Burlington Athletic Stadium has not hosted a baseball game since September of 2019. The stadium’s occupants, the Burlington Royals, saw their 2020 season wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic.
In fact, the Royals’ last game, a 7-2 loss to the Johnson City Cardinals, will be the team’s last professional game in any capacity. The team will undergo a complete restructuring before the beginning of the 2021 season.
At the end of September, Major League Baseball and USA Baseball announced that the Royals’ league — the Appalachian League — will no longer be affiliated with minor league baseball and will become a collegiate summer league. This announcement ended the Burlington baseball team’s relationship with its MLB affiliate the Kansas City Royals.
According to the MLB’s official announcement, the Appalachian League will play a 54-game season and will feature rising college freshman and sophomore players. As a result of being in the new league, general manager Anderson Rathbun said that the team will change its name. For the time being, he said the team will be called Burlington Baseball.
In a statement on social media just before the announcement of the league changes, Burlington Baseball owner Ryan Keur expressed gratitude towards the Kansas City Royals organization.
“We will never forget the countless memories that have been created over the past 15 years,” Keur said. “On behalf of Burlington Baseball, we cannot thank the Kansas City Royals enough for both their partnership and their friendship.”
Other changes to the organization happened in Burlington’s front office in March, when Keur hired general manager Rathbun and assistant general manager Thomas Vickers.
Rathbun said the front office has had its share of challenges in the past year.
“I’ve experienced more in the last eight months than a lot of people do in the sports industry. Trying to get a brand-new league, trying to battle COVID, which obviously everybody did. But then on top of that, also rebranding,” Rathbun said. “Not many teams rebrand at a professional level, so the fact that we were able to do that — more so forced to do that — has been something crazy.”
Rathbun said that a higher level of competition will be coming to Burlington as a result of the new league structure.
“People are gonna say, ‘How is that possible because it’s professional baseball versus college baseball?’ It’s going to be more condensed. So, these players are the top. It’s going to be the best of the best up-and-coming freshmen, up-and-coming sophomores,” Rathbun said. “USA Baseball is going to select, going to rank and invite the top 300 rising freshmen and rising sophomores, and it’s just going to be so much more condensed.”
Rathbun also said he believes this increase in talent will bring fans to the ballpark.
“Just from a talent perspective, it’s really, really intriguing,” Rathbun said. “And I think a lot of fans, when they start learning more about the league and the players coming through here, they’re gonna be really excited.
Burlington’s relationship with baseball
Longtime Burlington Royals fan David Horne said he remembers a time when there was not a baseball team in Burlington. Before they were the Burlington Royals, the team had gone through various iterations and affiliations and did not exist at all for a dozen years in the 1970s and ‘80s.
According to Baseball Reference, the Burlington baseball team started as the Indians from 1958-1964 and returned to the name from 1986-2006. From 1965-1972 the team was the Burlington Senators and Rangers and Burlington did not have a team from 1973 to 1985. The team became the Burlington Royals and a Kansas City affiliate for the 2007 season.
Horne said he would have preferred the team keep its minor league affiliation, but he also echoed the sentiment that the talent level for Burlington Baseball will increase.
“Having the summer league is a nice consolation. I think it’ll be good,” Horne said. “I think we’ll actually have a higher percentage of players make it to the majors, so you’ll see a little bit better talent with what we’re gonna have. They’re just gonna be younger.”
Burlington Athletic Stadium, the home of Burlington Baseball, is owned by the city of Burlington. Casey Gural works for the Recreation and Parks Department for the city of Burlington and is the field and grounds manager for the Burlington Athletic Stadium.
Gural said baseball in Burlington is a big deal for the community, as well as his own family.
“I’m super pumped. I have a 6-year-old son, to be 7-year-old son, who was devastated whenever we lost the Royals. And I’ve kind of talked him up that baseball is coming back so I know what it means to him,” Gural said. “And I know what it means to a lot of community members here and businesses. This is a great place for businesses to come together and maybe talk a little shop, but really just to get together have a good time.”
Rathbun said he and the front office will have more work to do moving forward as they search for Burlington Baseball’s new identity, and he said that he hopes to announce the new team name before Thanksgiving. Rathbun also said the research process has been extensive and that he wants to let the community have input on the new name.
“We interviewed … two and a half weeks’ worth of people that have been new to the area, that have been here their entire life. For all walks of life. We’ve interviewed them on their experience with Alamance County and Burlington as a city,” Rathbun said. “We’ve learned so much information. I know more history about this town than I do my own hometown. And that’s been one of the coolest parts for me.”
When Burlington Baseball takes the field in 2021, it will have been almost two years since the franchise has played due the cancellation of the 2020 minor league baseball season. Horne said he has a few reasons for being excited about the return of baseball in Burlington in 2021.
“Just sitting in the seat that I’ve sat in for 20 years,” Horne said. “Watching the game, just having baseball again after not having it.”