“People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” — Rogers Hornsby, former MLB infielder and manager . . . and also a former minor leaguer
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I made it to Hickory a few hours before the game, which allowed me the opportunity to scout out a location for one of my upcoming drives: my apparently eagerly-anticipated North Carolina Beer Drive (I get more comments and questions about that proposed drive than about just about anything else I do for DriveNC, which maybe says more about the people with whom I associate than anything else). Hickory is home to one of my favorite North Carolina breweries, Olde Hickory. I’ve highlighted one of their beers below in the Tonight’s beer section.
A nicer surprise than finding Olde Hickory, however, was the entire Hickory downtown area. Hickory’s downtown is still a few years away from being a totally self-sustaining and vibrant downtown, but it has come a long way, and all of the infrastructure appears to be in place for a full revival. Olde Hickory maintains a taproom on Main Avenue, as well as their brewing facility and a bottle shop, both a block away. The bottle shop also sells house-cured meats and house-made cheeses.
The revival spirit in downtown Hickory has carried over to the Hickory Crawdads‘ ballpark, where a healthy respect for the past — in the form not only of the preserved homestead of the Winkler family, on whose land the stadium is built, but also in the turn-of-the-century graphics throughout the stadium — mingles easily with the modern amenities of a small but very comfortable and family-friendly facility.
Signs of the community’s investment in this ballpark are evident everywhere, from the incredible number of contributors listed on a prominently-displayed plaque at the front entrance to the long-standing relationships between staff and community members young and old.
Kim, a 12-year veteran of the L P Frans Stadium staff and currently one of the staffers of the Crawdads Café, a full-service café down the 1st base line, said as much when I asked her why she continued to work here. Between exchanges with customers who were clearly long-time acquaintances, she noted, “I enjoyed being here [my first year], so why not keep doing it? I like the customers; I see a lot of the same ones because they keep coming back.” Kim, like so many minor league park employees (see, for instance, Maria in yesterday’s post), is a seasonal employee with a “regular” job in Morganton, but her heart is with her Crawdads.
I noted in an earlier post that one of the best things about baseball in general, and minor league baseball in particular, is how often the experience of going to a game is a whole-family experience. That family component is not limited to fans only. As has been the case in many other ballparks this week, very often the players’ families, too, are integral parts of the atmosphere — even when those families make their homes thousands of miles away from where their children are taking their shot at the big leagues. Tonight I had the pleasure of meeting Tryon and Cindy from Texas, whose son has been in the Texas Rangers organization for six year, the last two here in Hickory after stopovers in places as far away as the Dominican Republic. Tryon and Cindy made the trip to Hickory to see their son’s team play, and they will be there next year as well when he makes the move to the Rangers facility in Arizona. They, like so many minor league families, are important threads in the rich fabric that make the minor league experience so compelling.
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A few tangential notes:
As some of you may recall from my post about the Greensboro Grasshoppers game, I have been looking forward to my Hickory evening. The Greensboro game was characterized by a high degree of inter-city rivalry, with Crawdads fans showing up in force to cheer for their team against the hometown Grasshoppers. Their behavior was certainly energetic but made me wonder whether it might get a little out of hand on home turf, so I’ve been curious to see how that transferred to the home stadium environment. Lauren and Jordan, you will be pleased to know that our friends from the Greensboro game were here tonight in full force, only this time with more props, and, while they were as energetic as before, they never crossed the bad sportsmanship line. Go team.
Finally, perhaps the nicest surprise for me tonight was the small Crawdads Hall of Fame, which includes plaques for the major league players who once played here. Prominently displayed in the first slot was Toronto‘s own Jose Bautista (I am a loyal Blue Jays fan).
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Hickory 3, Charleston 2. Hickory and Charleston are low-A teams (farm teams for the Texas Rangers and New York Yankees, respectively), but both put on a good show tonight. Despite a few fielding and base-running gaffes on both sides, the game was closely fought and came down to the final out in the top of the 9th with the tying run at third base, but Hickory prevailed in the end on the back of good defense and just-good-enough pitching. Tonight’s game also featured an infrequently-called balk and about half-a-dozen passed balls, but who’s counting?
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Tonight’s beer: I’m featuring two brews tonight, mainly because for some reason the Crawdads did not have any Olde Hickory on tap tonight and one of the state’s oldest breweries (celebrating 21 years this year) deserves a shout-out, even if it was not represented at the game. I went with one of my Olde Hickory favorites, the Irish Walker barleywine — a very dark barleywine with a rich and complex flavor. Tip of the hat to Debbie for taking care of me at the Olde Hickory bar and for letting me sample the Märzen, too.
The second beer tonight is Catawba Brewing Company‘s White Zombie, a personal favorite of the Crawdads’ official craft brew goddess, Peggy. Catawba is a relatively established brewery out of Morganton. Frans Stadium also had on tap beers from Granite Falls and Blowing Rock. Thanks for the samples, Peggy!