(The following was a column I wrote in 2012 for the Hickory Daily Record to open the season. I updated some of the names and such, but the words are still as heartfelt then as now.)
There’s nothing like a first visit to a ballpark. It’s an invigorating scene: The cut of freshly-mown grass, the smell of grilled hot dogs or popcorn wafting through the concourse, fresh-squeezed ice cold lemonade, the pop of the catcher’s mitt from a 90-plus miles- per-hour fastball, the chatter of crowd noise that crescendos until game time.
Tonight begins the 26th season of Hickory Crawdads baseball at L.P. Frans Stadium. Over 4.2 million fans have entered the ballpark to delight in an annual rite of summer. For most, there is nothing like a first visit to a stadium and the sounds and sights that surround once the turnstile has been turned. It certainly was for me.
I attended my first Hickory Crawdads game on July 29, 2002 – a Monday – and it was a night that began what is now a 16-year connection with the team.
Honestly, I never saw it coming.
I was in town that summer to interview for a job at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, driving up from Columbus, Ga. that morning and leaving the next morning to drive to a church in Troy, Mo. for another interview. It was fairly certain that I would have job offers from both places and so I faced deciding which move my family would make based on my only visit to each town.
My only memory of the Crawdads game was a hamstring injury suffered by catcher Ryan Doumit, who in a few years would go on to play in the major leagues.
The promotion that night at L.P. Frans Stadium — where the crowd was a decent one considering a pre-game thunderstorm had delayed things — was a contest between cheerleading squads.
As the evening unfolded before me from my seat behind the third base dugout, I called home to my wife by the eighth inning to simply say, “I could see us living here.”
There was something about the community that had gathered that night, and it far beyond the cheers of the crowd for players that hailed from different parts of the planet.
It was beyond baseball.
It was looking at the young faces of Little Leaguers as they ran onto the field with the Crawdads players to stand at attention for the national anthem.
It was watching the crowd cheer on their own youth and others from different schools as they demonstrated their cheer routines on the field. While Maiden’s squad cheered, I learned a little about the town billed as “The Biggest Little Football Town in the World.”
It was observing the signboards from the different companies that supported the team, those who obviously felt baseball was important enough to a small town to pour money into the coffers of the Crawdads and help fund the team’s operations.
My hosts for that night told me what an important asset the Crawdads were to the community.
I saw it in action that night – a hometown team.
Along with the SALT Block and the symphony, the Crawdads sold me on Hickory. It showed me that this was a small town that wanted more from life than a 9-to-5 routine and then to go home.
It showed me it was a city that wanted a quality of life for its families that included sports and the arts and learning.
I moved to Hickory, based partially on that steamy July night at a stadium nestled into the woods off Clement Blvd.
The city has lived up to its promise of a community that wanted a certain quality of life for its residents.
Three years later, I began a five-season stint of working for the Crawdads. I sold tickets and sponsorships, pulled tarp, organized game scripts and played music and video clips.
Two of my kids have donned mascot costumes and my third child has had the run of L.P. Frans Stadium since she was a toddler. Prom pictures have been taken there with the third child’s yet to come. It’s a Parker tradition.
The stadium has become a part of my family’s life in the summer.
Now entering its 26th season, the stadium has been an integral part of the fabric of life in Hickory.
Quite simply, there are no strangers at a ballpark.
It’s a place where school children meet up at the playground or, try as they may, to catch a foul ball.
It’s a place where people who’ve never met talk baseball; they relive their own youths when they played the game.
It’s a place where fans line the fences before and after a game to meet players and maybe get an autograph from players who reside in Nicaragua, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, or Venezuela.
We may share in their dream of making it to the big leagues and being able to say, “I remember when that guy played in Hickory; I have his autograph.”
On Tuesday, I congratulated a former Crawdads infielder Isiah Kiner-Falefa on his initial big league callup to the Texas Rangers. Three years ago, I’d interviewed him by the clubhouse after a weird play in which he attempted to steal home in the 10th inning. (A balk was called and the game was over.)
After five seasons of 100-plus hour weeks during the season, I have moved on. But I still find my way to L.P. Frans a lot, covering the team for the Hickory Daily Record, working as an official scorer and keeping track of the Crawdads’ alumni.
I do so partly because of my love for the game.
But mostly, I do so for the same reason as I became smitten with the city that July night nearly 16 years ago – because of its people and the bond they have for one another.
When we come out to the ballgame, we may celebrate the Crawdads in their victories. But more importantly, when the fans come out to the ballgame, we celebrate ourselves as a community.