Ballpark Upgrades Bring Pulaski To Life

Josh Leventhal

Baseball was on its way out of Pulaski—and likely not coming back anytime soon.

The Mariners had announced their intentions to leave the southwestern Virginia town once the 2014 season came to a close, and Appalachian League president Lee Landers did not have any suitors lined up to take their place at historic, but crumbling, Calfee Park.

The ballpark was the problem—from a visitors clubhouse that posed a genuine health hazard to dimming lights and a shortage of working restrooms—and without a significant investment by the city, Landers was likely going to look elsewhere to field a team.

That’s when David Hagan and Larry Shelor came calling.

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The business partners who run the Shelor Automotive Group in nearby Christiansburg, Va., purchased Pulaski’s franchise rights in the Appy League earlier in the season. With the franchise in jeopardy, they offered to buy Calfee Park from the city and sink millions of their own dollars into fixing it up. A deal was struck in September, plans for a renovation were announced, and one week later the Yankees signed a four-year agreement.

Once again, the ballpark was the difference—this time, for the better.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman came out for the introductory press conference, calling the arrangement “one big, happy family” and promising to bring along former greats like Reggie Jackson on future visits.

Now, Hagan and Shelor are set to deliver on their end of the deal and unveil a renovated Calfee Park.

“The bones of the thing were here,” Hagan said. “That’s what we had to work with were the bones. We had to take the ones there and prop them up and make them all look pretty again.”

They succeeded in making the 80-year-old ballpark look young again. Hagan and Shelor put $3.2 million into the renovation—without seeking any public money—and another $4.2 million to convert the old Virginia Foods Warehouse a few blocks away into the Jackson Park Inn, which will house Yankees minor leaguers during the season and be open to the public the rest of the year—with a restaurant and convention center on the ground floor.

“The town kept (the ballpark) going for 80 years, but I just thought it needed one big shot in the arm,” said Hagan, whose wife grew up in Pulaski just blocks from the ballpark. “We’re pretty good marketers and we’ll market it over so many years to come. We’ll make our money back.”

Few parts of Calfee Park were left untouched.

The home and visitor clubhouses are new, as is a locker room for umpires.
The home and visitor clubhouses are new, as is a locker room for umpires.

The Yankees’ clubhouse now includes a separate room that doubles as a dining area and classroom to teach English to international Yankees minor leaguers. The lighting, playing field, bullpens and press box have all been replaced, and new protective padding rings the playing field.

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New fan amenities are plentiful as well. There’s a VIP box along a club level that also includes 23 open-air suites that come with seating for 10, a picnic table or bar area and wait-staff service. A new grandstand with stadium seating replaces bleachers and stone steps down the baselines, concession stands have been expanded to include six new lines (there previously were two) and a dedicated beer stand, and food options can be found on both ends of the stadium with mobile units. New restrooms are also located on each end of the ballpark instead of just one.

The owners purchased vacant grounds around the ballpark to add extra parking lots and they embraced Calfee Park’s historic past by restoring the original rock and cast iron ticket gate as the primary entrance.

And beyond the left-field fence is a new scoreboard, which fans can thank Hagan’s son, Matt, a pro drag racer. David promised Matt he would add the scoreboard if Matt won a national title, and son obliged father with the NHRA Funny Car title last November.

“He did his part and I did mine,” David Hagan said.

Hagan and Shelor are also doing their part to provide an economic boost to the city. The Jackson Park Inn fills a need for a struggling downtown as much as it does for the Yankees, whose players previously had to go 30 miles to Wytheville to find a hotel for team housing.

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“I assure you, where these are guys are staying now, it is beautiful,” Hagan said. “They’re going to dread going on the road.”

And now fans that have supported baseball in Pulaski will no longer dread their home ballpark. Hagan said locals have responded to the new ownership’s efforts—Opening Day was sold out weeks in advance and all 23 suites have been booked for the season. Attendance should also improve from last season’s 818 fans per game average—eighth in the 10-team Appalachian League.

“If they hadn’t stepped up,” Landers said, “it would have made it harder to attract (a major league team) to go back there. It was going to be hard to replace (the Mariners) anyway, especially if housing and other things couldn’t be corrected along with things at the field.”a