Several weeks before the tour began, I received a message from the Hickory Crawdads requesting that, if possible, I shift the date for my appearance there. I checked with several other teams in North Carolina where I was scheduled to perform during that week and learned that it would not be possible to change any of their dates to accommodate the Crawdads’ request.
The Crawdads’ problem—and now mine—was this: The Monday morning game in Hickory would be the team’s school day promotion during the final week of classes before summer vacation. The team expected about 20 elementary and middle schools to send busloads of students to the late morning game.
While the Crawdads indicated that they would like to honor their commitment to me, they also wanted to feature a local school group to perform the anthem. From nearby Newton in Catawba County, the Balls Creek Elementary School chorus stood ready to sing. The students at Balls Creek have a tradition of community involvement and social responsibility that is remarkable. In the past decade, they have raised over $100K for the American Heart Association in their annual Jump Rope for Heart event.
Not wanting to break the hearts of these fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders, I suggested to the Crawdads that the choir join me in singing the anthem. The school’s music director, Jennifer McNeely, was quite pleased to have us share the opportunity to sing the anthem for the game. For the first and only time on my tour, then, I was able to count on support from good singers who knew the words.
Before the game, Conrad the Crawdads’ mascot also enjoyed interacting with members of the choir, giving them high-five hand slaps after he had teased the school librarian while she was taking their picture. Thankfully, he didn’t try to harmonize with them using his crustacean voice.
|Conrad the Crawdad gives the Balls Creek librarian claw ears.|
|Then Conrad hand-slaps the chorus members.|
The Balls Creek schoolmates created quite an enthusiastic climate for us. They cheered and clapped when the choir was introduced, and although the microphones had trouble picking up their joyful sounds, it was apparent that they are excellent musicians. And most of the students standing in the bleachers joined with us in singing our allegiance.
|A measure of fan enthusiasm.|
Although baseball has historically been quite popular in North Carolina, Hickory’s fielding of a professional team is a relatively recent development. Prior to 1993, the team had played in Gastonia and had been affiliated with the Texas Rangers. In that year a group of citizens in Hickory succeeded in relocating and renaming the team, in part by constructing the L. P. Franz Stadium, which is named for two of the civic leaders and baseball lovers. The community’s enthusiastic support of the team is evident in the ballpark, not merely by the presence of the fans but also by the number of local advertisements on the outfield wall. The right field alone displays more than thirty billboard ads.
|Right field's display of local ads.|
|The first hit.|
Two pre-game ceremonies also were distinct at Hickory. Unlike other ballparks, there were no first pitches, a practice that has expanded at so many ballparks that it now often includes half a dozen or more “first” pitches, making that phrase an oxymoron. Instead of tossing a pitch toward home plate, a child was offered the chance to crush the first hit by smacking a ball off a tee near the Crawdads’ dugout. And another child was given the chance to paint home plate white. Under the supervision of the groundskeeper, then, the official painter for the day could complete the final act of field preparation.
|Preparing home plate.|
When Hickory's lead-off hitter stepped into the batters box, the children began the rhythmic chanting and clapping of a pep rally: “Let’s go Crawdads.” Clap, clap, clap, clap. “Let’s go Crawdads.” Clap, clap, clap, clap. Amplified by the tiered formation of the seats and the hard surfaces of the stands, the enthusiastic noise encouraged the Crawdads, who scored early and often. To the delight of all the fans, Hickory built a ten-run lead before settling for a 10-3 victory over the Lakewood BlueClaws.