May 29, 2009
The rain started at War Memorial Stadium on Thursday long before Peninsula Pilots faithful realized.
Four hours before the home opener against the Outer Banks Daredevils, under a blue sky, a drainage pipe behind the pitcher's mound burst, sending geysers of water onto the infield.
"Five more minutes," coach Hank Morgan said, "and we'd have had a 'rainout.' "
And what does a tobacco-spittin' baseball junkie without a plumber's union card do in such straits?
"Stick a finger in the fitting and call for help," Morgan laughed, sporting a battle scar on his right palm.
One cutoff valve later, the Pilots were back in the business of attempting to launch their 10th season of homespun Coastal Plain League competition on Pembroke Avenue.
Alas, the true washout came with the teams deadlocked at 1 after two innings, sending a packed house of approximately 3,500 scurrying for cover.
Contrast that to the announced crowd of 714 (wink, wink) for Peninsula's opener Wednesday at Petersburg.
"To see all the people back here is really gratifying," Morgan said. "We don't have a lot of fancy seating or fancy ticket packages. What we do have is a lot of personality."
Indeed, if you like baseball with creature comforts and gourmet grub, go elsewhere. If you're charmed by a community and business treating a bunch of college kids like family, come on down, grab a bleacher seat and meet players such as Jake McAloose — the next home game is Saturday night against Petersburg.
A first-team all-Colonial Athletic Association third baseman at Old Dominion this spring, McAloose is as close to a Pilots lifer as it gets. He hails from Virginia Beach, and this is his third season with the team.
"It's a lot of fun," McAloose said. "That's why I'm back. It's a great atmosphere for players and fans."
So enamored are the locals that several youth leagues postponed their games Thursday to allow folks to head to War Memorial. And why not?
The prices are right, burgers sizzling, bags of peanuts crazy generous. And don't forget the product — spirited wooden-bat baseball that spares spectators aluminum's dreadful ping.
"My husband and I have been attending Pilots games for about six years now," said Heather Seidnitzer of Hampton, who was pained to miss Thursday due to a class conflict. "We go because it's family. Before we attended our first game, we never really watched baseball. … But there is something magical about War Memorial Stadium. It brings you back to your childhood. …
"Every opening game is like a family reunion, reconnecting with the family you see every summer watching their kids grow. I love the wooden bleachers, the closeness with the team. They are always so friendly. Sure they are just college guys playing summer ball, but to my friend's little boy they are baseball players, and they take the time to throw (kids) the ball and sign their glove every single game."
As the season progresses and players join the Pilots from college programs still competing in the NCAA tournament, fans will recognize more and more faces.
Returnees scheduled to arrive include two 2008 Coastal Plain all-stars — Western Kentucky second baseman Matt Payton and Kent State outfielder Anthony Gallas. Payton led Peninsula with a .344 average last season, while Gallas hit a franchise-record 10 home runs.
Also expected back is Coastal Carolina catcher Jose Iglesias, whose 2008 Pilots season ended prematurely in July when he sustained a broken jaw.
"The cavalry," Morgan called them.
Even now there are intriguing talents such as center fielder Ty Rivers, a graduate of Suffolk's Nansemond River High. He stole 19 bases in 22 attempts for Radford this season, and in the first inning Thursday manufactured a run by swiping second and third.
There's also first baseman Michael Mergenthaler, who led the University of Richmond with 40 RBI while hitting .301.
"Once everybody gets here, we're good," McAloose said. "We'll get back to the bonding we had last summer."
McAloose hit .413 for ODU, and Morgan is shifting him to shortstop for the summer. Sure enough, McAloose produced a defensive gem, lunging to his right to snare a ball deflected by pitcher Kevin Crimmel and tossing to second baseman Chris Joyce for a force out.
Apparently Morgan knows baseball better than he does pipes.
He and his father, team owner Henry Morgan, also know something about the common touch. Just ask season-ticket holder Bill Strickland, who was back at the park along with a group from Harbor Pointe Community Church in Hampton.
"I love the crack of the wooden bats, the snap of the ball hitting leather gloves, the smell of the foods, the warm summer breezes, snagging some autographs," Strickland said. "Perfect place to bring the entire family."
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at email@example.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime.
Tonight's gameWHO: Pilots