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Minor League Baseball in Fayetteville, NC

Minor League Baseball in Fayetteville, NC

Minor League Baseball in Fayetteville

I grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

Fayetteville – sweltering in the sandhills an hour and a half south of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill and west of the nearest beach – has always aspired to prominence. An All-American City ever striving to be all it can be.

It angled to be the capitol of North Carolina, getting as far as hosting the state convention that ratified the US Constitution and some General Assembly sessions. But Raleigh beat it out.

With the Cape Fear River running through it, Fayetteville imagined the wealth to be made as a gateway for barges coming up from Wilmington on their way upstate. But the blackwater hid shifting hazards and the boats kept sinking.

Having picked the wrong side in the Civil War, Sherman burned its Arsenal in 1865.

Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run in Fayetteville in 1914, but Babe left town for Boston and New York and never looked back.

Still, Fayetteville keeps swinging and – in 1987 – got a hit by bringing professional baseball back to North Carolina after over 30-years of absence. The Fayetteville Generals – a Class A farm club of the Detroit Tigers – were here.

Jason and I were back for the summer after our first year of college – Jason at UNC, me at Guilford College. Let’s go see the Generals play! Ok.

Jason came over and we waited until Dad got home from work. He jumped in the front seat of my car with Jason in the back and we headed to the game. No time to change, Dad was still in his short-sleeved collar shirt and khakis.

We pulled into the parking lot of JP Riddle Stadium on the outskirts of Fayetteville on May 14, 1990. The Fayetteville Generals were playing the Gastonia Rangers. The night was warm and “muggy” – a word we used a lot in Fayetteville.

We parked and walked across the lot towards the stadium’s low bleachers. Cars were parked so close to the stadium that – at foul balls – the crowd hushed – waiting for the sound of breaking glass.

Dad pitched in college but quit playing to focus on pre-med. I was cut from my middle school team twice before reluctantly moving on to less graceful sports, but Dad and I still spent hours playing catch in the front yard. I would ask him if he wanted to play, and he would whenever he could just like his dad had played with him. I loved the time together and how I would forget everything when the ball was in the air.

We sat on the ribbed aluminum, backless bleachers to watch the game. Dad ate a hot dog. I drank a 32 ounce Diet Coke. Small children laughed as the Bleacher Creature teased them.

The Generals’ orange and blue uniforms were spiffy, and I felt a reflected importance in their clean navy hats with four simple stars, an homage to the nearby generals at Fort Bragg.

Jason, told stories, and I laughed. Dad – a big man – watched the game with wide eyes. The Generals were winning 7-0. We were happy.

At the top of the third inning, the crowd hushed. All eyes, including ours, turned to the Gastonia dugout. Players and coaches were looking down, towards the dugout floor, to a plane we couldn’t see.

A coach and trainer were kneeling. Other players orbited, looking down. One player’s mouth was open. Another, at the other side of the dugout was kneeling in prayer.

The public announcer came on the loudspeaker: “Is there a doctor in the stands?”

Dad sat up straight. He blinked.

“Is there a doctor in the stands? Doctor to the dugout. Please.”

Dad handed me his food and rushed along the bleacher and then down the stairs and along the lower walkway behind home plate to the visitor’s dugout. We were sitting behind the home team and could see across the diamond to the visitor’s dugout, though the distance and shadow and circling players obscured our vision.

A player had collapsed. That’s all we knew.

Dad knelt in the dugout and attended to the man on the floor we could not see.

We heard the sirens of an ambulance in the distance. Dad and people I imagined to be athletic trainers started CPR in the dugout. Years later, Dad told me a nurse had rushed down from the stands to assist as well. I didn’t see her; I was focused on him.

The ambulance pulled through a wide gate in right field, across the diamond and up to the Rangers’ dugout. EMTs rushed out and down into the dugout. They joined the small circle, enlarging it, my dad still engaged as the EMTs took over.

They brought a stretcher from the ambulance, put the player on it, and then put the stretcher on the gurney that waited at the top of the dugout. They put it all in the ambulance. Dad climbed in too.

The ambulance moved fast off the field. It waited until it hit the main road to hit the siren. I remember the red lights and siren carrying Dad and the player away to Cape Fear Valley Medical Center.

Dad was gone, leaving only Jason and me, the players, and the crowd. The shocked announcer shared that the game was cancelled, and we all headed to our cars.

Jason and I talked excitedly at points – “I hope the player’s ok!” and “I can’t believe my dad got in the ambulance!” – and stayed quiet at others, pondering a young professional athlete going down and a cancelled baseball game. That’s not supposed to happen.

I also felt important. A mirrored importance. An importance of proximity. I was not a baseball player or doctor, and never would be. I had an inkling that, “You can do anything that you set your mind to” was a lie but – at that age – still only an inkling. But that was my dad getting in the ambulance. That made me important too, right?

We walked back to the car and I took Jason home. I waited up for a while but went to bed before Dad got home.

I learned the next morning that the player who collapsed was Ronaldo Romero, a 19-year old pitcher from Barranquilla, Columbia. Ronaldo had a heart seizure in the dugout and was pronounced dead at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center a short time later.

Reading the newspaper – which mentioned an “unidentified doctor” who attended to the pitcher at the scene – I had a moment of doubt: Had Dad done something wrong? No. An autopsy showed an enlarged heart as the cause of death. Caffeine “pep pills” made the news too, but who knows. Dad tried. He did his duty. He just couldn’t save him.

I wonder about Ronaldo now, 30 years later. Ronaldo was a long way from home. I’m sorry that happened to you.

The Fayetteville Generals left town in 1997 after losing money. They were replaced by the Fayetteville Crocs for two years before they left the outdated JP Riddle Stadium too in 2000.

Nineteen years later pro baseball returned to Fayetteville. In 2019 the Fayetteville Woodpeckers arrived to start playing in a beautiful new $38 million downtown stadium.

I honestly believe they will make it.

 

Greg Loughlin is a nonfiction writer who lives in Atlanta, Georgia. He works at Men Stopping Violence, a social change organization, and much of his work involves fathers, sons, accountability, and community. He co-authored a peer reviewed textbook chapter on preventing male sexual violence, and his essays and op-eds have appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Atlanta Voice, Voice Male Magazine, and Medium. Follow Greg on Twitter: @greg_loughlin and on Instagram: @greg_loughlin4

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