Sports

Highlights from a tour of the Carolina League

Muddy the Mudcat races Harmon Glasco, 7, of Clayton around the bases prior to the top of the fourth inning Wednesday, August 19, 2015 as the Mudcats took on the Salem Red Sox at Five County Stadium in Zebulon.
Muddy the Mudcat races Harmon Glasco, 7, of Clayton around the bases prior to the top of the fourth inning Wednesday, August 19, 2015 as the Mudcats took on the Salem Red Sox at Five County Stadium in Zebulon. tlong@newsobserver.com

Ever wanted to see an entire league in one season? With only eight teams, the Carolina League might be an easy option.

After seeing all 30 Major League teams play at home, and last season visiting all 14 South Atlantic League parks, this summer I saw the Carolina League with my mom.

It’s a little disconcerting to realize that only three of eight Carolina league teams are in the Carolinas, but the task is not so daunting. Two teams are close together in mid-Virginia and two are close to Washington, D.C. The outlier is Wilmington, Del., but even that’s easy to find, straight up I-95.

Here are some highlights from around the league:

Carolina Mudcats

Outstanding national anthem by Karen Pahl and Ashley Byars, who had nice harmonies and a respectful speed in their rendition.

We loved the enthusiasm of Cats Crew spokesman Duke Sanders, who works for the team full time. We especially loved when he lead us in a cappella singing during the seventh-inning stretch.

The music introducing players and between innings was far more contemporary than at most parks, to good effect.

We were sorry to see that the Mudcats’ logo is a droopy catfish. No merchandise purchased here. Props for choosing a goofy mascot and sticking with it.

We were glad to have read a firsthand account recommending we spend the extra $2 for premium seating to escape the sun for the first hour of the game. It was well worth it. There was maybe four feet between our seat and the netting, but somehow, a foul ball from Connor Lien went basically straight up and down into our seats, so you can indeed luck into one even right behind home plate.

Frederick Keys

The guy sitting behind us pleaded with the Keys players to bunt at every opportunity. By the time they did bunt, he had left the park.

Mount Olivet Cemetery across the street is massive, and includes a statue of Francis Scott Key, who is from the area and for whom the team is named.

The national anthem was rendered on a trumpet by William Albaugh, who plays there often. Very nice.

Lynchburg Hillcats

The name comes from the area being known as Hill City. The mascot is a bobcat-looking critter.

Pregame activity: arrive early and walk at Riverfront Park.

Bring your dog to the park day was lots of fun.

Myrtle Beach Pelicans

This was one of several parks where we saw a seat reserved to honor veterans or those fallen in service.

Unique food item: chicken and waffles. Syrup works on both.

Billy McKinney made me nuts with his 23-second preparation for each swing during his at-bats (the new timing clock is not in effect in this league). I seethed at how long we had to wait for every pitch. He drew four walks in his first four plate appearances; clearly, his routine is working for him. Then he opened the bottom of the 10th with a solo shot to win the game 2-1. I still seethed. Somehow the game still ended in 2 hours, 27 minutes, but that was only because the pitching for both teams was magnificent. McKinney took his time. Good for him, I guess.

The shirts we bought are old-school, three-quarter sleeves with cool pelicans on them. Best shirt in the league.

Potomac Nationals

Worst dugouts in baseball. Lots of high school teams have better facilities. They are level with the field and much too small. Fans near us said there was a rumor the league would kick out the P-Nats if they didn’t improve these dugouts.

Those fans are among the most knowledgeable in baseball.

Because the team is only 20 miles from the Washington Nationals’ park, major leaguers sometimes rehab here instead of in Class AA or AAA, so they can sleep in their own beds. We got to see Anthony Rendon hit like a full-grown adult (a lot of the hitters in this league look like they need to put on 20 pounds).

Salem Red Sox

Unique food item: Specialty hot dogs (Taco Dawg, Hawaiian Dawg, Mid-West Twister Dawg) and specialty barbecue sauces (Carolina Sassy Swine, Yippie Ki Yay Texas, Zesty Orange).

The team had a raffle for a used van. We were just as happy we didn’t win when the giveaway vehicle drove around the field one time and left behind a cloud of burnt oil fumes.

Pregame activity: Walk around downtown Roanoke (only a few minutes from Salem), especially visiting the Center in the Square rooftop for a gardened view of the city.

Wilmington Blue Rocks

The highlight of this team has to be Mr. Celery. This mascot comes out only when the Blue Rocks score and dances around home plate. The merchandise associated with this character is very clever – I did buy a T-shirt with the instruction to “Talk to the Stalk.”

We saw the team after it had lost 14 straight games, so Mr. Celery had not been around much. We may have brought the home team luck, though; the Blue Rocks beat the Mudcats 2-1 in 12 innings.

The grilled cheese stand was a welcome break from typical stadium fare, but we had no trouble avoiding the Sweenie Donut Dog with raspberry jam and bacon.

Frawley Field pays homage to Judy Johnson with a statue out front of one of the Negro leagues’ best third basemen.

The Blue Rocks’ best-known alumnus is probably Robin Roberts, longtime pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Winston-Salem Dash

This park is built right off the freeway in what appears to be a neighborhood on the rebound. The breeze from the road would be welcome most of the season. We went on a cooler night when it was not so great, but that provided an excuse to purchase a quilted blanket with a colorful Dash logo.

Trey Michalczewski (Mee-al-shef-ski) plays a hot third base for the Dash. We saw him last year on our tour of the South Atlantic League, when he played with the Kannapolis Intimidators. I predict he will reach the Class AAA Charlotte Knights faster than most of his teammates. At 6-foot-3, he makes most of the great defensive plays, and leads the Dash in several offensive categories.

Ellyn Ritterskamp designs and edits in the McClatchy Publishing Center in Charlotte. Her mom, Julie Ritterskamp from nearby Indian Trail, contributed to this article.

They gave proof through the night

Karen Pahl, 39, and Ashley Byars, 30, sang the anthem at the Mudcats game we saw Aug. 4. They rivaled the best we’ve seen in several leagues – because they know what they’re doing.

Pahl, from Clayton, sang full time for the Carolina Hurricanes for four of their first five seasons in Raleigh, and has also sung for the Durham Bulls.

Byars, her cousin, lives in Garner. They grew up hearing their moms and aunt sing as a trio (The Eatmon Sisters), and wanted to keep the tradition going. This season was their first singing as a duet with the Mudcats.

Pahl and Byars both work in Wake County schools.

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