bring cowbells to the games. We like to make as much noise as we can.”
And for fans like Frank Lewis, interest in the players doesn’t end with their local run. He keeps up with the ball players who start in the area, following their careers on TV as they advance, when he can. Seeing the young players trying to make it is part of the appeal for him.
“It’s true baseball at this level,” Frank said. “They work hard. They don’t take days off. There are no prima donnas. They’re all out there working as hard as they can trying to make it upstairs to the big leagues.”
The game beyond the competition
The rivalry adds a layer of intrigue, but it’s not the only draw to the ballpark.
“You have to appreciate the nuances, the strategy of it, and the challenge it takes to play,” Frank said. “If you’re a true baseball fan, you root for the other team, too.”
And Frank is the truest of true fans. “He guesses” he’s adopted Princeton as his favorite team. He does drive 70 miles each way to town all season long to catch the home games. But if there’s no home game that night? He just heads to Bluefield and cheers on the Jays. Sometimes, he’ll go all the way to Charleston to watch the Power team play.
“I just love baseball,” he said. “It’s my weakness. It’s the cheapest entertainment in the world. You can keep up with the game and still enjoy the people you’re sitting with, not like basketball. It’s just a pleasant atmosphere to be in.”
“I just love baseball. It’s my weakness. It’s the cheapest entertainment in the world."
Bud Clapp, a Bluefield fan, said the social aspect is the main draw for him.
“I like to sit with friends and chit chat as we watch the game,” Bud said. “There were times when I used to keep score and keep my mind in the game. But I haven’t done that in a few years. I’d rather run my mouth than keep score!”
There’s also an element of nostalgia. Bud used to sell concessions at the stands back when the team was affiliated with the Orioles, so he grew up going to the games.
No matter why they come, the fans all agree that having 2 teams in their county is a rare treat, and one that they don’t want to have to give up. They want to keep the rivalry roaring, because it keeps the area’s baseball tradition— and both teams— alive.
“There aren’t that many teams in the US, and we have 2,” Frank said. “When I was growing up, I would have loved the same chance to go. We used to average 1,000 fans, but we don’t do that anymore. I want to get back to that so we can keep the teams here. People are missing out.”