Results tagged ‘ Commentary ’

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

 

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.

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Would that society at large live this way.