For the past few nights, I’ve been watching Aaron Judge’s pursuit of the American League record for most homeruns in one season held by Roger Maris (61) and Babe Ruth (60). Cameras were not only following every at bat of Judge’s but also the expressions on his mom’s face as the moment might happen. Spectators and viewers got to know “Patty” wearing her Yankees jersey and seated with Roger Maris’s son, Roger Jr. I immediately loved her as she wore bangs like I do. I knew how many times I invested my emotions in my sports heroes during ebbs and flows. I could feel Patty’s pain when he struck out, her disappointment on the pop-ups and groundouts as well as the pride when her son finally tied Roger Maris’s record at 61 and then broke Maris’ record.
Last year when I started with the Carolina Mudcats, getting to know the families of the players was one of my favorite parts of my job in Guest Relations. The first parent I met was Christi Holt. She was nicely dressed and totally Southern Belle when she spoke. She bought several announcements for the big screen in centerfield. When she came back the following day, I said, “Oh, I see you’re back!” She smiled and replied, “My son Gabe plays for the team. We’re here from Georgia.” It was a fun time watching her grandson Lucas keep her very busy while in the Muddy the Mascot’s line at my podium. Mid-August, we went to an away game at Kinston playing Down East, the affiliate for the Texas Rangers. “Hey Gabe!” I yelled as he was coming to the dugout after warmups. He looked up and spotted my Mudcats baseball cap and grinned. It would be one of Gabe’s last games for the Mudcats. He was promoted to AA Biloxi later that week.
Toward the end of the first homestand, a man came my area behind home plate at the top of every inning and stood with his arms folded. Every once in a while, he would grunt and reposition his stance. It turned out that his son, Brandon Knarr, a lefty out of the University of Tampa, was pitching. Durl and his wife Dianne spent May and June at most of our Mudcats games. My most memorable (and fun) moment was an evening when both benches cleared. The fans were yelling and Dianne, who was in the restroom, could hear the play-by-play of the action by broadcaster Greg Young. She came running out. “Brandon had better not be out there in that mess!!” she exclaimed. I surveyed the empty dugout and bullpen; then looked at her and laughed. My husband and I drove to several away games when Brandon pitched and sat with the Knarrs. Durl would grumble anytime a batter would bunt on the first pitch against Brandon. As time went on, the lefty learned how to avoid those. I also got to know Brandon’s girlfriend, Vanderbilt swimmer Taylor Ward. She was tall and looked like a model; when she walked down the concourse, heads turned. Our last time to see Brandon pitch in person would be August 11 at Kinston. He threw 5 innings only giving up a run and striking out 7 before heading towards the clubhouse. After a few minutes, one of the Knarr’s phones dinged. Dianne started crying and then excitedly said, “Brandon is going to Wisconsin!!” By the next morning, they were enroute to Wisconsin in two cars with Brandon’s stuff and then on to Cedar Rapids to catch up with the team who was playing on the road.
One of the most exciting guys to watch bat was Joe Gray, Jr. out of Hattiesburg Mississippi. If you wanted to see homeruns, drop everything to see him at the plate. His dad was Joe Gray, Sr., a soft-spoken man who was easily spotted in the stadium because of his tall frame. Whenever Joe, Jr. hit a homerun, I would jaunt to the section over the dugout to share a high-five with his dad and Justin Finn, Joe Jr’s investment advisor from Portsmouth NH. Joe Jr. was promoted to High A, the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers two days after the 4th of July.
Ashton McGee was one of our “local” players coming out of the University of North Carolina and from Goldsboro which was less than an hour’s drive to the ballpark. I first met his dad Darren when he came to my area to watch Ashton bat. “OK, which player belongs to you?” I asked. One evening in June the crowd watched with concern as Ashton crumpled to the ground after getting hit by a pitch. His mom Theresa was already almost to the clubhouse by the time he was taken off the field. He missed a little over a week. We enjoyed his bat until late August when he joined other former Mudcats in Appleton.
Noah Campbell was another “local” player who played college ball at South Carolina and his parents, Darin and Amy, lived north of Raleigh. They were regulars at both home and away games. Amy spent a lot of time getting her steps in on fast walks on the concourse. I begged her to take my Fitbit since it is hard to get steps in the small area I work. She laughed. Noah was the go-to position player when the bullpen had been depleted. He pitched in 4 games and was even credited with one save, but his ERA came to 8.10. He thrilled the fans at one of last games playing all nine positions – something I had never witnessed in baseball!
In August, University of Louisville sensation Alex Binelas who had been drafted the month before, was promoted from the rookie league to the Mudcats. My husband Rick, who was ushering on the 3rd base side, met his mom Amy first when she asked if she could move down to get pictures of her son playing 3rd base. Amy loved to shop so I saw a lot of her as The Bait Box souvenir shop was across from my stand. One very hot Sunday afternoon, Amy walked by my podium drinking out of a can. “Oh! You must have one of these!! It’s like eating strawberries!!” So off I went to a cart right around the corner. The gal working the cart I had never seen before. “I’d like that drink that tastes like strawberries please.” She pulled a can out of the ice and said, “That will be $6.00.” “Wow, that’s high, but then again, it’s ballpark concessions with French fries almost as much,” I thought to myself. When I got back to my area, I popped the lid. I could smell the strawberries. As I raised the can to my lips, a co-worker yelled, “Oh my God! That’s alco…..” Before she could finish the word, the one swig was spraying back out of my mouth!” Everyone was laughing except me … the retired manager and supervisor of flight attendants!! I was mortified and ran to my boss to tell him what I had done. After the game, I met Amy in the parking lot. She choked in laughter. “Oh! I’m sorry! I thought you knew!” We still laugh about it!
After the past week watching Patty Judge, I wonder if any of my parent friends from the Mudcats 2021 season will get to experience such a momentous ride as Patty Judge did. I sure hope so and how proud I will feel to have been a small part in their son’s quest for baseball greatness!!
I met “Vass” last September when he was a starting pitcher with the Carolina Mudcats, an A level team for the Milwaukee Brewers. It was after the game and the long-haired Venezuelan, dressed in normal clothes, was getting into a car with a couple, Julie and Rick, who were his “North Carolina family.” My car was parked next to theirs. I timidly asked him if I could take a picture. “Sure!” and he turned his cap to where the brim was facing back. As I raised my camera, he quickly motioned me to him and said, “Selfie?”
The next time I saw Michele was during warm-ups when Mudcats ball resumed this April. I watched as he took tosses. He appeared to have lost weight since last year and his long locks were gone! I leaned over the rail as he headed towards the clubhouse. “Hey! Vassalotti!!! Remember me?” He laughed and replied, “Of course! You called me a wild pitcher last year!” I couldn’t deny it, but it was meant as a compliment as I was comparing him to a friend who pitched in the 80s and 90s – former Olympian and Major League Pitcher Bobby Witt.
Michele’s appearance not only had changed, but his pitching as well. Instead of being a starter, he was throwing in the relief role. It was a brilliant transformation for him. His stats were outstanding this season – 9 wins, 2 losses and 7 saves in 33 games. His walks improved from last year’s 60 to only 24 this season. According to a scout during one of our series, Vassalotti has one of the best sliders in the minors. “It’s nasty and players dread facing him. They know it’s coming; they just don’t know when and the result is usually a strikeout.” The fans loved him in the relief role as evidenced by the cheers whenever he came in to pitch.
I met up with Michele recently in Myrtle Beach during the last away series for the Carolina Mudcats. It was there I discovered the personal side of the relief pitcher while we ate a late-morning brunch. Spanish is his primary language. I was envious of his command of the English language which he learned by talking to Americans. I had two years of high school French and I ended up in a Paris parking garage when asking for directions to a subway! That would never happen to Vassalotti.
He began his professional baseball journey on June 9th, 2017 when the Brewers signed him to a minor league contract. After stints in the Arizona Complex League Brewers and Dominican Summer League play, he was promoted to the Helena Brewers (2018) and the Rocky Mountain Vibes (2019) Rookie League. In 2017, when he pitched for Team Italy, he found himself in Thunder Bay, Canada – a place known for its high winds. Not exactly the ideal climate for a pitcher with evening temperatures in the 50s and low 60s! One can describe “Vass” as a well-rounded athlete also participating in basketball, soccer and bowling with athletic training squeezed in on the side.
I was curious what happened with him in April of 2020 when Minor League baseball was cancelled due to COVID-19. There he was, not even twenty years old, over three-thousand flight miles from his parents in Venezuela and the borders were closed. He stayed in Arizona for a couple months and then moved to Florida to live with a close friend. He stayed there four months until the Arizona Instructional League re-opened. In January 2021, it was off to Australia to play for Brisbane Bandits, a professional baseball team in Brisbane, Queensland.
When Minor League Baseball started back up in May of 2021 in an abbreviated post-COVID-19 schedule, players weren’t allowed to live with host families so the comforts of a “home” did not happen. Instead, they shared hotel rooms with other players. Schedules were also changed to playing six games straight against the same team with Mondays off. For several months, players were not allowed to sign autographs for fans or stand in close proximity to them. Spitting sunflower seeds was a no-no.
Life for a minor league player is quite different than one in the majors. With the exception of long plane rides while with the Brisbane Bandits or when playing for Team Italy, Michele has endured long bus rides to and from the away cities. Some of the hotels are miles from the city so DoorDash for food and Ubering to places are a way of life. While the team is at “home,” life is living with a host family or sharing an apartment with other players.
Just like fans, Michele has his favorite players who play or played in the majors. “Mad Max” (Scherzer) was his immediate response followed by former Brewers now Padres Josh Hader, former Hall of Famers Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera as well as 4-time All-Star Troy Percival.
As our brunch came to a close, I still had one important question for him — if you couldn’t play for the Brewers, what team would it be, hoping he would say Boston Red Sox. He grinned. “You are not going to like my answer ‘Lotta — the New York Yankees.” “Oh Vassalotti!! You just broke my heart!”
Pronunciation – Michele (Mee-kay-lay) Vassalotti (Vass-a-low-tee)
In the afternoon, we headed to the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum. We were more than familiar with the route as it was located off the first base side of the ballpark. When we got to where the building was supposed to be, we instead found a construction area! There were no signs of a museum so I searched through my phone. We were at the correct address. I called the number for the museum. It was not operating because of the construction! The trip was not wasted as we checked out the menus and hours on several restaurants between the ballpark and hotel. We ended up eating again at Mac’s.
While waiting for the gates to open at Fluor Field, we noticed more frustrated women being sent back to cars with their purses. After all the walking at the park, I was thankful my rejection was the night before. While waiting to get the tickets scanned, I watch the woman in front of me. She had a clear bag the size of a backpack crammed full with several sunscreen tubes, juice boxes, baseballs, baseball caps and large bottle of hand sanitizer. The guy scanning waved her through. No problem going in! As for me, I had to empty my pockets!
As we started down the concourse, Rick had a Boxer sighting. The dog was running around the field and looked just like Jake when he was younger. By the time we got down there, he was by home plate playing with a brown dog and several of the workers. One of the guys on the field said he was a stray the team had adopted and named “Muda” like in Bermuda minus the “Ber.” Right on cue, Muda came closer to us and posed in a perfect stance. It was short-lived just as Jake’s are. Chasing after baseballs was much more fun for the pup.
Our seats were more towards home plate and right at the on-deck circle. The pitching for Bowling Green again stifled the team – even worse than the previous night. Greenville batters struck out ten times and mustered only five hits. Alex and Nick Yorke, a #3 prospect, were the only scores with a homerun each. The outcome of the game was brutal with Bowling Green over The Drive 13 – 2! I talked to Alex after the game and he thanked us for our support. Little did we know this would be the last time we would see him in a Drive uniform. Alex was promoted the next day to the AA Portland Seadogs! It was the perfect ending to a great mini-vacation!
The next morning the free “abbreviated” breakfast at the hotel didn’t look too exciting so we decided to try a place highly rated in our guide. Rather than ask for directions, I loaded the name in my phone and we proceeded on the route. It first took us in a big circle BACK to the hotel so we started over and discovered the same street had three different names! We climbed a couple of hills, crossed a bridge and the walk turned out to be 25 minutes instead of the 10 originally projected.
Breakfast was awesome at the Maple Street Biscuit Company. When you ordered, you had to give them the name of a song to call your order. Neither one of us could think of anything and finally I said, “On the road again.” I should have done, “Take me out to the ball game.” So, we’re sitting there among several families with baseball players (There was a college tournament in town.) and we hear, “On the road again, here’s your juice!” Then 5 minutes later, “On the road again, here’s the rest of your order.” We laughed all during our meal at some of the songs people picked. I had a waffle that was great and my order of bacon was 9 pieces (although menu showed 6!)!! The OJ was fresh-squeezed. We were almost finished and we hear, “On the road again, your order is ready!” A group of kids with a chaperon close to our age answered to that one.
After breakfast, we walked along Main St and went into several shops. It reminded me of my layovers in Germany. The park entrance was on Main St and we could see our hotel a block away. We discovered we had made a huge circle around town getting to breakfast. The falls were beautiful and despite signs everywhere about not going in the river or walking on rocks, people were doing it. Furman College was adjacent to the park and several of their buildings overlooked the park. We walked hills and several bridges and were entertained by a retriever out in the water playing fetch with his owner on the shore. As we were heading out of the park, a tour group rode by us on two-wheeled bikes. “Please stay on the trail. There are snakes in the park. The poisonous ones are in the river,” the tour guide announced. My eyes were like saucers!
To be continued
And then began saga number two! It was 15 mins after the gates had opened. One of the workers stopped me – “You can’t take that purse in; it’s oversized.” I had already checked their site for purse requirements, BUT they had changed the size that morning!!! “You can’t come in with the purse. You need to take it to your car.” “We walked here! Are you saying I have to walk back to the hotel?!?!?!?” “Yes. The purse is too big.” (It was 4″x6″ and was previously allowed!) Only a small clutch 3″ x 5″ – basically a wallet or clear bag now allowed! I could only think of all my years as a flight attendant and in management accommodating customers under extenuating circumstances – like allowing a small window for a major change until word got out. Times have changed. I started a quick walk passing Amy enroute quickly telling her what was happening. Rick and I weaved through fans coming to the game for the half mile walk back to the hotel. Rick sat on a bench a block from the hotel while I hiked up a small hill and around the corner. It was one of those crazy elevators where you had to swipe with your room key to go to your floor. Third time was a charm. I crammed my phone, room key, map of city, paper ticket sheet (in case I couldn’t retrieve the tickets off phone the way my luck was running), tiny hand sanitizer bottle, Kleenex in pockets (Thank God I had four pockets! Obviously, the person who made the rule was male and didn’t know the majority of ladies pants come with one pocket if one is lucky!) and stuck my credit card/ID in a tiny holder on a Mudcats lanyard I wear at work and had thankfully thrown in the suitcase! There was no room left for the Canon SureShot camera which jams half the time anyway. As I was leaving the hotel, the valet guy who knew we had gone to ballpark asked why I was back. I quickly told him about the bag deal and suggested that he alert others going. He said, “WOW! That’s ridiculous! What’s a girl supposed to do with a tampon!?” I started laughing and said — “Have no clue! It’s been 22 years!!” And off I went!
Rick and I got back to ballpark with 9 mins to spare. They were still turning away women!! Several had Uber’d and they were very unhappy!! It was a beautiful summer evening for a ballgame. Our $11 seats were behind the dugout so I could yell at the players in the on-deck circle. Modeled after Fenway Park, a 30-foot replica of the “”Green Monster” (pronouced “Monstah” by diehards) was past leftfield along with a hand-operated scoreboard. Sweet Caroline was sung by the fans in the middle of the 8th inning. It was just as if we were at Fenway Park in Boston. Alex smacked a double to the base of the “Green Monster.” That was the biggest action of the game and sadly the team only had two hits losing 4 – 0 to Bowling Green. We met up with Alex after the game and Amy took my picture with him. He grinned and said, “I like your shirt.” I was wearing my Boston Red Sox Ortiz shirt.
With the Carolina Mudcats team away two weeks straight, where else would someone like me go for a mini-vacation but a ballpark! Greenville South Carolina had been on my radar as it was home to the Boston Red Sox High-A team The Drive and it was less than a five-hour car trip – all interstate. According to Brian Hopkins, a scout for the Cardinals, tree-lined city streets, Reedy River Falls and Fluor Field, home to the team, were must-sees and all within walking distance of the downtown hotels. Icing on the cake was one of our former Mudcats had been traded to Boston in the offseason and was playing for The Drive – Alex Binelas.
Of course, downtown hotels don’t come cheap, but after reflecting on our limitations going anywhere during COVID, it was an easy sell. I was able to get a lower rate thanks to being a Hilton member, a “senior” and agreeing to a non-refundable status for cancellation less than a week out. The location of the Hampton Inn River Place was perfect – steps away from the falls, restaurants, historic district and a half a mile from the ballpark. I made the reservation while praying for good weather and Alex not being promoted.
As with almost everything I do, there is usually some type of saga to make things interesting. This mini-vacation was no exception. We got the car loaded up with the luggage, cooler with lunch, two-rev’ed up Boxers and their stuff for boarding. I was making one last check of lights and locks and I hear expletives coming from the garage. It must be Jake misbehaving I told myself as I had visions of the quilt stuffing, he tried to eat on the way to Santa a few years ago. Not that lucky. My battery was dead! We unloaded the dogs and then debated if it was faster to take Rick’s gas-guzzler or try to jump the car and then get the battery replaced at the auto parts place. Rick opted to change clothes, remove the old battery, drive to Auto Zone for a new battery, drive home, install the new battery, change clothes again and get all loaded up again. Amazingly, we were under way only an hour and a half later. I mumbled something about why a car with so many bells and whistles doesn’t have an indicator to let one know the battery is low. “It does. The car will start and then die a few times,” Rick tells me. “Oh.” I almost didn’t dare tell him that it did exactly that the day before. I should have been allowed to take Auto Mechanics in High School instead of stupid Home Economics learning (not) cooking and sewing!
When we arrived in Greenville, downtown was exactly as Brian described, except he left off the part about one-way streets and streets with multiple names! Between the car GPS and my Smartphone, we did finally find the hotel despite each offering a different way. We had an hour to kill before heading out to early dinner. Rick looked for restaurant listings while I watched General Hospital. Between the hotel and ballpark were several restaurants but most didn’t open until 5. In the Places to Go booklet, Rick found a recommended BBQ called Mac’s Speed Shop a block from the ballpark. We could eat and go straight to the game.
Getting there was easy. The hotel was a block off and a half off Main St. We passed through the historic district and saw several restaurants all closed until 5PM. Once at Mac’s, we were seated across from the bar at a high table with high seats. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” Rick exclaimed. I looked at him and asked what was wrong. On our tabletop was a large QR square to scan for the menu. I was saving my battery for game pictures and videos; Rick – well, he still insists on having his flip phone. Two minutes later we were perusing a real menu as were most patrons seated after us. When will restaurants understand that they will sell a lot more food and drinks if people didn’t have to squint at their phones while scrolling up and down?
As we were waiting on our food, I spotted a guy at the bar wearing an Alex Binelas Louisville jersey. I texted Alex’s mom Amy and said, “There’s a guy at the restaurant we’re at. He’s wearing an Alex Binelas jersey.” (Last August Louisville sensation Binelas who had been drafted the month before, was promoted from the rookie league to the Mudcats. Rick and I had met Amy when she, husband Pete and daughter Athena came from Wisconsin to see Alex play in his first minor league games. Getting to know the families of the players is one of my favorite parts of my job in Guest Relations.) Amy answered my text – “That’s Bobby! Alex’s best friend!” It turned out that Bobby was there with them eating out on the patio. We visited briefly before Rick and I headed across to the street to the ballpark.
To be continued
Funny how life throws curve balls and it was only discovered thanks to a rain postponement of our Carolina Mudcats game. Instead of working, I was home watching the sports and heard that in a couple of days, the Division II College Playoffs and Championship would be played in Cary NC, only twenty-five minutes from my home. As I googled the teams playing, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Southern New Hampshire was the number seven seed. I had interviewed their ace Alex Gomes two years ago when he played summer ball in the New England Collegiate Baseball League for the North Adams Steeplecats.
It turned into a long day between my job for the minor league team (only when you have something going on later, do they go on long inning sprees and a delay for bench clearing!) and going to Southern New Hampshire’s game. I battled two heavy rain showers between the two ballparks. When I got to Cary, the weather was gorgeous, but the first game with Angelo State and Wingate was running late due a weather delay. The game ended at 6:45PM (forty-five mins after the scheduled start of Southern New Hampshire and second-seeded Seton Hill game). They rescheduled the second game to an 8PM start. The teams were already there resting on a grassy hill so I’m not sure why the much later start.
I was initially told at the field that SNH would be on visitors’ side and their dugout would be on 3rd base side. It was a perfect location as I had a seat right over the dugout and adjacent to the bullpen so I knew I would be able to yell to Alex. They ended up on the 1st base side so I moved over. Unfortunately, on that side, the bleachers above the dugout were roped off except to coaches for the other teams who were there scouting and inactive players. I was able to get word to him through the first base coach so he did wave my direction from the dugout.
The game itself was a nail biter with the SNH Penmen scoring first, but the number two seed came back with vengeance and were leading by the fourth inning. SNH would not be denied and thanks to a hit-by-pitch, steal and a wild pitch, they tied the game with two outs in the sixth. An error by the Penmen in the eighth with two outs assured Seton Hill of a 4 – 3 win.
Two days later was Southern New Hampshire facing sixth seed Wingate. Like the Penmen, the Bulldogs had already lost their first game to Angelo State. The winner of this game would move on in the tournament and the season would end for the loser. Wingate had a fan base which had driven the two and half hours from the Charlotte area and appeared to engulf the ballpark. A pretty good contingent of SNH fans, who we cheered with during game one, scattered near the third base area where the Penmen’s dugout was.
A familiar face began pre-game stretches in the outfield. I guess you could call it a two-days early birthday present. Gomes was the starting pitcher for Southern New Hampshire. He came into the tournament with six wins and zero losses. Alex still had the brunette curly hair and the boyish grin I witnessed two years ago. When he took to the mound, his six-foot three-inch frame commanded respect. As he threw, his right leg was extended and nearly parallel to the playing field. Imagine Dragons’ “Whatever It Takes” blared over the PA system. His determined demeanor was like a racehorse as referenced in the lyrics.
The game stayed knotted at zero until the fifth inning when the “can’t get the third out” reared its ugly head again as Wingate scored two runs on Alex and the defense. Apparently, Coach Loiseau hadn’t given up on his starting pitcher as Gomes returned in the sixth inning and shut the Bulldogs down. Despite the blemish of the two runs, Alex’s start was very good. In his six innings, he gave up seven hits, seventy-one of his hundred and five pitches were strikes and he had eight strikeouts, one walk and a wild pitch. Once out of the game, Alex donned a blue towel on his head and cheered his team on each inning. It was not until the bottom of the ninth that there was any offense by the Penmen. Wingate prevailed 3 – 2 and went on to win the championship a few days later.
After the game, Gomes walked alone to the outfield and stood out there for a few minutes, then returned to the dugout. His catcher, Marcus Chavez, tried to take his arm. Alex shrugged him off and continued walking. Unlike the previous summers, he has not shown as playing collegiate baseball. Perhaps it was the end of the road for the right-hander. I hope not.
It was Summer of 2019. Having survived the major move in the spring, it was time to venture out and see what North Carolina had to offer. My new friend Sandy knew my love of sports, especially baseball. She had read all my blog posts starting with the baseball ones. Her husband had played minor league ball. “Carlotta, have you been to a Mudcats game?” I explained to Sandy that we had been to some Durham Bulls games when the Paw Sox were in town. However, the drive to the ball park was during afternoon work traffic leaving Raleigh and my nerves were shot by the time we got there. Parking was also challenging. After talking to Sandy, I pulled up the Mudcats schedule. As luck would have it, the Red Sox’s Advanced-A league would be playing the Mudcats in August!
It was a nice country drive over to Zebulon with the worst of the traffic leaving our town. Suddenly I spotted a huge baseball tower on the horizon. The parking attendant acknowledged Rick’s handicapped placard and directed us to parking closer to the stadium. Families were milling near the gate; kids with their gloves hoping to take home a souvenir fly ball. Our tickets were affordable and our seats were fantastic – front row next to the visiting dugout at the end where the players came out of the dugout to the on-deck circle. We could see the players waiting and lineup swings as the pitcher threw to the player batting. I smiled at the bat boy intent on his important job and wondered if years from now he would instead be in the on deck circle.
Game 1 los Pescados de Carolina (Carolina Mudcats) (it was Hispanic theme night) rallied to defeat the Salem Red Sox 6-4. The Salem Manager and a pitcher were ejected after the pitcher hit a Mudcats player. Game 2 ‘s pre-game, I had noticed fans gathered at the right field corner gate greeting players coming from the clubhouse into right field for warmups. I joined them and spotted one of the players I had talked to Game 1. I yelled to him that I had called his 7th inning home-run the night before. “Really? Why didn’t you do it sooner?” We both laughed.
Our tickets were behind home plate. Lots of action with a Mudcats player getting drilled again by a wild pitch — the game stopped while he was tended to. Then while going after a foul ball, the Sox catcher was down a few minutes after his shin guards jammed into the wall right in front of us! It was great seeing the pitches coming in and hearing the home plate umpire call balls and strikes, but I missed the seats by the dugout. Salem shut out the Mudcats 3 -0 putting series even at 1 each.
Game 3 was an afternoon game and when I first got the tickets, I got second level seats. When I realized our seats would be in the direct sun, I ventured back to the main level. It was still a few minutes before game time and I saw lines at the ticket booth outside. One of the workers must have spotted my dejected look. “May I help you?” When I explained how I wanted to upgrade the tickets, he told me that I didn’t need to go back outside and directed me to an area behind home plate. The exchange was quickly accomplished and we were in our seats before the first pitch. We were next to the dugout like the first night and even stayed in the shade until the 9th inning. There was excitement in the 7th when the manager and catcher for the Mudcats were thrown out of the game! The Salem Red Sox won 4 – 1.
It was a fun three days. On the way home, I made a mental note for my bucket list — already a washtub as Rick claims– to check into working there the following year – 2020. Well, as we know, that didn’t happen. With the COVID shutdown, the Minor Leagues were put on hiatus while the Majors played a limited season with only a taxi squad close to the team’s city so players could get there quickly and safely if they needed to replace players.
Thankfully, things are getting back to almost normal — the minor leagues are back and I did not forget my bucket list entry. When I was contacted about an interview, there was momentary panic as I remembered the jeans, T-shirts and athletic shoes filling my closet. I settled on flowered Capri pants, short-sleeved black top with lightweight cardigan and yellow-gold flats. All went very well and it looks like I’ll be one part of the Mudcats organization! Most of all, I am looking forward to a fun summer helping fans feel part of the experience and of course, checking off that bucket list item!
This column runs in the Winter 2020/2021 issue of Heart Beat of the Texas Hill Country
As I write this column, the first week of the College Football Playoff rankings are on TV. The committee convenes weekly through mid-December in Grapevine, Texas to chose the top 25 football teams and also assign those teams to the major bowl events including four teams who duke it out for the National Championship in January. I smiled as I thought about the bowl games I have attended.
It was New Year’s Eve Day in 1969. I was a sophomore at the University of Houston. I worked part-time as a desk clerk and switchboard operator at the Holiday Inn on the Gulf Freeway at Wayside Drive. The hotel was booked full of Auburn fans as well as their cheerleaders who were in town to attend the Bluebonnet Bowl at the Astrodome. Now this wasn’t just any bowl game; it was my #17 Houston Cougars playing #12 Auburn.
While checking in one group, one guy inquired, “Do you allow pets?” I assumed he meant a dog so I replied, “As long as we know they are in there and as long as you clean up after your pet.” While I retrieved a dog marker for the room card, another guy said, “Thanks for letting us have War Eagle in the room. Would you like a free ticket to the game?” It turned out that I had just checked in the Auburn mascot! Yes, I had just checked in an eagle – a real, live eagle!! And, more importantly, I was getting to go to the Bluebonnet Bowl – free!
My seat was on the 50-yard line on the mezzanine level. There I was, decked out in my scarlet red and white, amidst a sea of orange and blue clothed fans screaming their battle cry, “War Eagle!!” Houston, which was an Independent, was considered very much the underdog to the SEC opponent. Because my dorm was across the street from Baldwin House which housed the athletes and through classes, I had friends on the team – Gary Mullins, Robert Newhouse, Elmo Wright, Earl Thomas, Riley Odoms, Leroy Fisher and Butch Brezina. That night, the Houston Cougars shocked the nay-sayers and upset the Auburn Tigers 36 – 7! It was thrilling to see Coach Bill Yeoman carried off the field by Butch and Ken Bailey as Cougar faithful sang the fight song!
Ten years later, a friend who taught ROTC at the University of Houston gave me his tickets to the Cotton Bowl where the #9 Cougars, that season’s Southwest Conference Champions, were playing #10 Notre Dame. At the time, I was still on reserve as a flight attendant for Delta and after finding it impossible to get New Year’s Day off, I gave the tickets to my brother. I was called by IAH operations for a 1:40 AM sign-in New Year’s morning. It was a turnaround to Atlanta and back. I was elated! I would be back in time to at least watch the game. It turned out to be a blessing that I didn’t get to go. Dallas had an ice storm on December 31st and my brother ended up watching the game from his hotel room. At the game, temperatures were in the mid-twenties! Notre Dame quarterback Joe Montana was sick with the flu. Despite this, he rallied Notre Dame in the final minutes and they beat Houston 35 – 34.
There would be two other bowl games for me. In 2012, we drove to Dallas to watch the Cougars face Penn State in the Ticket City Bowl. That day was cold and saw me adding my long underwear after we parked the car. We saw Case Keenam explode with 532 passing yards and lead Houston to a 30 – 14 win.
The other game was sheer torture to be at and it wasn’t because of weather. In 2018, Army routed the Cougars 70 – 14 at the Armed Forces Bowl in Ft. Worth. Each time Army scored; the cadets would do pushups in the end zone near us. Needless to say, we saw a lot of calisthenics!
This column runs in the Fall 2020 issue of Heart Beat of the Texas Hill Country
Summer 2020 continued to be a crazy period for sports while each entity tried to put together safe plans to resume play despite outbreaks in COVID-19. Gone were the TV reruns of every Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Championship and College Championship. Even the most avid fan was tired of the same endings, but willing to watch anything for the fix.
NBA Basketball proved to be the most creative and successful as twenty-two teams were invited to the “Bubble” – a closed to the public, hotel complex in Orlando where each team was sequestered at a hotel and only allowed to go back and forth to the arena to play. Families of the players were not allowed from Mid-July until the end of August during the second round of the playoffs.
Professional Hockey followed a bubble concept also except they had two bubbles, both in Canada. Twenty-four teams, the best twelve out of each conference, reported to Edmonton or Toronto for a one-week quarantine before resuming play August 1st.
Major League Baseball plotted a 60-day regular season beginning July 23rd. Instead of the bubble concept, they tried playing by geographical regions so travel would be limited. This idea forced teams into an interleague schedule with the leagues playing each other on a regular basis. The designated hitter, which for years was rejected by the National League Teams unless in interleague play at an American League stadium, became a mainstay. Arguments with umpires were accomplished with proper social distancing, masked and no spitting. No worries, the guys still got the bench clearing brawls in at least once a week! Some teams at the beginning struggled with players who tested positive for COVID and series would be postponed or re-matched with open teams. There were lots of doubleheaders at a reduced seven innings each to keep everyone on schedule for a planned regulation season ending September 27th. No one was complaining – America’s past time was back!
Sports had one thing in common — no fans in attendance. Players quickly learned the heart and soul of the game were the fans and the cheering or jeering. The sounds were solved with last year’s game noises piped in. Within a few weeks, sound engineers had it down to a science with the pop of the bat, groan of a misplayed ball and of course, the roar of a crowd when a homerun was launched. As for fans, support staff and the bullpen pitchers, all socially distanced and masked, were scattered throughout the lower deck. It still wasn’t the same and the TV audience yearned for more. Enter cardboard cutouts! Teams got fans involved offering their picture on the cutout for a donation to the team’s local charity. And, it didn’t stop with the fan. Bark in the Park had been a mainstay since launching several years ago. Well, canine cutouts had it even better! Instead of the normal outfield seats of previous years, the dog cutouts had seats behind the dugout and even Home Plate!
As I write this, some college football teams and the NFL have started with a few states allowing fans in the stands at twenty-five percent capacity. It’s baby steps, but maybe, just maybe, sports will be back to normal soon.