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Baseball: Time Honored, Still Popular, Tradition in ENC

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National Baseball Hall of Fame
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The Major League Baseball began this week – joining the local season that started nearly two months ago in Eastern North Carolina. With the start of baseball season in Eastern North Carolina it comes traditions spanning more than a century.

The National Past-Time’s seemingly waning popularity is a popular topic of debate among sports fans and experts. But as Chris Thomas reports, baseball is still alive and strong in the region – even after losing one of its long-standing teams.>>>

Never mind the frost on your car windshield – when mid-February comes around, so does the spring equinox.

After all, that’s when baseball season starts – at least, at the region’s largest campus: East Carolina University.

 “What makes it so important at ECU is that it’s the one sport, I truly believe, it’s the one sport where ECU can make a national impact.”

Ronnie Woodward, ECU baseball beat writer for the Daily Reflector in Greenville.

ECU is an oddity among universities in North Carolina. Most schools long for winter, when basketball season kicks into high gear. Not so much at East Carolina. Statistics compiled by ESPN had ECU in the top 25 for total attendance last season – with 71,803 fans attending ball games in 2015.

“ECU has the best, I think, the number one average attendance in the state, for, like, 14-15 years running, so…they’re competing with Duke and NC State and North Carolina and South Carolina and Clemson. They can do it annually. I think that’s what makes baseball so important at ECU and why fans and administrators value it because, yeah, they can go to the College World Series.”

It goes beyond the campus, though. Minor League and amateur teams can be found across the state, including Wilmington, Morehead City, Wilson, Fayetteville, and Rocky Mount. North Carolina’s baseball tradition is long, storied, and famous.

Preserving its history is the responsibility of the North Carolina Baseball Museum in Wilson. Kent Montgomery is one of its caretakers.

“There’s been minor league teams in North Carolina since around the 1900s and…in 1949, for example…there were 50 minor league teams in North Carolina. (It) had the most in the nation.”

The museum’s staff works on a volunteer basis, collecting and inspecting memorabilia related to North Carolina’s contributions to the game. Montgomery likens his work to those of reality TV fame.

“I’m like the guy on Pawn Stars – you never know what’s going to come through that door. People come in with things all the time and I guess you get excited like a little kid, looking through it…not everything that comes (in that box) or not everything that comes in an envelope (is) what we were looking for, but you never know until you check it out…someone walked in with a small score book from the 1870s. How often are you going to find that? Boy, you talk about being excited when I saw that.”

But the East Carolina baseball team, also known as the “Diamond Bucs,” are the biggest ticket in the region now.

Between 1996 and 2015, the squad’s won 700 games, three regular-season conference championships, and four post-season conference championships – the latest coming last season.

The Diamond Bucs are also the only team in the four major, varsity, team sports to win a national championship. That came in 1961 but as Woodward explains, that comes with a slight caveat.

“It is an NAIA (the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) National Championship…it’s not an NCAA championship, which is…what is, obviously, recognized throughout the country.”

Recently, a select few Diamond Bucs have made their impact on the Major Leagues. 3rd Baseman Chad Tracy (who played for the team from 1999 to 2001) completed nine, professional seasons with a respectable .274 batting average. Pitcher Seth Maness played for ECU from 2009 and 2011, going on to win a National League Pennant with the Cardinals in 2013.

They were both part of squads that made it to the “Super Regional” round of the NCAA’s grueling National Championship tournament.

Woodward remembers the 2009 Diamond Bucs and the impact excitement they inspired across the region.

“South Carolina was…about to make a championship run, but they got here and ECU hosted them and beat South Carolina in the regional.”

Before Tracy and Maness’ full impact on the game is realized, they may end up in the museum’s hall of fame with men like Rocky Mount’s Buck Leonard, a Negro League player who finished his career with an, official, .320 batting average.

They also include two right handed aces who hailed from Eastern North Carolina – Gaylord Perry from Martin County and Jim “Catfish” Hunter from Perquimans County.

Here’s Hunter accepting his place in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987 found on Major League Baseball’s YouTube page.

 “I always loved to get on somebody that loafed because I knew he wasn’t putting out that hundred percent, and I wanted to tell him that, if he didn’t want to play – go home. And that’s the way I always thought about playing baseball or playing any sport or anything.”

Some of the game’s biggest stars played in the Old North State – including Bobby Bonds, father of controversial Home Run King, Barry Bonds.

Montgomery played with the elder Bonds briefly in the 1960s.

He mused it was unlikely he would have played majors like Bonds but said the museum includes players who spent their prime years playing in small towns across the state– including Eastern North Carolina.

“Folks back then played in the minor leagues for a long time – those who were waiting for a chance to go the major leagues – you don’t see that now-a-days. You’d have people who play in the minor leagues for 15-16 years and finally get a crack at the major leagues, then might not be there a year.”

The last, professional team in the region – the Kinston Indians – left for Zebulon in 2011. However, baseball still has a strong presence in Eastern North Carolina.

Elm Street Park in Greenville hosts a Little League tournament for teams throughout southeastern United States. The Coastal Plains League – with teams in Wilmington, Morehead City, and Wilson – is set to “play ball” at the end of May.

On the college front – both ECU and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington sport winning records. The latter is 16-9 and the former is, as per usual, holding strong.

“This team, right now, is a team that’s ranked in the teens in one poll and so this is going to be a regional team for sure. It’s pretty similar to that ’09 team.”

As for Kinston? Things are looking up for their prospects. According to multiple reports, the Texas Rangers plan to field a minor league team at Grainger Stadium by 2017.