Monday, May 21, 2012

Who's Intimidated? Game 45 in Kannapolis

After starting a North Carolina week in the Smokey Mountains before spending several days along the stretch of I-40 from Durham to Winston-Salem, I turned back toward the Charlotte area where Kannapolis provided my final stop in the state.  During my Tar Heel tour I had sung for teams in the Carolina League, the International League, the Eastern League, and the South Atlantic or Sally League (as it was popularly known some years ago).  And if the Appalachian League had begun its short season schedule by this time, I would have added another team or two.  Burlington had approved me to sing; but, alas, they wouldn’t begin play for another two weeks.
In sequence: Asheville, Charlotte, Hickory, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Durham, Kannapolis.
Simply and thoroughly, I resonate with the Tar Heel region, not merely because of its baseball skeleton.  While I love the landscape—the comforting haze snuggling down among the Blue Ridge mountains and the hardwood forests hugging the rolling hills—I get inspired by the state’s traditions of folk art, its celebration of multiple musical styles, and its passion for sports.  In fact, I could easily have been a North Carolina native.   My oldest sister was born in this state while my father had been on the faculty at Meredith College in Raleigh.  But before I was born he left the professorate to assume a pastorate in Mississippi, from whence my roots spread more easily to his deep, deep family ties in Western Kentucky.

Across its varied terrain, a sporting spirit characterizes the Tar Heel state, especially during spring and summer.  The spring’s sports-obsession begins with ACC basketball and March Madness, which almost always features Duke or North Carolina in the Final Four, not to mention that NC State, Wake Forest, and Davidson excel in roundball.  And NASCAR’s circuit, which revs up with the Daytona 500 shortly before the NCAA basketball playoffs, traces its roots and rapid growth to the mountain regions of North Carolina, for whom the stock car fascination provides its pulse.

As much as Daytona, Darlington, and Bristol lure racing fans to desirable NASCAR destinations, Kannapolis in North Carolina is probably the true Mecca for the most fervent stock car devotees.  For it was in this historic mill town dominated by the textile industry that Dale Earnhardt was born, and throughout surrounding Cabarrus County dozens of NASCAR teams have their headquarters.  It should not be too surprising that the Kannapolis minor league team is known as the Intimidators, taking their name from Earnhardt’s moniker.

It is fitting, then, that one of the Intimidator’s race cars—a “Number 3” black Chevy donated by the Earnhardt Foundation—guides most fans from the parking lot to the front gate at the Fieldcrest Cannon ballpark, so named to recognize the historic significance of the textile magnate for the area’s economy. 

Despite the move of most fans toward Number 3, other young fans found a remote corner of the parking lot to their liking for a game of catch, exercising their own pre-game warm-ups. 

While NASCAR certainly dominates the region, North Carolina still enjoys a summer love affair with baseball.  The state was the home of Enos “Country” Slaughter and Catfish Hunter, Hall of Famers among the hundreds of Tar Heel players who have become Major League all stars, and it routinely boasts the most varied slate of minor league teams of any state.  If you count Charlotte’s Knight’s among the North Carolina teams—the Knights actually play their home games a few miles south of the state line in South Carolina—the state features nine affiliated minor league franchises, fielding teams in all five levels of minor league play.
During childhood, I enjoyed learning about geographic regions by locating clusters of teams in aptly named leagues like the New York-Penn League or the Texas League or the South Atlantic League.  But since Kannapolis was set to play the Delmarva Shorebirds, whose home is in Salisbury, Maryland, I cringed at the geographic conflict between the team’s location and the League’s historic identity.  Even so, the acceptance of a team from Maryland’s eastern shore in the so-called South Atlantic League is less egregious than the League’s inclusion of the Lakewood Blue Claws, whose northerly home in New Jersey at least peers toward the Atlantic, while the League’s landlocked Lexington Legends’ home ballpark is a two-hour flight from the nearest ocean shore.

The discomfort of my final Carolina afternoon was not caused simply by Sally’s geographic indifference.  Kannapolis tried to intimidate the Shorebirds with such hot and humid conditions that even Earnhardt’s Number 3 sweated profusely, or so it appeared since its black skin glistened like a middle-reliever facing a clean-up hitter with the bases loaded and none out.  Other than the gleaming black shell of Earnhardt’s Chevy, the most impressive aspect of the ballpark happened to be the men’s restroom, which features nineteen urinals, twelve stalls, and a dozen sinks; alas, despite that name of the ballpark, there were no hand-towels with labels from Fieldcrest or Cannon.
The miserable conditions of the afternoon were further intensified by the bleating sun that blistered all but two rows of seats directly in front of the press box; so I sought pre-game refuge in the air-conditioned gift shop where I resisted feeling intimidated by the barrage of team souvenir possibilities. 
While the grounds crew finishes pre-game prep, fans huddle in the only shade near the press box.

Leaving the comfort of the air-conditioned space, I made my way to the field where I needed to tiptoe past the dugout littered with tobacco wads.  Although Minor League Baseball forbids the use of tobacco products on the field, the dugout lip was stained with tobacco spit.  Even so, this was North Carolina, home of Tobacco Road and a different kind of Lucky Strike.  Awaiting the start of pre-game ceremonies, Intimidators play hackey-sack with baseballs, with the added challenge of keeping the pristine balls out of the the chaw debris. 

Kannapolis pitcher Dexter Carter and then takes time to learn new shooting techniques from team photographer Ray Marsden.

Nearing the half-way point in my anthem tour, I was surprised by two previously unheard comments about my project and performance from Intimidators’ personnel, while I was also reassured by a fan offering the most common response about my style.  I had grown somewhat accustomed—but still frustrated—to my frequent, minimal introduction, like today’s, as “Joe Price.”  Without the simple recognition of my affiliation with Whittier College or a brief description of the anthem tour, I often had found that ballpark staff members were unaware of my anthem efforts.  Especially in those cases I tried to inform the on-field host about the team’s participation in the project. 
Perhaps the fans thought that I was this "Joe"!
At Kannapolis, the pre-game staff’s ignorance about my project was most glaring.  Andrea, the anthem staff facilitator, was astonished to learn about my progress in singing the anthem at more than 100 minor league ballparks.   “All this season?” she queried.  “Have you got the dates set?”   I was dumbfounded.  How could she possibly comprehend the project since it had taken more than 300 hours work in the previous year to contact teams, secure approval from senior staff members, develop feasible routes, propose fitting dates, and confirm acceptance—all before driving the first mile in Arby or singing the first anthem in Florida.
The other comment was more affirming: As I walked past the Intimidators’ dugout after singing, manager Julio Vinas called out, “Good job again!”  Three days earlier he had heard me sing the anthem when the Intimidators had visited Greensboro, where they had stomped the Grasshoppers 9-3.  Today’s outcome would be even more decisive.  Perhaps Julio would like for me to intimidate their opponents more often!

Making my way then up the aisle behind the dugout, I was stopped by “Red,” a season ticket holder whose head of hair was fierier than the afternoon sun.  While I was making my way quickly toward the little shade, he grabbed my arm to make sure I heard: “Thank you, Joe.  Nothing funny, the way it’s s’posed to be.”

And that’s the way Kannapolis played baseball that afternoon: nothing funny; the way it’s supposed to be.  In the bottom of the first inning, the Intimidators certainly sought to exemplify their name.  Already leading 2-0 thanks to back-to-back doubles with two outs, Kannapolis placed runners on the corners.  While Delmarva’s pitcher Timothy Berry was coming to his set position in the stretch, Juan Silverio broke from third and slid across home plate before Berry could make a play.  But because Rafael Vera, the Kannapolis runner on first, tried a delayed steal of second, Berry whirled and threw to the shortstop, who nailed Vera before he reached the bag.  Although Silverio scored before Vera was tagged out, Silverio was not credited with the rare steal of home, which he had seemingly accomplished without a play.  

The mascot seemed more lovable than intimidating.
Like Silverio, the Intimidators’ starting pitcher Matthew Heidenreich did not get full credit for his season-best performance.  By the top of the fifth inning, the Intimidators had built a 9-0 lead.  But an out later, they were threatened, not by the flock of Shorebirds from Delmarva, but by rain.  A violent thunderstorm swept through the area, halting play for almost an hour.  During the downpour Heidenreich headed to the showers in the club house, thus losing his chance for a win in what would have been his five minutes and two outs later.  In more than four strong innings, he had given up a harmless single and a lone walk.  But because of the downpour before the end of the opponent’s fifth, he would go unrecognized with “no decision.”

While the grounds crew scurried to cover the field, I retreated past Earnhardt’s memorial and headed north back to Arby docked near Ashboro, driving Toad through intermittent driving rain that slowed traffic on Interstate 85 to the pace of a caution lap on a NASCAR track.
Former Intimidators who also made their way north on I-85, all the way to the Show.

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