Newsmaker of the year: Wineka column on how 2009 proved special to boys of summer
Every summer, Rowan Countians fall in love all over again with American Legion baseball.
But the summer of 2009 was special.
There was something about this group of kids that was different.
In sports they like to call it “chemistry.” The good teams have it. They say a lack of chemistry is often the reason talented teams see their seasons end too soon.
The 2009 Rowan boys had a chemical makeup allowing them to win games that seemed unwinnable. Their collective DNA took them places that probably at the beginning of the year seem unreachable.
The best thing was, we went along for the ride.
For giving us a summer of excitement and escape from a year that, for many of us, was one of the toughest in our lives, the Salisbury Post has chosen the Rowan County American Legion baseball team as its 2009 Newsmaker of the Year.
The team’s coach, Jim Gantt, probably summed up best why this team was so resilient.
“This team wanted to play longer than other teams,” Gantt said this week. “… Those guys wanted to play a long time, and that’s something you can’t coach.”
The 2009 team joined the 1955 and 1996 Rowan Legion squads in local lore by reaching the Little World Series, which this year brought together the country’s eight regional winners in Fargo, N.D.
The Rowan boys went 2-2 in that double-elimination tournament, finishing third in the nation.
Their run included a stretch of 16 games in August during which they won the N.C. Legion championship in Greenville, the Southeast Regional championship in Sumter, S.C., and eliminated the defending national champions from Las Vegas in Fargo.
In that game against the Nevada champs, Rowan County escaped from a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the bottom of the last inning and went on to win the game 8-7 in extra frames.
In the game sending Rowan home from Fargo, the local team trailed against the eventual national champion (Midland, Mich.) 12-0, only to mount a furious rally that fell short 15-14.
Rowan had the tying run on second when the season ended, and everyone in the stadium still believed that somehow it would find a way to get that runner in.
When the bus carrying the “Fargonauts” arrived back home at Catawba College’s Newman Park, hundreds of people greeted the players and coaches.
The fans who didn’t travel to Greenville, Sumter and Fargo ó and there were many who did ó followed the team’s fortunes in the newspaper, on Internet Webcasts or on WSAT and WSTP radio stations.
Each of the Salisbury AM stations broadcast all 49 Rowan Legion games in 2009.
“This team will always be one we all remember,” WSTP Sports Director Howard Platt said.
The players may not have been the most talented Rowan County has ever put on a playing field, Platt added, but it definitely was the best team he has covered.
“Every one of the 18 guys on that team made a great contribution,” Platt said.
On seven occasions during their incredible run in August, the Rowan team played in an elimination game. Its record in those games: 7-0. The team from Michigan finally ended the streak.
As good as the games in Fargo were, Team Manager Bob Lowman says Rowan’s Southeast Regional series in Sumter included some of the greatest games he ever watched in his life. In both the state and regional series, Rowan won with 5-1 records.
The games were nail-biters.
Lowman, whose work for the team amounted to a full-time, volunteer job, probably came to know the players better than anyone.
“I love every one of these boys,”‘ he said.
At a year-end banquet Monday night, each Rowan player received a handsomely cast, red-stone championship ring, an autographed baseball signed by his teammates and coaches and the uniform vest with his number on it.
Lowman also gave each player a scrapbook including things such as photograph CDs from Fargo, newspaper clippings, the season schedule, team roster, copies of meal tickets, series programs and resolutions passed by city and county governments.
Lowman said the season might not mean as much to the busy young men now as it will in 20 years.
Alex Litaker, the reliever who used 23 pitches to extricate Rowan from its last-inning jam against Nevada, said he has heard people use the 20-year figure a lot.
They may be right, he acknowledged. “It still hasn’t sunk in,” Litaker said.
A freshman at Brevard, he hopes to return and pitch for the Rowan team in 2010.
Forrest Buchanan, a starting pitcher who went 10-0 over the season, said the championship runs mean the world to him.
“It’s just something I’m going to appreciate for the rest of my life,” he said.
A freshman at Belmont Abbey, Buchanan said he will always think of the little things that happened making it possible for the team to survive and advance.
“The little breaks we got,” he said. “It’s a game of inches.”
It’s probably not fair to think of this team only as a gritty bunch of overachievers.
When you look at some of the season and career records set by Rowan Legion players since 1951, players on the 2009 are well represented.
The team set the Rowan record for home runs, with 66 during the season. It averaged a whopping 11 runs and 12 hits a game. Hardly shabby.
Longtime observers say first baseman Trey Holmes had one of the best individual seasons ever. He won the team triple crown with a .455 average, 16 home runs and 73 runs batted in.
A recent transfer to Appalachian State University, Holmes also set Rowan season records for hits (96) and doubles (28) on his way to being named MVP of the state and Southeast Regional tournaments and a member of the all-tourney team in Fargo.
Lowman said it’s not good to give up secrets of the clubhouse. But when it came to tidiness, the 2009 team was “a pack of dogs,” he said, smiling. Things especially got messy when he had to put four players per hotel room, Lowman recalled.
Buchanan probably was the cleanest of the bunch, he reported, though he once spied Casey Little ironing his clothes during some down time between games.
Gantt said baseball is a family-oriented sport and every time the economy goes bad, the sport seems to flourish. “Baseball is something that can keep you going forever,” he said.
The Rowan team was especially important during this year’s “Great Recession,” which saw the unemployment numbers reach nearly 14 percent in July. Long-established companies closed. Food distributions to the needy attracted thousands. Many families lost their homes to foreclosure.
Every year the local baseball team, which plays its home games at Catawba College’s Newman Park, provides a respite of sorts. It’s found in the faces of the Legionnaires greeting fans at the gate, selling 50-50 tickets or working the concession stand.
We hear it in the buzz among parents and spectators talking about a good play or a bad call.
We sit up at the crack of a bat, the whiz of a fastball or the dust from a stolen base.
Platt, who has been broadcasting Legion games for more than 30 years, said, “It’s one of the most important things I do.”
For the community, Legion baseball is a resilient thing and nothing embodied it more than the 2009 players.
“This is the best team I’ve been a part of and may be the best team period,” Gantt said. “… It was a great summer.”
Past Newsmakers of the year
1984: Elizabeth Dole
1985: David Murdock
1986: Jim Hurley III
1987: Edward Clement
1988: Tim Russell
1989: Don Martin
1990: Darrell Hinnant
1991: Ralph and Anne Ketner
1992: Food Lion
1993: Newton Cohen
1994: Bob Martin
1995: Fieldcrest-Cannon Stadium.
1996: Rowan Regional Medical Center
1997: Four children die of abuse
1998: Julian Robertson Jr.
1999: David Treme
2000: Displaced workers
2001: Dale Earnhardt
2002: Elizabeth Dole
2003: U.S. soldiers
2004: Dr. Albert J.D. Aymer
2005: Tim Russell
2006: Jack Thomson
2007: Treasure Feamster
2008: Victor Isler Sr., Justin Monroe