“There are only two seasons: winter and baseball.” — Bill Veeck, former MLB owner
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I grew up in a very small town in rural southern Virginia where the highlight of the summer is the town picnic in the park, where eating out means driving 30 minutes to a slightly larger town with more than two stoplights, and where long summer nights often are filled with the sound of little league baseball. Kannapolis is much larger than my hometown, but being at Intimidators Stadium — with its seemingly hand-typed game programs that proudly list all of the team’s local business sponsors, to the aging seats, to the largest collection of picnic tables in any minor league park I have visited so far — brought back many memories of those summer days.
Like Burlington Royals games, Intimidators games are community social gatherings as much as anything else — places where it is clear that everyone knows everyone else and attending a game is a regular part of the social fabric. Probably didn’t hurt my first impressions that the stadium was aglow with streaks of late-afternoon sunlight falling out of fluffy clouds when I first arrived.
With the exception of the Winston-Salem Dash, Kannapolis probably has the best team name in North Carolina. For those of you who do not know, the Intimidator was NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, Sr., who hailed from Kannapolis and was killed in a tragic NASCAR race several years ago. I think having his hometown team named after his famous nickname probably is an honor that would have meant more to him than most of the accolades he received as a driver. It certainly makes it easier for the hometown crowd to identify with the team, unlike some of the other teams I’ve seen this week whose mascots are little more than wildly colored blobs of fur. OK, Kannapolis’s on-field mascot is also a wildly colored blob of fur, but at least his name is in keeping with the clever nomenclature of his ballclub: he’s an alligator named Timmy Gator. Nice.
Tonight’s post will be a little shorter than the rest because, like a pitcher called up from AAA hours before his first major league start, I’ve been on the road quite a bit today and am a little tired. My base of operations for the Hickory and Kannapolis games has been Deep Gap, North Carolina, which is pretty close to Hickory but a solid 2+ hours away from Kannapolis. I also didn’t find as many people tonight who were willing to share their stories, though the young lady working the souvenier store was happy to have someone else to talk to in her empty workspace when I purchased my t-shirt.
(By the way, I’ve bought a t-shirt at every game and have worn each one to the next game. Most fans seem to be OK with the fact that I’m not wearing the home team’s shirt, but tonight a pumped-up Kannapolis fan was quick to let me know of his displeasure that I was wearing nearby Hickory’s jersey. Pretty sure the word he used to describe the shirt was “disgusting.”)
Just typing that AAA reference made me realize that some of you may not be aware of how the A classifications work in the minor leagues, so I will add a little here before closing to help clarify. As I’ve noted in another post, baseball has one of the deepest and most diverse minor league systems of any sport — possibly the best. Major league teams own and operate four or more minor league teams each that stretch across the country and participate in a number of leagues. It’s often more complicated than the basic scenario I’m about to describe, but in general, major league teams have short-season rookie leagues where newly-drafted players (sometimes right out of high school) can play during the summer and the parent baseball clubs can send coaches down to check their progress. Then there are standard-season Single A (A) teams (two levels — low and high A), followed by Double A (AA) teams, and then the highest-ranking minor league teams, Triple A (AAA). Triple A games are in some ways like watching major league games, because the teams are stocked with players either just about to be brought up to the major league parent club or just sent down for rehabilitation. Ironically, as more than one manager in John Feinstein’s book on minor league baseball points out, life in Triple A can be the most erratic of all of them, because of the constant shuffling of players to and from the major leagues. There is more than one story in Feinstein’s book about a Triple A pitcher who gets a call in the morning to head up to the major league parent team to make a spot start that evening, at the same time totally changing the lineup and strategy of the Triple A manager who is suddenly without his starting pitcher. North Carolina no longer has any Double A teams; there is one Rookie-level club (Burlington), two high-A clubs (Winston-Salem and Carolina), four low-A clubs (Kannapolis, Hickory, Greensboro, and Asheville) and two Triple A clubs (Durham and Charlotte).
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Delmarva 2, Kannapolis 1. As has been a theme in several of the games this week, shaky early-inning pitching and quick scores gave way to better control on the mound and sharp infield play on both sides to limit scoring threats in later innings. In the end, though, Delmarva (DELaware-MARyland-VirginiA peninsula) finally broke through in the top of the 10th inning (my first extra-inning game this week) for the deciding score. Play of the game award goes to Intimidators 3rd baseman Cody Daily, who climbed the ladder in the 5th inning to snatch a hard-hit line drive out of the sky for an out.
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Tonight’s beer: Foothills Brewing‘s Carolina Blonde. There is nothing particularly noteworthy about this blonde cream ale from Winston-Salem, but it is pretty ubiquitous across North Carolina and I hadn’t had one, so I gave it a shot. I started to get a different draft beer tonight — Thirsty Thursday here in Kannapolis, with 16-oz drafts selling for $1.50 — that was sporting what looked like a homemade draft pull and a sure-to-be-local name (something like Big League Lager), but the guys behind the Beer Garden counter were kind enough to tell me that it was actually a Coors in disguise. Close call.