This story appeared in the July 2014 issue of Our State.
A few hours before his last game, Sam Ott sits down for a lunch of barbecued chicken, sweet potatoes, and pecan pie with Doug and Sue Arden. In the Ardens’ cozy dining room in Newport, the three laugh like family about how Sam’s transition to life on the beach hasn’t always been smooth. There was the first time Sam ordered flounder at a local seafood restaurant, only to be shocked when his dinner arrived staring up at him. And the day he went out on a boat trip with some of his teammates and, because Sam is from up North and doesn’t much care for sunscreen, how he showed up back at the Ardens’ that night with a third-degree sunburn.
Sam and the Ardens gradually unearth all of their memories from the previous two summers, the seasons Sam spent as the Ardens’ baseball boarder. They talk about the mornings when Sam and Doug watched ESPN’s “SportsCenter” seven times in a row, commiserating about the misfortunes of the Detroit Tigers. They talk about the countless times they all played Wii bowling together, Sam usually winning, much to the dismay of Doug and Sue, who are both avid bowlers. During the course of the meal, the Ardens squeeze in all of their favorite highlights of Sam on the diamond, just like proud Little League parents.
After lunch, as Sue brings the dishes into the kitchen, she points out a spot beneath the kitchen window that has become known as “Sam’s Corner,” where his granola bars and workout powder are stored. In the family room, Doug identifies a framed photograph of Sam, sitting on the mantel above the fireplace alongside photos of the Ardens’ two sons. “After two summers, I think of Sam as my other son,” Sue says. “He’s got a piece of my heart, and he knows that.”
Then Sue packs dinner for Sam in the small green cooler that has become a point of jealousy for the rest of his team’s roster. She wedges in a couple of blue Gatorades frozen to slushy, a ham and cheese sandwich, potato chips, and a chocolate chip cookie for Sam to eat in the dugout before tonight’s game.
There is both joy and sadness in the Arden home.
Meanwhile, a few miles away, Buddy Bengel, the team owner, strides from third base toward home plate, lining the field at Big Rock Stadium with chalk instead of paint because that’s the way they do it in the big leagues. Bengel is preparing the stage for Sam. But tonight isn’t just another game. They all know that. This is the last game Sam Ott will ever play for the Morehead City Marlins.
One auspicious evening in the summer of 2002, Petersburg (Virginia) Generals starting pitcher Buddy Bengel walked down to the bullpen at Hicks Field in Edenton to warm up for a Coastal Plain League baseball game. “I stood on the mound and looked around and saw that the place was packed,” Bengel recalls. “I was amazed that they had almost 1,500 fans there, and later I looked it up and the town’s only got 5,000 people in it. I thought, ‘Wow, 25 percent of this town came to a baseball game?…’ ”
The following summer, in 2003, Bengel played for the Newport (Rhode Island) Gulls in the New England Collegiate Baseball League. His host family included Gulls’ owner Chuck Paiva. During that season, Bengel constantly picked Paiva’s brain about the business of baseball, and when it came time for Bengel to write his senior thesis at Connecticut’s Quinnipiac University that fall, Bengel’s parents suggested that he focus his paper on owning a baseball team. “I wrote the business plan for what would become the Morehead City Marlins as my thesis in college,” Bengel says. “I got an A.”
Bengel sent his thesis to the president of the Coastal Plain League, Pete Bock, and he began exploring the feasibility of starting a baseball franchise in his hometown, New Bern. With some financial aid from his parents, the then 21-year-old purchased the rights to create the New Bern River Rats in 2005. The experiment ended after just three seasons, however, because Bengel was still busy pursuing his dreams of a playing career, and the franchise, which staged its games at New Bern High School, could never get a suitable ballpark built.
In 2010, retired from baseball, Bengel decided to test his blueprint again in Morehead City, where a stadium was under construction. Unfortunately, on opening day, Big Rock Stadium wasn’t quite finished. The bleachers had been installed just three days earlier, but the press box had no door, no windows, no roof, and no plan in case of rain. When it was discovered shortly before the game that the public address system didn’t work, Bengel wound up doing the player introductions on a borrowed karaoke machine.
Not long after Doug and Sue Arden moved from their home state, Michigan, to South Carolina in 2006, they attended a Florence Red Wolves game in the Coastal Plain League. The Ardens had developed an affection for baseball through coaching their elder son, Benjamin, in Little League and attending his high school games.
That night in Florence, the Ardens heard an announcement asking for families to host players during the following season, and they thought that might be fun. But in February of 2007, Doug accepted a job managing the bowling pro shop at the Cherry Point Marine Corps base, and the Ardens moved to Newport. During their first summer living in North Carolina, the Ardens attended a few New Bern River Rats games during the franchise’s final season in 2007.
Then, in 2010, Doug read an ad in the local newspaper, an appeal for host families for a new team about to begin playing in nearby Morehead City. Doug wanted to do it, but Sue thought their house was too small. “Then I went to the Marlins’ office, just to pick up an application, and I couldn’t help getting excited about what Buddy Bengel was doing,” Sue says. “We decided we would try hosting for one year and see how it went.”
During the 2010 season, the Ardens hosted three different Marlins players, including Chris Taylor, a freshman shortstop from the University of Virginia who would be drafted by Seattle in the fifth round of the 2012 Major League Baseball draft.
The Ardens hosted two more players during the 2011 season. Then, before the 2012 season, Doug learned that Bengel was offering families the chance to choose the player they wished to host. “That’s when I decided I wanted a Michigan player,” Doug says, “so I could have someone to talk to about Michigan sports.”
Doug scanned the incoming 2012 roster and found his man.
Sam Ott first threw a baseball when he was 2 years old, and before long, there were two permanent bald spots in the Otts’ front lawn: one for the pitcher’s mound, the other for the batter’s box. Ott started playing Little League baseball at 5, club travel ball at 10, and he made the varsity team as a freshman at Salem High School in Canton, Michigan, where he hit cleanup and played right field. When it came time for college, Ott signed with the Eastern Michigan University Eagles in Ypsilanti, just 10 minutes from his home.
Ott thrived at Eastern Michigan during his first two seasons. As a redshirt sophomore in the fall of 2011, Ott roomed with Jordan Glover, who had played two seasons at Edenton in the CPL. Glover told Ott about the league’s top competition, the enthusiastic crowds, and the close bond he’d built with his host family.
When Ott spoke to Eastern Michigan head coach Jay Alexander about the CPL, Alexander asked Ott if he would be interested in playing for his friend, former 10-year major league outfielder Brian McRae, who would be managing the Morehead City Marlins in the summer of 2012. “I guess it was meant to be,” Ott says. “I didn’t really know much about Morehead City, but when I started checking into it with my mom, I was like, ‘Wow, this isn’t a bad setup.’ ”
During the Eastern Michigan baseball season, Ott often received text messages from Doug Arden, who followed Ott’s college games on the Internet. Just minutes after the Eagles lost their final game that season, Ott got a text from Doug Arden: “Tough loss. So, when are you coming down?”
A few days later, when Sam Ott arrived in Morehead City after a 13½-hour drive, it was the first time he had ever seen the Atlantic Ocean.
Brad Haynal, a catcher from San Diego, had never experienced a thunderstorm before playing in Morehead City. By contrast, infielder Ryan Cranmer grew up just a 10-minute drive from Big Rock Stadium in Newport, and slept in his boyhood bedroom, and was very familiar with Atlantic storms.
Marlins players are recruited from colleges across the country, and the sales pitch generally follows the same path as the one that Calvin Rayburn heard about the Marlins from Alex Gonzalez, his pitching coach at Miami’s Barry University and a friend of Buddy Bengel:
“Do you think you’d be interested in playing in Morehead City?” Gonzalez asked Rayburn.
“Where is it?” Rayburn replied.
“On the beach.”
“Sign me up!”
Baseball at the beach isn’t all waves and suntan lotion, though. The Marlins have no locker room, so the players dress in the dugout. And when players are swinging well during batting practice before home games, balls may end up in the swamp beyond the left-field wall.
Bengel is hardly your typical baseball owner, either. He wears flip-flops to the office every day, where his dog, Bruno, greets visitors at the door. Bengel is also the Marlins’
groundskeeper and has been known to moonlight as his team’s unofficial pitching coach. During the Marlins’ first season, he sometimes had to run the sound, the scoreboard, and the statistics, working three computers at the same time, but only on nights when he wasn’t needed to dress as Finn, the team’s mascot.
When Bengel was informed before the 2013 season that the new concessions stand at the stadium hadn’t been built to proper code, he came up with the idea of cooking all of the hamburgers on three George Foreman grills. Troubleshooting is so prevalent that Bengel has designated it part of his general manager’s job description. “I hardly ever get to watch the game,” says Mitch Kluver, the Marlins’ 25-year-old GM. “Part of my role is to put out all of the small fires that occur during a game, and there are so many that I should probably carry a hose with me.”
The Marlins’ radio broadcaster in 2013, Josh Horton, was a rising senior at Misericordia University in Pennsylvania, whose only previous play-by-play experience had been a few college games. At the beginning of the season, he suffered such stage fright that he rarely said more than “ball” or “strike,” but by season’s end, on Carnival Night, he was broadcasting the game in a clown wig and, by his own admission, “wouldn’t shut up.”
“I remember telling my mom that working for the Marlins is like living in one country your entire life and then going to another country and trying to learn a new language,” Horton says. “Working for Buddy is like a culture shock.”
Even Bengel admits that he is an acquired taste. “The first two years, we couldn’t sell beer because a lot of people thought I was the bogeyman luring drunks to the neighborhood,” Bengel says. “But many of those same people are now loyal season-ticket holders.”
An hour before his last game, Sam Ott meets Sue Arden at the edge of the Marlins’ dugout to accept delivery of the green cooler one final time. During Sam’s 108 games over his two summers in the CPL, Sue has noticed that he plays his best when he’s banged up a little, so she gives him a hug and leaves him with her standard advice: “Scrapes and bruises. Have fun.”
The Marlins, who have long been eliminated from postseason playoff contention because of a mediocre record, sign autographs until the umpires beckon them back to the dugout. A standing-room only-crowd of 2,242 fans has shown up at Big Rock Stadium for what seems like a meaningless game, except to the people of Morehead City.
All of the host families are honored on the field before the first pitch, and Ott poses for a photo standing beside Doug Arden, who is wearing an Eastern Michigan baseball hat. Sam runs out to right field to a warm ovation. He later says that at that moment, he felt the kind of melancholy one experiences on the last day of a family vacation.
In the bottom of the fifth inning, Buddy Bengel stands in the press box that now has a door, windows, and a roof, gazing over a packed ballpark somewhat in disbelief, much like he did in Edenton a decade earlier. Bengel shakes his head incredulously and says, “On nights like this, you look around the stadium, and you can’t help saying to yourself, ‘Wow, we’ve really created something amazing here!’ ”
Morehead City Marlins
Big Rock Stadium
2714 Mayberry Loop Road
Morehead City, N.C. 28557