Rather than leaving the future of their baseball team in the hands of fate, the people of Edenton joined together 10 years ago and bought their hometown Steamers, an investment that pays off in summertime smiles.
Storm clouds creep over Edenton, spelling certain doom for the hometown Steamers’ baseball game tonight. Such threatening skies would scare most normal fans away.
But the relationship between town and team here is different. A little rain can’t drive them apart so easily.
In reality, the Steamers are just college baseball players spending their summers practicing their skills before going back to school in the fall. In reality, the place they play, Hicks Field, is just an old stadium built in 1939 that was nearly torn down a decade ago. But each summer, something magical happens when the two come together. The players become celebrities in the community, living with local hosts and playing active roles around town. And the stadium becomes the place where many of Edenton’s 5,000 residents gather on warm nights and remember why they banded together to save baseball here.
Edenton’s people own the Steamers, thanks to donations small and large that came flooding in when the team went up for sale in 1999.
Only a few years before that, townspeople paid for major renovations to Hicks Field, enticing the Coastal Plain League, a summer league that showcases unpaid college players from around the country, to start a team here. Then in 1999, the league decided to sell the team.
Edenton’s people immediately began to worry. They knew Hicks Field was on the campus of John A. Holmes High School, which stands just beyond the left field wall. Being on school grounds means no alcohol sales or alcohol advertising.
“The fear was that a new owner would want to sell beer and decide to move the team to a ballpark where he could do that,” says Katy Ebersole, president of the board of directors that now oversees the team.
Concerned that the sale of the team could spell the end of their historic and refurbished ballpark, they came together. Mayor Roland Vaughan sent a letter to local business leaders. They met, reviewed a Powerpoint presentation, and decided to solicit money from the community.
Within months, between 50 and 100 people had donated, and the town had raised the $125,000 necessary to buy the team.
“Some people gave $5; some gave $5,000,” says Ebersole, who co-owns Waterman’s Grill with her husband, Rick, and their business partner, Brian Roberts. “The bottom line is that we raised enough to buy the team and keep it here.”
With that, the Edenton Steamers opened the 2000 season as the town’s team. A board of directors manages the finances, and any profits are returned to the town.
Wallace Evans checks his watch and looks skyward. The storm clouds now cast shadows over the field. A rainout is imminent, but the people keep coming, handing Evans their tickets. A member of the team’s board of directors, Evans has been a game-day volunteer from the start. His main responsibility is the front gate.
“I really serve as a PR man on game days,” he says. “I’m the first person people see when they enter the stadium, so I’m more like a greeter.”
Those who enter the stadium gates without stopping to listen to Evans’s tales about the place are missing out. He has seen old Hicks Field rise, then fall, then rise again as a hub of summer and baseball activity.
Evans’s earliest memories of the ballpark involve his father, a big baseball fan who watched the ballpark’s first tenant, the Colonials, a successful semi-pro team in the Albemarle League.
“Baseball was a big-time affair then, even more so than it is now,” remembers Evans. “We had 3,000 spectators show up for important games.”
Today, that number seems incredible. Hicks Field is tucked between the high school and a tidy little neighborhood at the corner of East Freemason and Woodard streets. Space inside the wooden fencing is tight.
“We say our capacity is 1,200 even though we don’t have designated seats,” says Ebersole. “We average about 600 or 700, which doesn’t sound like a whole lot until you consider this is a town of 5,000.”
On this night, the Steamers attract closer to 1,000. The stadium is jammed. Energy is high. The adults chatter in the stands while their kids press up against the fence behind the dugout to engage the players. Packs of teenagers loiter on the picnic tables down the right field line, laughing and joking, giving their thumbs a brief respite from text messaging.
Evans takes it all in and smiles, recalling a time when it all seemed impossible. By the late 1980s, the ballpark that once played host to Hall of Famer Bob Feller (back when he played for the Norfolk Naval Yard team during World War II) had become dilapidated. Only the first four rows of the grandstand were safe to sit on.
“They had the rest of it fenced off,” says Evans. “There was even a move to tear it down and put aluminum bleachers back in.”
Evans didn’t stand for it. He chaired a committee to save the ballpark and helped win a government grant to refurbish it. Now, every day he works the gate, he sees the fruits of his efforts. He says he sees how important Hicks Field is to locals young and old.
“Going to a game is a family affair,” he says. “We might have about 1,000 people here, and my estimation is 300 to 400 are high school kids or younger. The teenagers just flock in. It has become the place to be.”
In an office across the street from Hicks Field, Michele Andronowitz shuts down her computer and switches into game mode. She and her husband, Ron, run their own custom home building business, and no matter how tired they may be after a full day of work, they always go to Steamers games. Even when a rainout seems certain.
Andronowitz believes it’s her responsibility. Her family has welcomed Steamers players for the past five seasons, offering food and shelter to one every summer.
“One host mom put it best when she said, ‘It’s not summer unless there’s a Steamer in the house,’” says Andronowitz. “I have two teenage sons, and even now, if I told them we weren’t hosting a player this summer, they’d be heartbroken. It’s become a tradition.”
At the gate, Evans takes their tickets, and the Andronowitzes fan out. Ron finds them seats, while the boys, Joe and Dan, find their friends by the snow cone stand, and Michele searches the field for their summer guest, infielder Gerard Hall.
“That’s the first thing I do when I walk in the gate,” she says. “If we’re hosting a pitcher, I’ll look for him in the bullpen and let him know we’re here. If he’s a position player, I’ll peek in the dugout to make sure he knows.”
The players are treated like celebrities everywhere they go, a level of attention they’re not used to. Ebersole tries to prepare them.
“We try to drill into their heads that because this is such a small community, everything they do is amplified,” she says. “People will recognize their car because it has out-of-state plates. They’ll immediately recognize them as stereotypical male college athletes and ask if they’re Steamers. They’re instantly famous in this town.”
The community loves them, and the players love the community. While Andronowitz heads toward the grandstand to meet Ron, a little girl stumbles on the asphalt near the Steamers dugout and skins her knee. The first person to help the girl is a Steamers player who hears her crying.
The summer experience
After just a few innings of play, the skies finally rip open. Players and coaches take cover in the dugouts and the fans squeeze under the grandstand and any other cover they can find. Their chatter and laughter never stop.
A mother and son hide under the short awning of the snow cone booth.
“Well, we may as well order,” says mom. They take their styrofoam cups and bury their faces in ice and syrup, oblivious to the rain.
Meanwhile, Ebersole dashes around the ballpark with her staff of volunteers and employees, making sure the tarp gets pulled, the food gets covered, and the exits stay clear for anyone who wants to leave. Few do. They’ll wait it out as long as it takes.
The rain is fierce, however, and it wins tonight. But there will be more games this summer. In Edenton, that’s all the peace of mind they need.
Edenton Steamers at Hicks Field
111 East Freemason Street
Edenton, N.C. 27932
Chris Gigley is a freelance writer in Greensboro.