The ‘state’ of NC baseball apparent at Hot Stove banquet

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The idea of building a baseball museum for North Carolina has rarely seemed more sound than at Tuesday’s 43rd annual Wilson Hot Stove League banquet, which appropriately serves as a major fundraiser for the North Carolina Baseball Museum in Fleming Stadium.

The museum, which has attracted more than 85,000 visitors since it opened in 2004, has always been about honoring the game of baseball from around the state. While efforts are ongoing to make it as representative as possible to the state as a whole, there is little doubt that eastern North Carolina has a strong presence in the lineup.

That was the case at the banquet, which reflected the past, present and future of baseball in North Carolina. In attendance were former Negro League players Clifford Layton and Luke Atkinson while one of the biggest contingents of former major leaguers at the banquet in recent years served further notice that baseball is part of North Carolina’s soul.

First-time attendees Tracy Woodson, Elliott Johnson and John Roper were joined by repeat visitors to Hot Stove functions: Mike Caldwell, John Donaldson, Bill Harrington, Billy Harris, Al Holland, Jim Holt, Monty Montgomery, Alvin Morman, Scott Pose, Dick Such, Tim Talton, Fred Valentine and Floyd Wicker.

Many of those guys played well before I had a clue what a baseball was, but I certainly remember Tracy Woodson breaking in with the Dodgers in 1987, just three years after being the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year at N.C. State. I remember Scott Pose playing for the Florida Marlins in their first season in 1993. I remember Al Holland being the closer for the Phillies when they won the National League pennant in 1983.

Hatcher, a pitcher for the A’s and the only current major leaguer at the banquet, is one of more two dozen North Carolina natives who played in the majors last season. Of that group, eight were born east or south of Raleigh — Hatcher (Kinston), Shawn Armstrong (New Bern), Carter Capps (Kinston), Lonnie Chisenhall (Morehead City), Rookie Davis (Sneads Ferry), Brian Goodwin (Rocky Mount), Seth Maness (Pinehurst) and Ryan Zimmerman (Washington).

Maness came to the Hot Stove banquet in 2012 to receive the Trot Nixon “Gamer” Award, whose namesake usually comes to present it. The Wilmington native and former Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians star had a previous commitment this year and wasn’t present.

Then there’s MacKenzie Gore, the former Whiteville High star pitcher, who is as good of a representation of the future of North Carolina baseball in the majors as there is. Gore was taken by the San Diego Padres with the No. 3 pick of the MLB First-Year Player Draft in June and will more than likely be on a big league mound within a few years.

The more distant future of N.C. baseball was also present with members of the Greenville North State Little League team that finished second at the Little League World Series last summer in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. On the other side of the room sat members of Wilson City Little League’s ages 7-8 team that won the state championship.

And if there was one man who embodied the past, present and future of North Carolina baseball it was none other than legendary Greenville Rose High coach Ronald Vincent. “RV,” as he is known throughout Pitt County and beyond, won his first state title with the Rampants in 1975, a year after he began coaching them. He’s won five more since then, most recently in 2008.

He picked up his 900th win last April and has shown no signs of slowing down as he approaches his 48th season as a high school coach. Vincent’s impact is felt not only at Rose High but at the Little League and youth levels in Greenville as evidenced by the showing in Williamsport.

I went to my first Hot Stove banquet in 1978 at the Wilson Moose Lodge and listened to former New York Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson speak. I remember vividly Bob Uecker’s deadpan expression as he delivered zinger after zinger to a roaring audience in 1983 at the Moose Lodge. I’ve been to each of the last seven banquets but last night had a different feel than any of those other midwinter salutes to the summer game, one that went far beyond Wilson.

Hopefully the Wilson Hot Stove and the North Carolina Baseball Museum will continue to expand its reach that will reflect across the entire state.