A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Baseball’s back, or soon will be across much of North Carolina, back in Hickory and Winston-Salem and Kinston, home of the Down East Wood Ducks, one of the greatest team

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Baseball’s back, or soon will be across much of North Carolina, back in Hickory and Winston-Salem and Kinston, home of the Down East Wood Ducks, one of the greatest team

Baseball’s back, or soon will be across much of North Carolina, back in Hickory and Winston-Salem and Kinston, home of the Down East Wood Ducks, one of the greatest team names maybe ever. Greensboro used to be the Bats, though they’re now the Grasshoppers. Asheville’s club famously posts “VISITORS” above “TOURISTS,” the name of the home side, on the scoreboard. Deeper into the summer, the collegiate wood-bat leagues crank up: The Appalachian League (Appy, for the cool kids) has the Burlington Sock Puppets, the Old North State League has teams seemingly all over (looking at you, Flying Pigs and Steamers), the Coastal Plain League is anchored here (Sharks and Bigfoots and Zookeepers, oh my). So let’s quit our jobs, let’s rent an RV or retrofit a bus or sign up for a hotel rewards program, let’s spend the spring and summer crisscrossing the state, let’s buy a new cap at every venue, let’s get a proper scorebook and a quiver of pencils, and let’s bring our gloves and go sit in the cheap seats of every single team, everywhere. We’ll keep a list. When we hit the granddaddy of them all, in Durham, we’ll start over.

Illustration of the mascots of North Carolina's baseball teams

illustration by Ed Fotheringham

But I’m not here to name all the teams (Swamp Foxes, Honeycrisps, Knights, Woodpeckers). I’m instead here to believe, as Annie Savoy declared, in the Church of Baseball, and I’m here to tell you that the best thing about baseball is the mere, plain fact of it — the nine innings, the four balls, the three strikes — no matter which Carolina team is yours. I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t matter if the HiToms lose; that’s not what minor league ball is for. It’s root root root for the home team, sure, but if they don’t win it’s a shame, not a catastrophe.

Minor league baseball lets you lose yourself in an entirely different sort of fandom than, say, what goes down in Chapel Hill and Durham and Raleigh in the weeks preceding baseball’s opening day, or in Boone on crisp fall afternoons. Baseball just is. Believe, baseball says. Have a seat. Get comfortable. A game is a game. Kid pitching for the other side’s got a pretty live arm. If we lose tonight, there is almost literally always tomorrow, all season long.

Baseball mitt and ball.

Give me, if I get to choose, a discount seat on a Tuesday night. “Where would you like to sit?” the ticket seller asks, and I always smile and say, “Anywhere, really. I probably won’t even sit in the ticketed seat. I like to be far away from everybody. Put me in the emptiest section on the first-base side.” I like to sit rows away from any other soul. I like a cheap hot dog and a $2 beer special. I like that second $2 beer because now, with the first empty cup, you’ve got some makeshift insulation, and you can get down to proper sipping and watching and laughing at that one kid’s walk-up music. (No lie, two years ago, a kid in Greensboro used the full-throttle saxophone solo from Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years.”)

Most minor league games, especially below Triple-A, have a little bit of everything. You might see a crisp, perfect double play followed immediately by a clown-car lack of fundamentals. I have seen — like the scene in Bull Durham when Crash gives up Nuke — a frustrated catcher sigh, shake his head, whisper something to the batter, and the batter homer on the very next pitch.

North Carolina baseball mascots

illustration by Ed Fotheringham

Look, now: The sun’s going down behind the third-base line. Evening slips into night. An April game could give you literally any weather — I have gone in shorts, and I have also been sleeted on, come home, and built a fire. I will wait out a rain delay. I will bring layers. I will, in an emergency, buy a hoodie.

I usually have a kid or two with me, although, teens and preteens that they are, they run off on their own. I wear brightly colored caps so they can find me from clear across the ballpark. They’ve started coming back to sit down now that they both play fairly seriously, and they’ve got questions, ideas. Did you see that, they’ll ask, jogging back over, meaning a triple, or the visiting manager getting thrown out, or any number of the between-innings contests (food games, guessing games, mascot races). They’ll chicken-dance to get on the JumboTron. There are always Dippin’ Dots.

Baseball’s back, we tell each other. The bright white baselines, the outfield light stanchions, the advertisements on the fence, the grass so green, a friend once remarked to me, it hurts. Doesn’t matter which stadium we’re in, who’s winning — it just matters that we’re there. Maybe one of the kids will catch a foul ball. Maybe the home team (Cannon Ballers? Mudcats?) will come all the way back in the bottom of the ninth. Or maybe not. Maybe we’ll go, nobody gets a baseball, and our team loses. That was so great, one of the boys will still say. Can we go again tomorrow night?

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This story was published on Mar 25, 2024

Drew Perry

Perry teaches writing at Elon University. His first novel, This Is Just Exactly Like You, was a finalist for the Flaherty-Dunnan prize from the Center for Fiction, a Best-of-the-Year pick from The Atlanta Journal Constitution and a SIBA Okra pick. His second, Kids These Days, was an Amazon Best-of-the-Month pick and was named to Kirkus Reviews 'Winter's Best Bets' and 'Books So Funny You're Guaranteed to Laugh' lists.