“Baseball was, is, and always will be to me the best game in the world.” — Babe Ruth
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I don’t think I knew how much I missed the experience of going to a Class A game until I walked through the gate at Burlington Athletic Stadium. It was like stepping through a time machine: It was 1982 all over again, I was at camp at Duke, and my group was at the old Durham Athletic Park for a Bulls game.
The Royals‘ stadium is officially just inside the eastern Burlington city line, but this team could just as easily have been named the Graham Royals, or the Alamance Royals. I pulled off I-85 at Graham and drove through downtown to reach the stadium, which is hidden behind a tall stand of oaks and pines. Parking is free and plentiful in a simple gravel lot, and the gates don’t even officially open until 6:00 (a mere hour before game time). I found the ticket office and asked for my will-call ticket, but it was not there. Not to worry — the ticket girl just gave me one after she heard my story (I had had a difficult time ordering a ticket online and had apparently ordered three, but the Burlington ticket office, noticing what appeared to be an order anomaly, called me at home and asked me if I needed to correct my order — really nice, personal touch).
Summer, which has been ruthlessly hot all week, gave way to a clear blue sky without a trace of humidity. People trickled in casually before the game, but most were dutifully in their seats in time for the first pitch. Attendees at Royals games are by and large true baseball fans: They know their players, they actively argue with the umpire’s calls, and they all stand (not unusual) and sing (pretty uncommon these days) “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the 7th-inning stretch, with gusto. Kids wander freely about the stadium, unaccompanied, and everyone seems to know it is safe. People change seats throughout the game, catching up with neighbors, getting different views of the game, or stopping in for a beer at one of two outdoor bars (each with about 10 taps). There are only a few assigned seats, and even those appear to be somewhat fluid. The stadium was about 1/3 full tonight, with most people opting for the covered seats, but a few diehards occupied the bleachers. This is a truly hometown crowd supporting their hometown heroes.
Speaking of whom: I talked to Tanner Stanley (OF, 36th round, 2015, University of Richmond; 21 years old) and Joey Markus (P, 9th round, 2015, Indian River State; 19 years old) on the concourse before the game. Both are in their first year in Burlington and their first year overall in minor league ball. I asked them whether the adjustment to minor league play had been challenging, but both were very enthusiastic about their opportunity to play here. As Joey noted, “Hey, I get paid to play baseball every day.”
Tonight was the purest baseball experience I have had in many years.
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Johnston City 5, Burlington 1. The Johnson City (TN) Cardinals hit starting pitcher Igol Feliz hard early and often, but when he exited the game he had only given up 2 runs. The Royals were unable to get a runner across home plate through 6 but broke through in the 7th with consecutive lead-off doubles. Johnson City continued to make good contact throughout the game and managed to plate three more runs — more than enough cushion to hold off the hometown favorites, who rallied for several hits but no runs in the bottom of the 9th to the enthusiastic cheers of “Vamos! Vamos! Vamos!” from the crowd.
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By the way, I am not the first to think about taking this drive, and I hope I am not the last. Graham Knight at BaseballPilgrimages.com has an interesting article about the NC minor league baseball tour here.
Here’s another from this past spring by the Fayetteville Observer’s Stephen Schramm.
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Tonight’s beer: Natty Greene Buckshot Amber — Not the best amber in North Carolina, but nice that the Royals had a local brew (they actually had several) on tap.