FanGraphs: The Rocky Mount Pines, a baseball disaster Pt. 2
BY SAMUEL EVERS
Saturday, December 29, 2018
(This story originally appeared at The Hardball Times and appears online with permission from The Hardball Times and Fangraphs.)
Ernie Suggs was born in Brooklyn, New York, and loved the Yankees; he moved to Rocky Mount in 1979 as a 12-year-old. His family subscribed to the Evening Telegram, and he’d read the sports section daily before heading off to school. In one edition he stumbled upon the news that the Rocky Mount Pines, the minor league team in 1980 that would eventually lose 114 games, were coming to town. He also needed a summer job.
Suggs showed up to a contest about 10 games into the season and saw his friend Neil Avent manning both the home and away dugouts. In the middle of the game Suggs asked Avent if he needed help, and Avent introduced him to trainer Bob Bill, who shook his hand and told him to come back the next day if he wanted a job.
He came back, and joined his friend on the payroll: Two dollars a game. They both got to wear Pines jerseys, though after a while, the ironed-on “P” on Suggs’ shirt fell off.
Ernie Suggs, bat boy and seventh grader, now a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: It still ranks as one of the best summers I’ve ever had. I got to work every day in professional baseball. I learned a lot about the game. It didn’t really matter to me that we weren’t a very good team, maybe the worst professional team ever. Neil and I were pretty much a part of the team.
Neil Avent, bat boy and seventh grader, now a scout for the Oakland A’s: I met some people that I’m still friends with. I’m still in pro baseball, so I run across people a number of times a year that were on that club and that still are working in baseball. Even if it was just as a bat boy, fetching guys sodas between innings and getting guys hamburgers. That stuff was kind of cool.
Scribe vs. Team
Al Myatt, who now writes for the Goldsboro News-Argus after spending time at the Raleigh News & Observer, had to be at all of the home games because he was the official scorer for the league. He would send in a report after every contest to the Carolina League offices.
As the losses piled up, the interest — and the attendance — waned, and Myatt’s tone in the paper got snarkier by the day.
Al Myatt: It was kind of a topic in the newsroom — how much do we actually need to cover these guys? Nobody was clamoring to read about the Rocky Mount Pines.
It didn’t help that Rocky Mount Senior High, which was led by Bill Merrifield, a future Wake Forest standout whose son, Whit, is now a major leaguer, was on its way that spring to a state title. Both teams played in Municipal Stadium, a carved-out relic near downtown Rocky Mount that’s now an abandoned Legion field. The Gryphons, said Myatt, often outdrew the Pines and the joke was that the high school team could beat the professional team. Because Municipal Stadium was owned by the high school, its team took precedence in scheduling conflicts.
The sometimes-testy relationship between reporter Myatt and Fichman came to a head on June 25. During a road trip, the scribe decided to throw caution to the wind and declare war on a sagging season.
Here are some of the best lines from his column:
“Carolina League stats show the Pines with the worst team hitting average in the league but — give ‘em a break — they don’t get to hit against Pine pitchers.”
“Monday was Campbell Kids’ night at Municipal Stadium and the fans stayed away in droves.”
(Bob Feller was a part of Campbell Kids’ night.)
“Feller probably won’t include Rocky Mount among his list of top ten minor league towns he would like to return to. “Who’s ever heard of Bob Feller?,” shrugged Rocky Mount manager Mal Function…er, Mal Fichman.”
Fichman didn’t like Mal Function.
Al Myatt: I don’t think I actually coined the phrase, but I was the first to use it in print. He didn’t like that. He came back and he had something to say about it. He didn’t belabor the point but he expressed his displeasure about it.
Neil Avent: The fact that Mal means bad in Spanish, there was something there.
A Pine Makes his Mark
As the first half to the season ended, the Pines had a few days off before play resumed. But the break was short for two players — Nick Baltz and Jim Gabella — who were both chosen for the mid-July Carolina League All-Star Game in Kinston.
Gabella, who hit three home runs all year, came up in the bottom half of the 10th inning with a shot at ending it.
Al Myatt: It was a home run to left field. I still remember it so well. I remember chuckling to myself — it was a Rocky Mount Pine that decided the Carolina League All-Star game that year.
Jim Gabella, Pines infielder, selected for the Carolina League All-Star Game, now a scout in Florida for the San Francisco Giants: Al Gallagher was the manager and he told me the other shortstop on the roster got promoted two days before, so I played the whole game.
Neil Avent: Gabby was about the lightest hitting guy we had on the team. He was the last person you would expect to do that, and he did it. That would probably be the highlight of the year.
Part Three will run on Jan. 6 and be online here on Jan. 5.