Posts Tagged Carolina MudCats
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)
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!
I really should call this post “Redemption Time” instead. Backtrack to pregame of game two. I discovered a gate down by right field where the players came from the locker room and out onto the field for warm-ups. Rick’s “assignment” was to get pics of me with the players. My favorite on the team is Ryan Fitzgerald and easy to spot with his long locks and toothpaste commercial smile. I was standing next to two “older” guys waiting for autographs when Ryan answered their call-out. I excitedly looked up towards Rick and he was there at his post, camera ready. Ryan first signed for a guy with a book of college baseball cards, then the guy next to me. Finally it was my turn — no cards or program to sign — but I did get a huge smile from him as I told him I had called his 7th inning home-run the night before. “Really? Why didn’t you do it sooner?” We both laughed. Our chat lasted about 3 minutes, then Ryan headed out to the field as I maneuvered through band members waiting for pregame ceremonies.
I didn’t see the pictures until we got home that night. Here is “The Moment!” Seriously Rick?!?!?
Now on to the game three — the series was tied at one game each — and redemption time for Rick. Unlike the other two evening games, game three was a very warm afternoon start. Upon arrival at the park, we proceeded to the right field gate. There were a couple of players on the phones under shady trees. Meanwhile, I felt sweat trickling down my back at the shadeless gate area. Soon, the two older guys left the area under the stands and joined me as the players emerged. The first guy now had a notebook of 5 cards of each player! The guy next to me had a program and I had my program insert along with my fine tip Sharpie. Players were stopping and signing. Ryan emerged from the building. As he started across the lot, I glanced up towards Rick. He was craning his neck out towards the parking lot where a limo has pulled up!! Not again!! The two guys and I chimed in unison — “Hey Ryan!” Finally a break for me — he came to me first!
And yes, Rick redeemed himself as you can see!!
The game was great too. We were next to the dugout like the first night and even stayed in the shade until the 9th inning. Ryan ended up with 2 runs, 2 hits, hit by a pitch, a stolen base and a dirty uniform. A little 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.
Warning: Contains Language
Salem Red Sox shut out the Carolina MudCats 3 -0 putting series even at 1 each. Lots of action in the game. Pedro Castellanos launched a solo rocket in the 4th inning. MudCats Payton Henry was drilled by a Thad Ward pitch — game stopped while he was tended to, then while going after a foul ball, Sox catcher Nick Sciortino was down a few minutes after his shin guards jammed into the wall.
Advanced Class A MiLB’s los Pescados de Carolina (Carolina MudCats) rallied to defeat the Salem Red Sox 6-4 Friday night in Zebulon. Salem Manager Corey Wimberly and Zach Schellenger were ejected after Zach hit MudCats Rob Henry.