Grainger Stadium Kinston NC
“The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and what could be again.” – James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams (1989)
There is something about baseball that is healing. It is part of the fabric of our American culture something that somehow overcomes the political and religious divisions that so divide our country right now. We were at Gordon Biersch watching the last couple of innings of a qualification game for the Little League World series between a team from Peabody Massachusetts and one from Rhode Island. It was one of those magical games that ended with a walk-off Grand-Slam home run in the bottom of the 6th. It triggered a flood of memories for me and ait got Judy, the Abby Normal Abbess and I talking about some of our own expereinces travelling the country and watching baseball.
I love the game of baseball especially going to a ballpark and seeing a game. The experience of this for me has been life-long though difficult to continue from about 1983-1999 due to a tour in Germany with the Army a very difficult four years of seminary followed by residency, my first hospital job where I worked the second shift, a mobilized tour in Germany prior to coming in the Navy in early 1999. During those years getting to games was a rare event, either due to time or money. Despite this we as a couple got to a few games and I got in a couple on my own when traveling. Thankfully, Judy, the Abby Normal Abbess tolerates and even joins me in my own baseball journey.
When I went into the Navy and moved to North Carolina that began to change. North Carolina of course is the setting of the classic baseball movie Bull Durham and once can visit some of the same ballparks as are shown in the movie. The adventure of going to the ballpark again became a regular part of our lives. It began in a little town in Eastern North Carolina called Kinston, the home of the Kinston Indians. Kinston is a town that has seen better times, but the Indians, or the K-Tribe as they are known is part of the lifeblood of the community. They play in Grainger Stadium, which though an older ballpark is still a great place to watch a game. The Indians Carolina League which is advanced “A” ball and for a number of years dominated that League. When were stationed in Camp LeJeune we would make the trip to Kinston on a regular basis when I was in town. At the time the Indians farm system was producing a lot of great prospects, many who now are major leaguers, including Grady Sizemore, Jhonny Peralta Shane Victorino and Victor Martinez. When we left LeJeune we were stationed a brief time in Jacksonville Florida, where we lived very close to the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, home of the Jacksonville Suns then the Los Angeles Dodgers AA affiliate in the Southern League. The ballpark is a great venue to see a game and the Suns management led by Peter Bragan and Peter Bragan Jr. who are part of a great baseball family run a great show, and the Dodgers staff was a class organization. I got to meet Tommy Lasorda in Jacksonville as well as Steve Yeager. I have 2 game worn special issue jerseys from the Suns. When we moved to Norfolk in 2003 the season was already over but beginning on opening day of 2004 I began to worship at the Church of Baseball, Harbor Park Parish. This if you follow this site is the home of the Norfolk Tides. Ever since then I have had the opportunity to see the game close up on a very regular basis.
In addition to attending the games near us we would travel and see other games. We would make trips down to Kinston from Virginia. Once we went to a reunion of a singing group, the Continental Singers and Orchestra that I ran spotlight for back in 1979 which was being held in Kansas City. On the way we saw a game in Louisville with the Louisville Bats, followed by a game in Cedar Rapids Iowa where we saw the Cedar Rapids Kernels play the Battle Creek Yankees and followed it with a trip to the “Field of Dreams” outside Dyersville, where that film was made. Judy indulged me by playing catch with me on the field and taking my picture coming out of the cornfield. It was almost; well it was a spiritual experience. Occasionally when we visit Huntington West Virginia we try to see the West Virginia Power in Charleston.
Until I went to Iraq Judy and I used to take trips to Minor League ballparks around our Wedding anniversary. We would take about four or five days and travel city to city to see some of the most fascinating baseball venues around. We haven’t made a trip like that, even outside the wedding anniversary in a while mainly due to time as my much leave time has been spent going home to assist with my parents, especially the past 18 months where my dad’s Alzheimer’s Disease has progressed to the point of him being in a nursing home on palliative care. Despite that I would always try to find time to see a game when in Stockton. Before Iraq we would see the Stockton Ports in Billy Herbert Field. The Ports now play in Banner Island Ballpark which is a great place to see a game. If the Ports have not been in town we have occasionally been able to see the Giants, the A’s or the Sacramento River Cats, the AAA affiliate of the A’s.
The anniversary trips took us to some of the most interesting places to see games. I have already mentioned Kinston where on one of our anniversaries we got to throw out the first pitch. We have also travelled to Winston-Salem, when they were the Warthogs and Charlotte home of the Knights, the AAA affiliate of the White Sox. Actually, Charlotte’s stadium is just down the road a way in Round Rock South Carolina. We got rained out in Winston-Salem as a major storm hit at game time. To our north we have been up to Frederick Maryland, home of the Frederick Keys, the Carolina League affiliate of the Orioles and Harrisburg Pennsylvania to see the Harrisburg Senators, the Montreal Expos-Washington Senators AA Eastern League affiliate at Metro-Bank Park on City Island. This park was used in the movie Major League II as the Spring Training facility. There were two really cool things that happened at Harrisburg which was on our anniversary. First we saw Phillies Slugger Ryan Howard about tear the cover off a ball hitting a double down the right field line and the General Manager had a ball autographed for us by the team. That was really cool. Likewise when Atlanta still had its Richmond affiliate, the Richmond Braves, we made a number of trips to “The Diamond” in Richmond. This was the worst stadium I had ever watched a game in, though the team was always good. We saw a playoff game there in 2004 between the Braves and the Columbus Clippers, who were then the Yankees AAA affiliate. Sitting behind home plate I saw Jason Giambi play for the Clippers on a rehab assignment.
I have done some parks on my own when travelling. Any time I have been on the road in baseball season and have the chance I try to see the local team if circumstances permit. I have seen a number of games in the Pacific Northwest seeing two Seattle Mariners short season single A Northwest League affiliate the Everett Aquasox and AAA Pacific Coast League affiliate the Tacoma Rainiers. Everett is an especially interesting place to see a game. The games are well attended and the team management has some great promotions including “Frogfest” where the team wears tie-dyed jerseys and there is a kind of 1960s hippy theme. The Rainiers play in Cheney Stadium in Tacoma. In Tacoma I saw Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez pitch his first AAA game. Both Everett and Tacoma are nice places to see a game. While on the USS Hue City at the Maine Lobster Festival I worked a deal with festival organizers to get tickets for our sailors for two games watching the Portland Seadogs the AA affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. When the Seadogs hit a home run a lighthouse rises up from behind the fence and a foghorn sounds.
However the two most interesting place that we have seen games together are Ashville North Carolina, the home of the Ashville Tourists and Zebulon North Carolina home of the Carolina Mudcats. Ashville has quite a history with McCormack Field dating back until 1919. The grandstand was rebuilt a number of years back, but the playing field is the same. The outfield wall backs up into a tree covered hillside into which home runs hit at night almost seem to dissolve. Zebulon is another matter. The stadium is about a mile out of town surrounded by farm fields. When you drive to it down US 64 from Raleigh the stadium almost seems to emerge from nowhere as if it were beamed down from a orbiting starship. It is a fairly new stadium and very modern a great place to see a game. We went there to see the Mudcats, who were then the Marlins AA Southern League affiliate play the Mississippi Braves. We got to the stadium and found that somehow I had left our tickets at home. Since the game was in an hour and home was bout a 6-8 hour round trip I knew that going home to get them was not an option. So I went to the ticket manager and explained the situation. He had remembered taking my ticket order by phone as we had talked about shared military experiences. He was able to print us duplicates for the seats that we had previously purchased and we saw the game, as always from down behind home plate. In this game we saw Braves All Star catcher Brian McCann play the week before he was called up to Atlanta.
I hope that we have some time next year to make at least one trip out to see some other Minor League venues. They are a lot of fun and part of the fabric of our country and somehow I believe if we reconnect in these locations, watching this timeless game that maybe just maybe we can overcome the emnity of all that divides our country and learn to be Americans again. We will never all agree on politics, religion, domestic, foreign or economic policy. No Americans ever have, but we can discover what it means again, through this wonderful game called baseball. I do think that the Deity Herself approves of all of these local parishes of the Church of Baseball scattered about our land. At the same time I always have my place in Section 102, Row B Seat 2 at Harbor Park.