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Catawba baseball: Crowd comes out to say goodbye to Newman Park

By Mike London

mike.london@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — East Rowan legend Leonard Robbins watched from the box seats on Saturday, soaking up the final regular-season game that will be played at Newman Park in its current state.

A massive, multi-million dollar remodel, including a turf field, is scheduled for June, so Robbins and hundreds of others came to say goodbye to the old-school grass and dirt. They said fond farewells to a picturesque park that has meant so much to so many.

Robbins’ eyes stayed dry, but his heart was full.

“I played on the Rowan County American Legion team in 1962 and 1963, a time when we had Don Heglar and Dale Lefler pitching,” Robbins said. “My best memory of Newman Park was sliding home and scoring on a squeeze bunt to beat Kannapolis 2-1 in  ’62. We had our battles with Kannapolis.”

Catawba’s baseball team beat Anderson 3-1 and 11-1 on Saturday to wrap up another South Atlantic Conference regular-season championship. The story off the field was as big as the one happening on it.  The final gasps of Newman Park attracted one of the largest crowds to see a college game there. Nostalgic, smiling people were everywhere.

“This new field is going to be a very good thing for Catawba,” Robbins said. “It’s time.”

Craig Johnson, a long-time local coach whose son Connor fired left-handed bullets for the Indians for four years, was in the crowd.

“Connor got so many great opportunities to pitch in this park for Coach (Jim) Gantt, got opportunities to play in summer wood bat leagues,” Johnson said. “He got to pitch in the D-II World Series for Catawba as a freshman. I have so many great memories of my son pitching for the Legion and for Catawba and he got a college education.”

The season continues, but Saturday’s games are scheduled to be the last hurrah at Newman Park for young Rowan legends.

Outfielder Lee Poteat, who had two doubles and three RBIs in Game 2, is playing in his seventh season for Gantt, three with Rowan American Legion (he was region player of the year) and  four for Catawba.

Pitchers Hunter Shepherd and Bryan Ketchie (8-0), local products who have been around for five seasons, won one more time on Saturday, as they continue to climb Catawba’s all-time wins list. Sawyer Strickland, another local guy, got the last two outs.

Jeremy Simpson, a thin high schooler in his days at West Rowan, has been around so long that he’s muscled up into a cleanup hitter. Simpson played his first game for the Indians at Newman Park back on Feb. 20, 2016, but after a medical redshirt and a COVID redshirt and three SAC Gold Gloves, he’s still at shortstop. He’s caught everything hit in his direction for a long time, and he soared to snag a line drive to help Shepherd through a challenging first game.

Shepherd didn’t fool a lot of hitters, but guys made the plays behind him.

The locals had plenty of help. Robbie Cowie saved the first game for Shepherd. Catcher Cameron Morrison got the key hit in the first game. DH Dylan Wilkinson, second baseman Joe Butts and center fielder Bryce Butler tore the cover off the ball in Game 2.

Catawba (29-7, 24-6) is peaking at the right time. The Indians have won 10 in a row and 16 of 17.

The seniors who were honored on Saturdy have grown accustomed to winning titles.

The Indians were conference champs in 2016, 2017 and 2018. They won the SAC tournament and the regional for their third trip to the D-II national championships in 2019 before being stopped short of near-certain additional titles by COVID in 2020.

The Indians returned to their championship ways on Saturday in front of an appreciative crowd.

Danny Crosby, former South Rowan AD and long-time coach, watched his nephew Michael Lowman play on the 1996 Rowan County American Legion team that won the Southeast Regional at Newman Park, but his favorite Newman Park memory came from 2002.

“The state tournament was at Newman that year, and Rowan won it,” he said. “They asked me to come up and help out with the ground crew all week. What an honor that was.”

For former East Rowan coach Brian Hightower every trip to Newman Park is meaningful, and he made one more on Saturday. Hightower was an all-conference second baseman for Catawba in 1992 and 1993. The 1992 Indians went 21-0 in league play.

“When you’re 21-0 that has to be the best memory, and the reunion we had was right up there,” Hightower said. “I’ve been texting my college teammates all day, keeping them up to date on everything that’s going on out here.”

Hightower said it doesn’t hurt that much to know that the old park is on its last legs. Change is inevitable, and as wonderful as the park has been, upgrades to dugouts, locker rooms, rest rooms and bleachers, among other things, are necessary. A turf field will save hours of sweat and labor every time there’s a thunderstorm.

But the place was still a house of magic whenever the sun came out and the rain clouds dispersed.

“I’ve played ball in a lot of places, but there’s not any better place than Newman Park,” Hightower said. “I loved to hit here and I loved playing here. But if they can tear down Yankee Stadium and build it back better, then they can tear down Newman Park and build it back better than it was. It’s time for the turf field. American Legion baseball deserves it. Catawba baseball deserves it. Most of all, Jim Gantt deserves it.”

West Rowan athletic director Todd Bell transported a half-dozen wide-eyed youngsters to see the “old” Newman Park while they still could. Some had never seen the field before, and their jaws dropped in awe and wonder. To them, the Catawba players were big leaguers.

“Back when I was playing Legion ball for Kannapolis against Coach Jim DeHart’s Rowan County teams, the first thing I looked at every year when the schedule came out was when did we play at Rowan County,” Bell said. “Everyone loved coming to Newman Park and playing in front of that big crowd. Newman Park is a beautiful place.”

Hightower concluded: “Newman Park is just different. The minute you walk in here, it feels different than anywhere else.”

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