A fan gives Jay Cee, the official mascot of the Johnson City Cardinals, a high five. (Dave Boyd/Johnson City Press)
Minor league baseball fans flew in to visit the improved Howard Johnson Field at Cardinal Park on Sunday for the Johnson City Cardinals home opener against the Danville Braves.
Johnson City Sports Foundation President Lee Sowers said he was excited by the line of fans waiting to enter the stadium before the game.
“We look forward to seeing that because the fans mean everything to us,” Sowers said.
Cards fan Stacy Cookenour was waiting in line with his wife Stephanie, son, Blake, and neighbor, Berkley Pafford, who was excited to be visiting the field for the first time.
“It’s the start of summer — baseball,” Cookenour said. “It’s cheap entertainment for the family and we are Cardinals fans, so it all works out.”
Cookenour said his love of the Johnson City minor league team may stem from his Major League preferences.
“I think it’s because I’m a St. Louis fan,” Cookenour said. “It’s sort of an extension of that.”
Another Cards fan, Johnny Bragg, had just finished his trip to The Birdhouse, the on-site Cardinals merchandise store, when he shared how he plans to maximize the fun at future home Cardinals games.
“We will come early. We will stay late. And, we will always come hungry because of the concession stand,” Bragg said. “I like that we have a Major League presence here in our town even though it’s minor league baseball. I love that we are connected to major league baseball here because we don’t have a lot in this area.”
Bragg said he enjoys the atmosphere because he gets to sit up close to the action and has been involved in some on-the-field fun.
“I do like that you can sit up close,” Bragg said. “You can hear the pop on the glove. I got to go out last year and cover the field with a tarp. It was me and a friend and we actually got to go out on the field. I love it.”
Bragg said it’s also a plus for his children to be able to get involved in supplemental activities.
“My kids are already excited about the dancing for pizza where they have free pizza to give out,” Bragg said. “They come out and if you dance, whoever goes the craziest, wins. My son won last year. We just love it. We love the whole atmosphere.”
Baseball fanatic John Allen was standing in the breezeway writing down the roster for his scorecard included in the Cardinals’ program.
He said it’s something he has been doing since the 80s when he lived in Cincinnati and frequented Reds games.
“I keep score even though there’s a scoreboard because it’s something I’ve done since I was probably 8 years old,” Allen said. “It was something my dad taught me how to do. We always filled out scorecards. It keeps people engrossed in the game.”
Allen said minor league baseball has an appeal with which major leagues can’t compete.
“I love minor league baseball because it’s so fan-oriented,” he said. “They do a lot of things to support the fans. They do a lot of things especially for kids and that’s really important. I’ve always been a big proponent of Little League baseball and that kind of stuff. It shows kids what they could do. You really could become a baseball player and go on to play in center field.”
Allen said he is proud to live in a place that embraces minor league baseball like the Tri-Cities.
“I think Johnson City and the whole area — Kingsport and Bristol — their minor league teams are really important to them and to their communities and I think they do a really great job supporting them.”
Nikki Dugger, who used to play softball, said the park brings back memories and allows her to make even more with her children.
“It’s just family time for us to come have fun with our Cardinals and watch them play ball,” she said. “It’s inexpensive to come and it’s good family time. We like to help support our team whenever we can.”
Her son, Caleb Dugger, said they know how to have fun when they come out to a game.
Nikki Dugger elaborated by saying, “We like going along with all the cheers, helping to run after foul balls and things like that. He actually got one. The second foul ball that was hit, he got it.”
Dugger said she is proud her children have been willing to get involved in tee ball, baseball and being a good member of the minor league audience by fetching foul balls for the team.
“It was the first time I had ever really got one, so it made me excited,” Caleb said.
Dugger said positive attitudes and some stadium updates have made her opening game experience even better.
“I do like the new parking because it was confusing before,” Dugger said. “The field looks great. It looks really great compared to the times we were out here before.”
Sowers said the audience may have noticed a few other upgrades like the one Dugger mentioned.
“This year we have added to the concessions,” Sowers said. “We’ve got an extra concession stand coming in. But, we’ve broadened the one we already have and increased the availability of items that are there.
“We are adding other things to the on-the-field promotions where the fans can get involved. We have everything from different contests to prizes from our sponsors.”
Sowers was excited to point out even more stadium improvements to come like a brick ticket booth and wrought iron fencing on either side.
He has hopes that future plans will enhance minor league fans’ experience even more.
“We like to see them enjoying a winning team,” Sowers said. “We want to see them enjoying the concessions and we try to interact with them in the stand. A lot of the promotions that you’ll see during the game happens in the stand. We want them to have a great time and enjoy themselves.”
Sowers said he wants all to leave every visit to the park with appreciation for minor league baseball and having experienced something wonderful.
“Basically we’ve enhanced what we’ve been doing in the past because it works,” Sowers said. “Hopefully the fans will say, ‘That was a good time we had at Cardinal Park and we are going to come back.’ ”