Archive for the ‘ Commentary ’ Category

A Legend Retires: Bunker Hill coach Marty Curtis hangs ’em up

I have a personal blog and occasionally – if not sporadically –  I will write about other things.

One such post I did back in March was about a baseball lifer in this area, Bunker Hill High School baseball coach Marty Curtis. Today, it was announced that Curtis has retired after 47 seasons in the game, the last 35 with the Bears.

A Hall-of-Famer in his profession, Curtis was inducted into the Catawba County Sports Hall of Fame in 2017 and into the North Carolina Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2015. As great as he was as a coach, Curtis is an even better human being.

While covering a Bunker Hill game in early March, I was struck by Curtis meticulously working the on-deck circle to get it just right. So I wrote the following post. For those not from this area, I hope you get a sense of who he is. The game is richer and the players that played under his tutelage are better men because of giants like Marty Curtis.

This story is a reminder that you (me) are never too old or too important to do the work that needs to be done.

My sports assignment this afternoon was a high school baseball game between Maiden and Bunker Hill played at M.M. Curtis field on the campus of Bunker Hill High. I arrived in time to see the final inning of the JV game, and thereafter, had to wait out the preparation of the field for the varsity game.

While this is going on, I’m passed time on my phone before looking up to check on the progress for when my game might start. I looked around and saw players from both teams stretching in the outfield, and then my glance saw a lonely figure with a push broom walking circles smoothing out the dirt at home plate and the surrounding area.

On the second circular walk, I realize it is Bunker Hill head coach Marty Curtis. Yes, the guy for whom the field is named.

For those that don’t know, Curtis is a high school baseball coach legend in this area. I was privileged to cover the game in 2016 in which he picked up his 400th win.

Never one to focus on himself, the grizzled coach told me in an interview after getting the milestone win, “Well, I’m glad it’s over with, to be honest with you,” Curtis said. “I don’t like that. It just means you’ve been around a long time and you’re old. There’s been a lot of players that have contributed to that. It’s good today and now I’m glad it’s over with.”

Curtis is a throwback of a baseball lifer, who has forgotten more about baseball than I’ll ever know. So I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised with him being out there getting home plate just right, before he chalked out the batter’s box and foul lines. I thought, “How many times has this man gone through this mundane ritual?”

There, on the field, while his players were getting ready, he was doing his part for the game. It was marvelous reminder that no matter how great one is in their profession, one is never too good to get out there, get dirty, and do what one needs to do to help others succeed.

It’s true in sports. It’s true in every walk of life.

I’m thankful for people like Marty Curtis and my hope is to strive to be more like him when I grow up.

Marty Curtis

Bunker Hill High School baseball coach Marty Curtis, as he prepared the batter’s box prior to a game in March 2018. Curtis announced his retirement Friday after 35 seasons with the Bears.

Baseball in Hickory: Where the Community Meets

(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.

 

LP Frans

 

The Reality of “Our” Players: Crawdads past and present major pieces in recent trades

Yesterday, two of “our” own players from the Hickory Crawdads were suddenly taken from us. Hickory Crawdads pitchers Erik Swanson and Dillon Tate were a part of a trade in which the parent club Texas Rangers acquired slugger Carlos Beltran from the New York Yankees.

For many Rangers fans, it is a time to get excited about what Beltran can bring to the lineup at Arlington. For many Crawdads fans, their hearts have been stomped.

We don’t see many trades at the low-A level. When pitcher Matt Ball came here in May after a trade with the White Sox, it was the first time a player came to Hickory via a trade since 2008 – the final season of the Pittsburgh Pirates affiliation. As far as sending a player away, that hadn’t happened since 2013 when C.J. Edwards went to the Chicago Cubs. Prior to that, it had been since 2009 when Matt Nevarez left the Crawdads in a trade that brought Pudge Rodriguez back to Texas.

At this level, we know we are going to bid farewell to “our” players in due course. It may happen in a few days, or a couple of years. We certainly hope that when “our” players leave that it is to move up the ladder – to get one step close to their own major league dreams. Of course, at times they leave after being waived and that dream ends.

We often have this fantasy of “our” players moving up to the major league level with the parent club. The joy of seeing in a Texas Rangers uniform Rougned Odor and Joey Gallo and Nomar Mazara and Martin Perez and Hanser Alberto and Ryan Rua and Jurickson Profar is a genuine joy for those of us in Hickory who knew them when. We have this Elysian hope that “our” players will continue to play together always and do so for Texas. It’s like hoping your neighborhood kids will grow up together and always remain friends. The reality is that most of those kids move away from home and rarely keep in touch. The same is true in baseball – minor league teams rarely play together in the big leagues.

Our hope was to see Swanson and Tate, as well as Lewis Brinson and Luis Ortiz – former Crawdads involved in another trade that moved those players into the Milwaukee Brewers chain – in those Texas Rangers uniforms taking the field in Arlington. However, if you ask those four players about their major league dreams, the name on the front of the uniform won’t matter to them – Braves, Brewers, Yankees, Blue Jays, Cardinals, etc. They are chasing the dream of a major league career. It matters not in which multi-tiered stadium that takes place. As minor league fans, we have to remember that.

They are “our” players, but in reality they are not. The name on the front of the jersey says Hickory, but the big red T on the patch located on the sleeve reminds us they belong to another. The Rangers pay the salaries and we have to remember that the minor leagues exist solely to help bring the major league club a championship. As hard as it is, sometimes that involves sending “our” players elsewhere.

However, for those who follow minor league teams – especially for us in Hickory –we gain an attachment during the time they are here. They are “our” players. It’s not just because “Crawdads” is on the front of the jersey with the letter “H” on the cap standing for our hometown of Hickory. At this level, they become part of us – of our community, and in some cases, part of our families. We have a different kind of access to these guys that those in the major league community do not. We celebrate their successes after a game, and share in the struggles and offer encouragement. We meet their families and welcome them to Hickory when they visit and roll out the welcome mat to our town.

So, while Rangers fans celebrate, we here in Hickory are in a bit of shock – for two of “our” own are leaving us for another team. (It could get really weird in a couple of weeks when Charleston (S.C.) visits L.P. Frans, as it is rumored that both Tate and Swanson will be assigned to the River Dogs.) But while the reality that “our” players will always leave, there is another reality present: Swanson and Tate and Brinson and Ortiz and Travis Demeritte and Jorge Alfaro and Nick Williams and Edwards and everyone else who donned a red claw on their cap will be “ours”.

We look forward to following their careers all the way to the majors.

Trouble on the Homefront: Crawdads struggles at L.P. Frans hampers team success

When the Hickory Crawdads sprinted out to a 26-12 record in mid-May – the 14 games over .500 is currently the high-water mark of the 2016 season – much of that was on the back of a stellar start at home during which the team went 12-5 through May 14.

The next day, Hickory lost a 19-inning contest 9-2 to Rome (Ga.) and the squad has been in  a free fall at home, going 10-20. Since taking three out of four from Lexington (Ky.) to end April and begin May, over their last nine home series Hickory has lost five and tied four others.

Conversely, the Crawdads (54-47 overall) currently have the best road record in the South Atlantic League at 32-22. Hickory returns home tonight (Thursday, July 28) on the heels of a 4-2 road trip at Delmarva (Md.) and Lakewood (N.J.).

“Actually, Me and Matos were talking about that the other day about our record on the road is better than our record at home,” said Crawdads manager Steve Mintz in an interview I had with him at the end of the last home stand. “Most of the time, anywhere you’re at, that’s different. I really don’t know.”

Looking at the home-road split for the Crawdads as a team, the lineup has struggled to take advantage of the comforts of L.P. Frans Stadium, which is considered a park that is friendly to hitters. As a team, the Crawdads have slugged just 29 homers over 47 homes games, compared to 38 over 54 road games.  On the road, the team has 154 extra-base hits to just 104 at home. The home slash is .247/.317/.357 compared to .252/.322/387 away from L.P. Frans Stadium.

While the offense hasn’t taken advantage of its home park, the friendly hitting confines have taken a bite out of the pitching staff numbers. SAL hitters have bashed the Crawdads hurlers to a .265 average at home, .258 on the road. One number that jumps out is homers allowed – 42 at home to just 27 on the road. Six of the eight shutouts tossed by Hickory this season have come at road ballparks.

One thing to consider is that home teams generally do their development work at home. Major league clubs send their rovers to Hickory during home stands in order to put the time in to help players with a particular skill, etc. While Mintz says that while the work could have an effect, it’s work that has to be done.

“Hopefully, it’s going to pan out by the end of the year,” said Mintz. “We want these guys to be better. Honestly, we’d love to win, but first and foremost, we’ve got to teach these guys how to play it right. With the young group that we’ve got, that’s a big chore that’s we’ve got here. We’re up for it, but I can’t answer the home and away thing.”

The Crawdads open tonight’s homestand with a four-game series against Hagerstown (Md.), followed by a three-game set against Delmarva. For several reasons, the upcoming seven games could have a bearing on the Crawdads playoff chances.

The Crawdads open the series with the Suns in fourth place, but only 2.5 games behind Hagerstown in the Northern Division’s second-half standings. Hagerstown already clinched a  playoff spot by winning the first half and should it win the second half, the team with the next best overall record would claim a wildcard spot. In that race, Hickory is two games behind Greensboro and one behind Delmarva.

After this home stand, the Crawdads will have just a few chances to take care of business themselves, as Hickory will have just eight games left against Northern Division foes – all on the road. Four of those games are at Greensboro.

 

Payano celebration by Crystal Lin

Victory celebrations at home have been few and far between since mid-May, as the Crawdads are 10-20 at L.P. Frans Stadium since a 12-5 start

 

If Society Were Like Baseball: A Commentary

I had planned this blog post even before the news of the past week that involved Eduard Pinto, his fiancée Maria and their now-late son Gael. For me, that news and the response by the Crawdads-Rangers affiliated community makes this post even more necessary to write.

Since I began my tenure with the Hickory Crawdads as an employee, and then after that ended, a current stint as an official scorer/ newspaper beatwriter, I have understood more and more over the past 12 seasons that baseball folk are really and truly a special breed. The outpouing of support for the Pintos is just the latest example of kindness, caring, family-like – or what should be family-like – love and brotherhood (and sisterhood) that happens in the game.

Indeed, if the rest of society were to mimic the actions that play out every day around the baseball diamond, our world would be a better place to live. What are those actions? Here are a few I see constantly:

 

Learn a stranger’s name and remember it. You might need it later:

Unknowingly, I got my first taste of this on Labor Day 2004, the final day of the Hickory Crawdads regular season. My family and I got comp tickets in the section behind home plate and we sat in an area near some scouts. As the game progressed, I looked over the shoulder of an older gentleman – he appeared to be in his 70s – and the work he was doing, and I happened to see him wearing a very large ring.

During a half-inning break, I asked the gentleman about the ring and it was then I saw the interlocking letters “STL” on the stone. He took it off and let me hold it to have a better look. It was a 1985 National League Championship ring. (Sadly, it should’ve been a World Series ring, but lest I digress…)  The gentleman couldn’t have been kinder to me and we talked the remainder of the game.

Flash forward some eight months later: I’m now an employee of the Crawdads and I’m walking from the parking lot to a gate on the first-base side of the stadium. Suddenly across the parking lot, I hear, “Mark! Mark!” I turned and saw an older gentleman – he appeared to be in his 70s – that knew who I was, but for the life of me I didn’t know why. He then showed me his ring with the interlocking STL lettering on the stone. The proverbial scales then dripped from my eyes and I remembered who he was.

Here was a man that traveled the country to see ballgame after ballgame, seeing and encountering name and face after name and face. Yet, he remembered MY name.

It may sound mushy and overly sentimental, but it always feels special when a Rangers rover comes through and calls me by name when I see them each season.They see and meet so many people in their line of work, but every time I see them in the clubhouse, they call me by name and ask me how things are.

What if we took the time to pay enough attention to the people that we encounter to actively learn and later remember their name?

 

Keep the past in the past:

It happens prior to every game: the meeting at home plate. While the purpose is to exchange lineup cards and go over ground rules, for me there’s something that plays out here that very few people see.

The previous game may have had intense competition. The night before may have had heated words exchanged between mangers, or more so, between managers and umpires. Words that call into question the other’s parentage, or words that requests the other person do things anatomically impossible, or comments about various forms of animal excrement, etc. etc. Baseball is a slow, intensely personal, steam-building kind of game that leads to a climax of decisive action that determines wins and losses. It lends itself to moments that take people into realms of different personas than is normal for a particular person. Many times, the events of the day go home with you and eat at you.

But then, the next day arrives and a new game is played. The managers meet each other anew and shake hands and acknowledge the umpires and their role in keeping the competition fair. Jokes are told, smiles are exchanged and then a good-luck handshake and we begin again anew. It’s as if nothing happened at all before and we’re all friends again.

What if our encounters each day were such that we didn’t carry the baggage from previous days into them?

 

Secrets are meant to be secret:

Several things come to mind of which I will share two.

  1. a) After the Travis Demeritte suspension in 2015, I asked his teammate Jose Trevino how the team reacted to the news of their teammate. Trevino’s response, “I’m not getting into any of that.” My follow-up question: “Are you guys mad, upset? How are the guys handling it?” Trevino: “I’m not going to say.”
  2. b) I happened upon what was to be a closed-door “kangaroo court” in 2013. When manager Corey Ragsdale saw me, his only words were, “This stays here.” There were some juicy things, funny things, but it was between teammates and coaches and to this day they’ve stayed there.

The details of every encounter need not be spread publicly like in a schoolyard playground setting. In fact, the best way to be ostracized is to share secrets.

 

Everyone pulls tarp:

You know how you find out what kind of fellow employees you have? Watch how they approach tarp duty. Are they the first out there, or are they the last one’s slinking down the seating area toward the field – or worse yet, not even bother to show up until the thing is almost rolled away.Or even worse? They’ve gone to lunch during a threat of rain and aren’t at the park at all.

In a minor league baseball front office, everyone from the GM to the intern pulls tarp. It’s the one task that is the staff equalizer, but in doing it, you know whether or not your workmates have your back.

Yes, the grounds guy is in charge, and yes there are times a GM or sales person really does need to be in that sales call. But the tarp pull is the one task in which everyone gets dirty and nasty and wet and likely contracts every disease known to may from that thing. During a heavy thunderstorm, it’s the one task in which people are doing everything in their power to keep that large, flying-kite of a plastic parachute from soaring away; all the while praying their lives don’t end at that moment from a lightning strike.

Everyone should pull a tarp just once in a heavy rainstorm, and you’ll understand.

 

Baseball family is really a family:

You know what I’ll remember about the final game of the 2015 Sally League Championship series? People cared about me personally. Let me explain:

Two weeks prior to the start of the playoffs, I lost my full-time job unexpectedly. On what turned out to be the final game at Asheville that clinched the title for Hickory, I had an interview for a job that night. I went through the interview, then drove 90 minutes to Asheville in hopes of catching the final few outs. But I missed.  So I show up and through the champagne-drenched celebrations, several players and coaches asked how my interview went. I didn’t think they even knew I had an interview. Though their joy in the accomplishment of a season-long  goal, they gave enough of a damn to ask me about my life.

 

Baseball family is baseball family, not “family” family.

During the season, teammates with teammates and front office staff members spend much more time with each other than with their own families. You work out together, or make sales calls together, pull tarp or shag flies, eat meals or play cards in the clubhouse, listen to your boss rail about not making enough sales or listen to your manager about how much more you need to hustle.

Your baseball family requires a lot of you… but they expect you to be there for your family and go to great lengths to make sure you do. They want you to be at the birth of children, to say good bye to a grandparent, to attend weddings, to play with your kid on the field, etc. etc. Because a good baseball team or a great front office staff are ones that insist that their members take care of life at home.  In doing so, they have better teammates and front office staff members.

As fun as baseball is, there’s an off day for a reason and there’s an offseason for one, too – to take care of the people that sacrifice your presence during the season.

Wonder what would happen if other lines of work did this, too?

 

 

Baseball people take care of their own:

Folks gave nearly 20K to the Pintos in just under 24 hours, but as shocking as that was, it really wasn’t a shock at all. As the saying goes, “That’s the way baseball go.”

The story about Eduard, Maria and Gael is that latest example about how the baseball community steps up to help a person in need. I’m guessing very few of the 335 people that donated to help the family had never even heard of Eduard or Maria, or Gael  prior to Monday. All they heard was a baseball family member needed help and they gave. Because in baseball there are no strangers, just a friend you don’t know yet.

cropped-lp-frans-bp-2013.jpg

Would that society at large live this way.

A New Season Begins

The 2016 baseball season has arrived in full fury across the land, and I for one could not be more excited. I enjoy covering the other sports and the privilege of seeing some of the best high school competition in the state of North Carolina, not to mention some incredibly talented coaches and players. But I love baseball and count the months until it begins anew.

For me, there’s nothing like fresh green grass upon which the game is played (no turf for me, thank you). The words “Pitchers and Catchers Report” is like Christmas morning to me, in which the umpire’s bellow of “Play Ball”, the pop of a ball to a leather glove, and the crack of the bat are my carols.

 

In most sports, you have a pretty good idea of what teams will be in the hunt for a title run. Not so, in baseball. The beginning of the season gives hope to all who play the game. From Little Leagues to the big leagues, all who play feel in their hearts and minds “this is our year”.

That chant was certainly felt here in Hickory much of the 2015 season as the Crawdads captured the South Atlantic League championship. For me, it was a personal joy to follow the team up close on a daily basis and to see that work rewarded with a league title. It was a cool experience to see the ups-and-downs of the entire season and to have the story evolve the way it did. To be able to interview many of the players and report their experiences – from unbridled, sometimes arrogant confidence to the worry of it all coming to an end at any moment – it was a dream come true for someone that has been a fan from the age of six.

Now, we turn the page and look to 2016. For fans of the major leagues teams, they have a decent idea of who will don the big league uniforms on opening day and hopes on how they will perform.

For us in low-A, it’s wait and see.We don’t know what we will have here in Hickory until the Crawdads take the field. For the most part, these kids have had very little time to work together as a unit, if at all. It’s an oddly mysterious feeling each year to see how April plays out and to get a sense of what the summer will become.

There are certainly questions as to who will come to L. P. Frans Stadium. Will Luis Ortiz return for a third season on the hill in Hickory, or will the Texas Rangers let him have a go at pinball baseball at High Desert? Will Pedro Payano be able to build on a strong final month of the season on the hill?

Will we see wunderkinds Yeson Yrizarri and TiQuan Forbes on the Hickory infield? Does Josh Morgan come back here as a catcher? In light of his 80-game suspension from last season, does Travis Demeritte warrant a third season at second at L.P. Frans, or do the Rangers push him up the ladder with an edict that it’s time for the former first-rounder to put it together?

How many bases will Eric Jenkins steal in a Hickory uniform? Who are the other players from the 2015 team to come back? Suddenly pushed into a new role with the promotion of Spike Owen- formerly announced as the Crawdads manager – to the third base coaches box in Arlington, how will Steve Mintz fare as a stateside manager for the first time?

As the season begins four weeks from the typing of these words, I can’t wait to see the picture take shape as the events begin to be painted on the canvas that is 2016.

Luis Ortiz playoffs

Luis Ortiz from a playoff appearance vs. West Virginia on 9/12/15 (photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

 

 

People Read This Stuff? A Thank You Note

So, I’m minding my business this afternoon when I see a tweet from the Hickory Crawdads congratulating me on having the No. 4 blog among PRO writers covering minor league baseball.

I. WAS. STUNNED.

I sent a tweet out with the question, “Who the heck knew I said anything worth reading?”

I stated in my introductory post last summer that there are a lot of people much smarter about baseball than I am, and I will always believe that. I watch the games, talk to people, and generally try to share with people something about the baseball team playing in Hickory.

Some of the folks reading my blog just want news – any news – about their loved one playing in most cases far away from home at Hickory. They share links of my stories with family members and friends about a hometown hero they watch grow up and that is taking the first steps of their hopeful march to the Nirvana that is the major leagues.

Some of the folks are Rangers fans wanting first-hand accounts about the latest prospect that is just starting out, or the player that finally put it together. They envision the day the player gets a callup to Arlington, or if traded, to places like Philadelphia, Atlanta, New York, Chicago and so on. Part of the fun of following prospects is to say, “I knew him when…”

Some of the folks are local fans from the area wanting more news about the Crawdads than I have space for in the local Hickory Daily Record. This is our town’s pro team – one of only 160 towns that can say that about minor league baseball – and we here in the Hickory-Metro take pride in the Crawdads. They’ve had a deep connection to this community for 23 years now and there’s a pretty neat history to this franchise that I try to provide for readers.

But for me, I write about baseball in Hickory because the game is a part of me. I’ve loved the game since I was a little boy. I was never good enough to even play for a team more advanced than a backyard pickup game in Riverdale, Ga. Being able to write about baseball and be involved in the game in this way is something that, as a child, I never dreamed I could realistically do. Who gets to do that? Well, in a small town in North Carolina, I do. And what fun it is!

I am thankful to the players and Rangers player development staff that allowed me access to the clubhouse and to what’s going on during a special season that ended with a league championship – something I never thought I’d get to see up close. I am indebted to the Hickory Crawdads staff, especially Director of Media Relationship Aaron Cox for their support for the writing I do. I am grateful for the readership that I have and for the people who pass on links for others to read. Your comments and kind words are accepted with all the heartfelt thanks I can express.

Lord willing, I’ll be at L.P. Frans Stadium for the 24th season of Crawdads baseball – my 14thas a fan, employee, scorekeeper and beat writer. I look forward to the ride that is the 2016 season.

The Anthem Singer: An Undefeated Season at LP Frans

(The following does not represent the views of the Hickory Crawdads, its management, staff or players, nor of Crawdadsbeat.com, or its blogger… it’s tongue-n-cheek, enjoy)

Most of my time at the ballpark is spent as the official scorer for the Hickory Crawdads. I make decisions that affect the livelihoods of ball players, manager and coaches all across the South Atlantic League. I carefully weigh the pros and cons of every call and rule with an iron first. I am firm, but fair, leaving all parties basking in the glow of my baseball knowledge and wisdom.

But a side task is the infrequent rendering of the National Anthem. It is a task in which I feel great honor in performing. I’m usually called upon when there is a no-show, or a night when they couldn’t get a live body to come out. So I sing.

My offering of the anthem is short, sweet, and to the point. There are no 47-note melismas per line, no three-syllable words for “by: (buh-eye-ee), no five seconds to sing the word “light” (Lie –hah-hah-huh- high-ee-yi).

There are no key changes when it gets too high. I do not sing it as a rock ballad, or a song you might use to bury your mother to. There is nowhere that Francis Scott Key is to believe to have said, “I spent half the night awake afraid for my life, but we kicked the British’s tails, so I wrote this poem. I hope someone writes a mournful dirge to it.” I sing it in 3/4 time, not 4/4.

It is for this reason that I believe I am the favorite anthem singers of ball players everywhere around the South Atlantic League. I know all the words, and the other than the occasional battle with phlegm and a gnat flying around my face, there is no drama. I get on, gather everyone for 65 seconds of their time, and then hand the microphone back and go sit back in the press box for my scorekeeping duties. Long ago, I have come to terms that no one has paid so much as a nickel to hear me sing the national anthem.

I’ve done this for 11 years now, but this year something magical has happened with the anthem. I believe I may have had a hand in the SAL championship run. You see, this season, the Hickory Crawdads went 13-0 when I sang the anthem.

I first noticed this trend about a month ago when I was 6-0. I told the community relations director Megan Meade about this and so we began to test the luck as the playoffs approached.

First try with the knowledge of the streak vs. Charleston on Aug. 28… winner.

Two separate games vs. Rome in the final five games of the season … winners both.

It was soon playoff time, but not without fear. Down one game to none against West Virginia and the tough Stephen Tarpley, I sang. It was a see-saw battle, but the righteousness of my anthem lingered over the field. And the Crawdads were inspired and they won.

In the decisive game three, against pitcher of the year Yeudys Garcia, the notes stayed into the hearts of the brave boys on the field. And they won… 1-0.  I was greeted in the clubhouse with a hero’s welcome. It went something along the lines of, “You are (blanking) singing the (blanking) anthem against Asheville, right?”

So I put my 11-0 record on the line Monday in game one of the SAL championship series… and they won. And the chants grew, “Mark, Mark, Mark, Mark!”… or maybe it was a player yelling at me in the clubhouse (Yeah, you Joe Filomeno!).

On Tuesday, the legend had grown to 12-0. Would it be an unlucky 13th game that would do us all in? Not on your life! Another win in the final home game of the season!  13-0.

The last I saw of Megan Meade, sh was in a conversation with the Asheville GM as to whether or not they had an anthem slot open for the games at McCormick Field.

I have suggested that should the Crawdads go on to win the SAL championship, two things should happen. One, I get a ring. I mean… 13-0. And two, the microphone is permanently retired, dipped in gold and hung in the press box for all to see and recall the miracle at Frans.

And if the Crawdads lose on Thursday, I may show up unannounced on the field at McCormick and hijack the anthem.

Looking at my best side, I put my spell upon the unwittingly vexed Asheville Tourists in the SAL Championship opener. (photo courtesy of Crystal Cook)

Looking at my best side, I put my spell upon the unwittingly vexed Asheville Tourists in the SAL Championship opener. (photo courtesy of Crystal Cook)

The South Atlantic League Schedule: An exercise in randomness

As near as I can tell, putting together the South Atlantic League schedule each year is an exercise akin to something like this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-wg1LjDdOI

How else to explain that for a second-straight season in 2016, the Hickory Crawdads will make three trips to Lakewood, N.J. – with the Crawdads hosting the division rivals just once – but not make a trip to Columbia, S.C., just a little over two hours away.

Here are some other oddities for the 2016 schedule:

*The Crawdads will host only three Northern Division teams in the first half. One of those teams – Greensboro – will come to Hickory for ten of the first 28 home games.

*Hickory will host Rome, Ga. (from the Southern Division) for a four-series from May 12-15. Then after a week-long road trip, the Crawdads come back home for three more against Rome. So in short, 17 of the first 28 home games will be against Rome and Greensboro.

* Hickory will host Rome for 11 home games, more than any other team – yes, more than any in-division team.

*Hickory will play Asheville six total games, all during the final two week of the season. Asheville is 65 minutes away. Yes, Hickory will go 17 MONTHS without seeing Asheville at L.P. Frans.

*It’s Hickory’s year to play Lexington, Ky. After only three games in 2015 against the Legends – another out-of-division team – the Crawdads face Lexington 15 times in 2016 (two trips there, two series here).

The major issue of compiling a schedule in the SAL is the geographic footprint. Lakewood’s closest rival Delmarva is over four hours away. Lexington’s closest Southern Division rival (yes, Southern, it is north over all three of the Northern Division teams that play in North Carolina) is Asheville, just 274 miles away. (Charleston, West Virginia of the Northern Division is 177 miles). Teams must have a day off when traveling more than 500 miles.

With all the travel those clubs have to endure, I’m sure there is little sympathy by the BlueClaws and Legends for the travel woes of other teams. However, when the BlueClaws set up shop after moving from Cape Fear, N.C. – and thus expanding the footprint of the SAL – they and the SAL knew that travel was going to be a major issue. Honestly, given the number of double-digit hour trips that Phillies minor league players would be making – and other teams going to the Jersey shore to play the BlueClaws – I’m surprised that farm directors didn’t raise more of a stink.

Nothing says player development like sitting on a long-distance bus trip.

Lakewood is a AA-sized affiliate playing in a AA-sized park, yet remain in the SAL. Seems to me it’d be a great fit in the Eastern League. However, I know the BlueClaws want to keep a Phillies affiliation and the current AA Phillies affiliate at Reading would fight tooth-and-nail to keep that intact.

Lexington is closer to several Midwest League teams, including in-state Bowling Green – which began its existence in the SAL in 2008 before bolting with Lake County (Ohio) to the MWL – than most of its SAL foes.

The powers that be at MiLB have been talking re-alignment of the various leagues for years to minimize travel. The transfer of Bowling Green and Lake County was to be a part of that, yet it’s gone nowhere since. So year after year, the ridiculous schedules are released and people who follow and cover the SAL laugh in amazement and derision of the finished product.

If the SAL wants to keep its footprint from near New York City to the South Carolina Low Country and out beyond the Appalachians, so be it. But come up with a schedule that makes some sort of sense and has some kind of integrity. Every other bus-travel league that has a large footprint (Texas, Midwest) has figured out how to it. Surely, the SAL can as well.

In fact, I’ll start the conversation:

For each 70-game half:

Each club plays the other six division rivals 7 games (4 at one site, 3 at the other) = 42

Each club plays the seven out-of-division rivals 4 games (facing 3 teams at home, 4 teams away or vice versa) =28

Flip the 70-game set for the second half.

SAL stop the insanity!

Surviving Low-A: Confidence in the Midst of Failure

Seemingly, baseball is a simple game to understand and follow. He who has the ability to perform in a superior manner on the field will succeed in the game. Yet, how a player gains that superiority is done in a vastly different manner in baseball than it is in other sports.

Generally in football, if you are physically strong and tough, and/or can run quickly, you are more likely to succeed. In basketball, athletic ability – the running and jumping and agility – is essential. Soccer, hockey, track and field, you name it, superiority in the physical realm is necessary for success.

While it helps to have the physical tools – and scouts make a nice living finding players with athletic tools to play the game at a high level – there is the mental side of the game that cannot be ignored. In many ways, the success of a baseball player’s career is tied to the ability to develop the mental tools to enable the physical tools to play out. That development is first cultivated in places like Hickory.

It was in my first 140-game season with a minor league front office in 2005 that I learned the phrase, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Physically that’s true – tarp pulls will teach that to you quickly – but I learned mentally that’s true when you close out the final day of nine-straight, 17-hour days, and customers are unhappy and don’t really care at 10:30 p.m. that you arrived at 8 that morning for a tarp pull and your only food was a hot dog from concessions.

But the effects of the mental side of the game on player performance never really crossed my mind until I began covering the Hickory Crawdads in 2010.

It’s not just the physical effects played out on weary-eyed athletes, who pull into the clubhouse just a few hours after coming home at 6 a.m. from an overnight bus trip… after losing a game… during which some poor soul probably had a coach, manager, rover, teammate chew on them for some sin committed on the field… in a game that expects success despite the overwhelming odds of failure… And they do it up to 30 straight days without a day off.

With the physically-draining weariness, there comes the stresses of life: making ends meet at home… wondering about families and girlfriends miles away… facing sudden upheaval and uprooting after a promotion, demotion or trade – or a release…worrying about doing enough to stay on the team… earning the respect of teammates.

Many of the players who come to Hickory deal with the extended baseball season for the first time. With all of the stresses that are listed above, still they play 140 games in 152 days and they are expected to perform well.

My epiphany moment in this came when I interviewed pitcher Neil Ramirez – now with the Chicago Cubs – back in the summer of 2010. Ramirez, the first round pick of the Rangers in 2007, came to the Crawdads in 2009. The former high school player of the year in Virginia came to Hickory with worlds of ability. But with control issues, much of that time he was a hittable pitcher that searched in vain for the magic he once had over hitters. Ramirez returned in 2010 and it was more of the same until he found a groove over the second half of the season and things clicked.

As I asked and walked through his struggles, it suddenly dawned on me to ask this question:

“Is this game more mental than you thought it would be when you were drafted?”

Ramirez’s answer was interesting to me:

“Yeah! Unbelievably more mental than I thought it would be.  Everybody talks about it before you get drafted; it’s the 90% mental, 10% physical sort of thing. 

You think that, oh, my ability will speak for itself.  It doesn’t matter whether you throw 95, or 87, like Greg Maddux did, and he was successful. That’s because they was so headstrong mentally. They knew what they wanted to do with the pitch and they knew they were going to execute it.

 That takes a mentally strong person to go about your business the right way.  Mentally, it’s tough, but I think that’s what makes it fun.  That’s what makes baseball such a great game.” 

I thought of Neil as I glanced through a series of interviews I did with this crop of players over the past week – two pitchers and two hitters. The key word that popped up over and over again was confidence.

Eight games ago, Jose Cardona was struggling as a number-nine hitter. One week later, he’s at the top of the order due to an injury to Michael De Leon and suddenly he’s on a 16-for-30 streak. He talked of his mindset and how confident he felt at the plate. His tools and routine hasn’t changed, just the results.

After hitting .236 in June, CF Jose Cardona is in the midst of a 16-for-30 streak with 11 R and 10  over eight games

After hitting .236 in June, CF Jose Cardona is in the midst of a 16-for-30 streak with 11 R and 10 over eight games (Photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

A week ago, the collective lineup looked limp during a 1-5 stretch. Suddenly, they have 38 runs in four games and double-digit hit totals in five straight. Cardona talked about how much confidence that team has right now at the plate.

A month ago, Luke Tendler struggled to hit a fastball. A homer in the all-star game last month seemingly set him afire and now pitchers can’t get a fastball by him. In several interviews I’ve done with Luke, he’s harped on trusting his abilities and staying the course and it will succeed. It’s easy to do that when you are hitting .320, harder to do so at .220. To his credit, he has seen the process through.

Brett Martin talked about having the confidence to throw a changeup at any point in the count. Last year, he was afraid to throw it.

Nick Gardewine talked of the confidence to challenge the same lineup that battered him around six days prior.

The players that come to Hickory (or any A-ball team) have the ability to do their assigned tasks on the field: hit a fastball, learn and throw a new pitch, etc. They wouldn’t be here without those pure baseball abilities. But like Ramirez said, it’s the ability to have confidence in what they can do, even in the face of adversity that will set them apart down the road.

If you want to figure out the players that will go on to bigger and better things, look at how they fail, in a game of failure. It’s easy to stand tall in baseball when things are going well. But those who stand tall while getting shelled – which happens in baseball often – and shake it off prior to the next outing or at bat, those are likely the players to look for in the multi-tiered stadiums at a later time.