“It ain’t over till it’s over.” — Yogi Berra
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A beautiful night to end a beautiful stretch of games all across North Carolina this week, with no humidity and a large crowd at Zebulon’s Five County Stadium, where the Carolina Mudcats took on the Lynchburg Hillcats. Five County will not win any beauty pageants — it has the feel of a Brutalist-period fallout shelter and is the only stadium I’ve visited in which some of the premium seats have an obstructed view — but because of the angle of the second level, there does not appear to be a bad upper-deck seat in the house. A tightly-sloped deck ensures that even the nosebleed fans are close to the action, and it is hard to top the Cattails Restaurant at the top of the stadium — an upscale spot with a full menu, linen tablecloths, and a panoramic view of the game. Plus, the in-your-face post-game fireworks rivaled even Durham’s powerful display.
In some ways, this venue is a fitting place to close out my second drive. One emerging theme in most of my previous posts has been the take-all-comers nature of baseball, relative to the other American professional sports, all of which seem like members-only clubs to which few are granted entry. Baseball, on the other hand, is the sport of the people, and Five County Stadium is in many ways the stadium of the people. And how fitting that tonight was Elvis night (this year marks Elvis’s 80th birthday year) — for many, the musician of the people. The teeming crowd that lined up to run the bases after the game was a visual testament to just how many in attendance feel that they are a part of their home team.
I left for the game early today so that I would have time to stop by the North Carolina Baseball Museum, located in nearby Wilson. Wilson, like so many other small towns across the state without official minor league clubs, hosts an unaffiliated amateur summer league team (the Tobs). The Museum is a spacious, two-room structure that overlooks the Tobs’ field. Walking among its exhibits, you get the feeling that Robin Williams might appear behind your shoulder and whisper — in the ghostly voices of all of the faces that stare out at you from across the centuries in the fading pictures in the display cases — “Carpe Diem.” The Museum’s existence itself is a feel-good story of fan dedication — the brainchild of local restaurateur and North Carolina Hall of Fame inductee Lee Gliarmis and the many citizens and businesses he rallied to fund and create the exhibits on display — almost all of which consist of donated items from personal collections.
Seven special cabinets house memorabilia from North Carolina’s seven Hall of Famers, including Gaylord Perry, Catfish Hunter, and Enos Slaughter. Much like the second floor of the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum on Harker’s Island, the North Carolina Baseball Museum is the state’s attic of personal treasures related to all aspects of baseball in our state — and a terrific embodiment of the power that this game can have on people. (Special thanks to Eddie Boykin for showing me around the Museum today and for pointing out details I might have missed on my own.)
John Feinstein contends that, unlike most other sports, baseball provides a home, at some level, for everyone who wants to play, and all of the teams and the communities that hosted them across the years that are highlighted in the Museum drive that point home. Without a doubt, some players are initially less open than others to being assigned to a level lower than major league, but once they get to their minor league teams they invariably discover that they are home. This is a game that not only accommodates players who are not major-league quality but also encourages them to participate. No other sport has so well-developed a network of professional opportunities. Certainly not football, and the NBA’s developmental league is too fledgling to even begin to compete with baseball. Some might argue that hockey approaches this level of openness, but I think its reach is more regional.
Walt Whitman — of all people — was right (see yesterday’s lead quote): Baseball is the Everyman sport of our country, and that is clearly on display in places like Five County Stadium and the Museum, home to so many once and future heroes, famous and forgotten alike. A plaque on the wall at the Museum lists all of the North Carolina communities — some of which no longer exist, having been absorbed by surrounding larger towns — shows just how broad and deep the reach of this sport has been in North Carolina, and also suggests just how deep the roots run that likely will keep baseball a fixture of our cultural fabric long after other sports-of-the-moment fade into distant memory.
Lynchburg 2, Carolina 0. As Feinstein notes in his book on minor league baseball, an ERA of around 4.00 in the minors is a good mark, so seeing a no-hitter through 7 is even more of a rarity in minor league baseball than it is in the majors. And tonight, The Hillcats’ Jayson Julio Aquino was more than up to the task for most of the night. A few nifty outfield catches helped to preserve his no-hitter, but overall, he was dominant on the mound until Carolina finally broke through with three straight singles in the 8th. A double-play ended the Mudcats threat, however. Two Mudcats recorded very nice put-outs of their own in the 3rd and 4th, however, to limit the Hillcats’ damage. Kudos to 2nd baseman Reed Harper and right fielder Conner Lien for difficult grabs.
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Tonight’s beer: The only North Carolina brew on hand was Foothills, and since I have featured them a few times already this week, I took a bit of a detour and sampled a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I know, I know — not a North Carolina beer. But, as many of you know, and as some of you have pointed out, Sierra Nevada now operates a brewery in North Carolina, so, while not technically a North Carolina beer, it’s still part of our state’s brew culture now. The pale ale was surprisingly creamy, with hints of banana — much like a wheat beer, but with less carbonation.