I don’t know about anyone else but when the final game of a season is played, there is a sense of dread that I might not come back to this place.
For me, from 2005 to 2008, it was whether I would work here again. After the 2009 season and I left full-time employment with the Hickory Crawdads, I worried that I wouldn’t be back without buying a ticket. Then, I was hired by the team as the official scorekeeper, and I would cover the team for the Hickory Daily Record. Then, it would be whether my full-time work schedule would allow my to keep doing the baseball gig. After I unexpected lost my job in 2015, I worried that I would have to move and, thereby, never be able to come back to the ballpark. Yet, new employment allowed me to keep coming to L.P. Frans. By August 1, you start counting down the days to the end. And then the cycle to next spring begins.
Fifteen seasons come and went and it seemed that number 16 would be here before I knew it. I got through high school football, volleyball, soccer, swimming, wrestling basketball – all of which I enjoy – but nothing gets my inner ticker going like being at a baseball field. For me, it’s being at L.P. Frans Stadium.
It’s hard to describe what being around a minor league ballpark is like. As an employee, you start working the phones in January to try and sell billboards and tickets and program ads and anything else you can get a company, church group, etc, interested in. Then March rolls around and things shift to getting the ballpark set up and ready to go by April. Once the season begins, it’s 17-hour days, eight-game homestands that involve public relations, selling tickets, stinky tarp pulls, answering the phones, setting up the videoboard and music, or whatever else needs to be done. The 3-hour ballgame is the easy part. But the people you work with becomes your family for five months. These are people you laugh with, swear at, choke down a quick hot dog or pizza slice with – one of about 17,000 you’ll swallow during the season – go to battle with, cry with because you miss family and sweat with for meager paychecks.
On top of all that, you meet fans around the ballpark that you see for 50-60 nights a year. You see their families and they become a part of yours. You celebrate birthdays and watch their kids grow up. Sadly, you mourn the passing of a few.
When I became a sportswriter/ scorekeeper, my attention shifted to the clubhouse, where I got to know players and coaches and managers and scouts and rovers, etc. You see the growth in the players and rejoice in their promotions. Then, the fortunate few get to “The Show” and you say, I remember them when… Unfortunately, you experience a few low moments when players are demoted, or worse, cut and their dreams end.
The ballpark gets into my soul like nothing else. The smell of the grass, the crack of the bat at BP, the music cranking up as the gates open, the smell of popcorn and hot dogs, the taste of fresh-squeezed lemonade, the increasing swell of chatter in seats, the people stopping at the roster board to fill out scorecards, the players taking the field, the singing of the anthem, the pop of the ball into the mitt, postgame fireworks and so much more in-between.
But, the best part of the ballpark are the relationships you build over the years. Outside of my own family, there is truly nothing like a family at the ballpark.
As I type this, it is supposed to be Opening Night, and I should be keeping track of the Crawdads at West Virginia. Instead, the dread of not coming back to the ballpark is here. No one knows if we’ll get back in May, June, or at any point in 2020. Honestly, it’s about the biggest “sports sad” I’ve had in a while.
We’ll get back at some point – oh, Lord, I hope we do – and when it happens, I’ll soak it in like I’ve not done so in a long time. No worry about rain delays, and people jinxing how fast a game is going, and 14-inning games. I can’t wait for the next pitch.