Batting Practice Blasts Top Behind-the-Scene Highlights in Zebulon

By Kevin Schneider

Beyond the outfield fence, as I chatted with a few local reporters hours before the Indians played their exhibition game on Tuesday, a Mudcats grounds-crew member shouted a friendly warning.

“I wouldn’t stand there,” he yelled.  As the Mudcats staffer scurried into a shed to resume his pre-game preparations, he pointed back toward the field, where the Indians had started taking batting practice.

Less than a minute later, a ball sailed over the right-field fence and landed about 10 feet in front of us. We rushed to the area under the light stand, beneath a protective batting cage.

A bit later, a taxi pulled up, and a few Indians players walked out in dressy clothes.  Derek Lowe, who later pitched 3 shutout innings as the Indians starter, started chatting on a cell phone as we meandered around behind the right and center-field fence.

Then, BAM!  Lowe, who had drifted farther from the reporters, jumped at the startling sound and shouted something like “Dang!”  He immediately then drifted closer to the protective net. More dings, bangs, and smacks against the 20-foot-high wall, stretching from left center to right center, continued.

What would have happened, though, if one of those bombs by a teammate had landed on Lowe?  Instead of a sparkling pitching performance, he might now have a giant bump and disabled-list trip to show for his Zebulon trip.  And we might wonder if the injury curse that struck the Tribe in the second-half of 2011 would resume this season.

Numerous sensory details like this one stand out from Tuesday’s game. No one moment would make enough for a column, but together, they help provide a behind-the-scenes perspective the average fan never gets.  I feel lucky. And I’m a more of a fan now because these moments that make Major League and minor league baseball meaningful.

–A gaggle of reporters, including me, watched as Ubaldo Jimenez, Josh Tomlin, Chris Perez, and Jeanmar Gomez signed autographs along the right-field foul line before the first pitch on Tuesday. Naturally, many of us wanted to get Jimenez’s perspective about his 5-game suspension, which Manager Manny Acta says he’ll appeal.

As Jimenez started to pass us and a reporter asked Jimenez about throwing the pitch that hit Troy Tulowitzki, Jimenez smiled and appeared to want to say something. But an Indians media official stepped in and escorted the pitcher to the Indians clubhouse.

–The Mudcats staff members say a few reporters typically come to games. On this day, I arrived early and put my computer bag down on the long table stretching across the press box with 10 swivel chairs plus two wooden ones moved in for the Indians exhibition.

After interviewing players around both clubhouses and on the field, though, I found my “claim” had not worked.  I, therefore, claimed a seat to the left of Darren Headrick, who called his first Mudcats game.  Last year, he worked as assistant announcer with the Oklahoma City RedHawks, a Houston Astros affiliate.

I realized, especially as the only announcer, just how hard it would be to escape during a game for food, water, or anything else. I marveled at Headrick’s endurance. I wonder how often Tom Hamilton gets to leave the booth during games.

–Several “Muddy” mascots shot T-Shirts into the stands. The 6,362 fans who attended also witnessed various gimmicky races in between innings.  From the water tower past left field decorated with a “Mudcats” logo and painted baseball seams, to the 38 rectangular advertisements coloring the outfield wall from left to right field, Zebulon oozes minor league baseball.

–Related to that Muddy mascot, Acta mentioned liking the Carolina logos with the catfish-looking mudcat emerging from a “C.” He said the Indians collected some Carolina Mudcats gear to take back with them.

–Acta spoke of his reunion of sorts with the Mudcats. He played for the Columbus Mudcats in parts of the 1989 and 1990 seasons while in the Houston Astros organization.  That marked the franchise’s first year as the “Mudcats,” following owner Steve Bryant’s contest to rename the team, which had been the Columbus Astros after the 1988 season.  Bryant still owns the Mudcats.

“Life comes in circles,” Acta said on the field before the exhibition. He called Tuesday’s game “a grand opportunity to start our affiliation.”

Acta also mentioned several times he appreciated the chance to help his players “get a little humble while they’re here.”

–Many of them having been in Kinston to play for the Indians last year, some Mudcats players praised the upgrade in their facilities in Zebulon. Some still joked, though, about their pre-game eggs being a shade of green, which I witnessed on my stop to the Mudcats locker room.

Various melon slices, sausage links, bacon, and assorted fruit accompanied the green eggs as part of the Mudcats pre-game meal.

–After the final pitch, some fans began filing out along dirt roads leading from a grassed area behind Five County Stadium. The area sometimes holds kids camping events and concerts. It serves as overflow parking, and the easy escape route and $5 fee definitely tops traffic jams and $10 and up fees that come with Major League games.

Did the Tribe Win Last Night? thanks Darren Headrick of the Carolina Mudcats for his willingness to share his radio booth and time.

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