Take yourself out to the Hoppers’ last game
Purely of their own volition, my feet run me out to the ballpark on a breezy and sunny afternoon. The green cathedral is quiet on this day, the only roar coming from the traffic passing on Eugene Street, accented by the whisper of the wind that pulls taut the flags behind the left field wall and blows bits of trash around the vacant infield until they gather in the corners. A light tower casts a shadow across across third base.
It’s a fine day for baseball here in Greensboro, but there will be no game today. Not here anyway ‘— our boys are on the road, capturing one for the W column on the strength of two Trent D’Antonio dingers against the Tourists of Asheville to put them around ten games out of first place and figurative miles away from the playoff picture in the South Atlantic League.
But I’m not thinking about wins and losses as I pace around the concession concourse. I’m thinking about the players themselves and the arc of their entire season, and also this fine, fine stadium where they’ve plied their trade all summer long.
I’ve heard this place called many things this summer: ‘“First Horizon’”’… ‘“the new stadium’”’… the foreshortened ‘“First Ho Park’”’… but mostly I’ve heard it been called ‘“the ballpark,’” usually followed by an enthusiastic story. And those are just the things I heard it called after they broke ground.
But they built it and we came this summer, in packs and gangs and droves. And everyone who spent any time out here bore witness to the events that comprised this magical season.
I myself saw it from the beginning: a shellacking by the parent team, the Florida Marlins in a pre-season exhibition which was the largest gathering of people I’ve ever seen inside the city’s borders. I spent my early-season sojourns getting to know the friendly confines of the ballpark and this afternoon I retrace the steps I took those first few games, walking past the playground off right field where my boys ran and played like the wild young things they are; scoping the grassy slope where I saw a kid catch a tossed baseball square on his nose, which exploded like an overripe tomato.
Aah, kid, I think to myself, you never forget the first time that happens.
I walk towards home plate, admiring the quiet majesty of the Gate City’s skyline as it appears behind the outfield wall, and before I can help myself I’m on the field, negotiating through the red clay and green grass to the mound.
A proper pitcher’s mound’… one of the reasons we needed the new stadium in the first place. I was never much of a pitcher, but I stand there like one anyway. I stand there and I toe the rubber and make an imaginary hurl towards the plate, remembering as I do the night I watched right-hander David Humen come within a few throws of a complete game, throwing high heat that challenged the swelter of the evening even in the ninth inning.
The feat took a lot out of Humen, inducing soreness in his throwing arm that relegated him to the Marlins’ injured list and a place in Jupiter, Fla., away from his team and his dream.
A similar fate awaited my man Brian Cleveland, who along with his roommate Steve Gendron was the subject of a cover story I wrote last month (‘”Nine Innings with Greensboro’s Boys of Summer,’” Aug. 10). In a bizarre twist on the Sports Illustrated cover jinx legend, Cleveland hit a game-winning grand slam the day the issue hit the streets but got into a nasty car accident the next afternoon, suffering only a minor soreness in his shoulder that nonetheless earned him a trip to the Marlins’ doctors in Jupiter.
As a tribute to him and Gendron I shuffle my way to the infield, where my guys held court all season long. Gendron will likely be back next year. Cleveland’s future lies with the franchise and the fates.
And that’s the way it goes in low-A ball, where success is not measured strictly by wins and losses, but by player development, skill-sharpening and, ultimately, surviving to play another day.
So the Hoppers are ten games out of first place. This does not matter. In my book the Greensboro squad, the front office, the stadium backers and every single one of us who made it out to First Ho to hear the crack of the bat’… we all had a winning season. And post-season prospects or not, we owe it to these guys to make it out to the ballpark one last time: Sept. 5, the last game of the season.
We should all go out there that night, every one of us whose summer was shaped by this new diamond in downtown Greensboro. We should pack the place to the rafters and thank these guys, all of them, for a season well played.
I move from the infield to the dugout and ride the pine for awhile, contemplating this building which has come to mean so much to our town, and I feel like I owe it something. I want to give, but I have nothing worthy to offer. I slide off the bench and make my way to the bathroom at the end of the dugout and I take a long, luxuriant piss in the prison-style toilet there. I let out a sigh of release.
See you next year, fellas. See you next year.
The Grasshoppers’ last home game is on Monday, Sept. 5 at 7 p.m. against the Kannapolis Intimidators. There will be a concert beforehand by Band of Oz, a barbershop quartet roaming the stands throughout the game and a fireworks display afterwards. You should definitely be there.