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For the better part of a century, Wilson has been touted as a baseball town.
The Eastern North Carolina community thrived in that capacity as the 43rd annual banquet of the Wilson Hot Stove League attracted a turnout of some 400 in the Wilson Recreation Park Community Center on Tuesday evening.
“When you take the pulse of this sport across the country and around the world, it cycles back to this community,” expressed Greg Suire, president of the Wilson Tobs summer collegiate baseball team of the Coastal Plain League.
In his brief remarks, Suire pointed out Wilson has fielded a team named the Tobacconists (Tobs) since 1908.
Arguably, the No. 1 Wilson Tob is Justin Verlander, who was traded from the Detroit Tigers to the Houston Astros during the second half of the 2017 season and led the Astros to the World Series championship. Verlander played for the Tobs before embarking upon his major league career.
Andre Nnebe, who played for the Tobs late in 2017, was proclaimed by Perfect Game as the top prospect in the Coastal Plain League.
Alex Bregman, the Astros third baseman, played in Fleming Stadium as a member of the Team USA in 2014.
Three Tar Heels were drafted in the first round of the 2017 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. In attendance, was Whiteville’s MacKenzie Gore, the No. 3 pick.
Entertaining the large crowd in the capacity of featured speaker was Chris Hatcher, a right-handed relief pitcher for the Oakland Athletics and a product of Kinston.
Wilson shared the spotlight with the communities of Kinston, Greenville and Zebulon.
Recognized from Greenville was the Southeast Region All-Star championship team that flirted with capturing the Little League Baseball World Series in Williamsport, Pennsyvlania, before winding up fourth in the world and second in the USA division. Approximately a half-dozen team members traveled to Wilson.
Also, veteran Greenville Rose High head baseball coach Ron Vincent was hailed the recipient of the Clyde King Memorial Excellence in Coaching Award. Vincent, still the head coach, has directed the Rampants to a state-record 907 victories and six North Carolina High School Athletic Association championship.
The Hot Stove toasted the City of Wilson’s second Little League Baseball state champion — the Ages 7-8 All-Stars, who went undefeated in five pool-play games, outscoring the opposition 31-5, before defeating Bull City of Durham for the state crown. Most of the team was there to draw the crowd’s applause.
A definite highlight was the surprise introduction of Fremont’s Joe Marm. A resident of Fremont and a fan of Charles B. Aycock High athletics, Marm is one of thew winners of the Congressional Medal of Honor who is still living. A retired Lieutenant-Colonel in the Army, Marm served in Vietnam. He acknowledged a standing ovation.
Also speaking were Wilson American Legion Athletic Officer Bob Walston, new Barton head baseball coach Jim Chester, David Lawrence of the Carolina Mudcats professional baseball team located in Zebulon, Paul Durham, sports editor of The Wilson Times; Tony Riggsbee, voice of the Durham Bulls; Babe Allen, head of the Eastern Plains Athletic Association; and Hot Stove officials Keith Barnes, Kent Montgomery and Princie Evans. Master of ceremonies Alton Britt provided the “footnotes.”
Hatcher, selected in the fifth round of the 2006 draft by the Florida (now Miami) Marlins, emphasized he was not a professional speaker but his presentation proved a hit with his audience.
Hatcher, traded from the Los Angeles Dodgers to the Oakland Athletics last August, reflected on youth lessons learned and talked about his major league experiences.
He also offered advice to Gore, who signed with the San Diego Padres and played in the Arizona League last summer.
“Don’t look back and don’t look ahead,” Hatcher challenged. “Keep your nose down and do your job.”
He played for Kinston High, the Kinston American Legion teams and spent three years at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington before signing with the Marlins.
Hatcher assured he has never forgotten that his coaches, the late Ronnie Battle at Kinston High and James “Rabbit” Fulghum with a travel team, encouraged him to “be humble.
“Things happened to me coming up that were not explainable,” Hatcher continued.
Paramount was shifting from catcher to pitcher. In 2011, Hatcher became the first player since 1935 to transition from catcher to pitcher in one year. He described the outset of the transition as “weird.”
“It worked out better,” he declared. “It proved to be a pretty bright move by a lot of people — and myself. And I am happy to be in front of you tonight.”
Hatcher was catching at the Double-A level and had to sit out after being hit on the left hand by a pitch. A doubleheader was coming up and the manager inquired of the possibility of Hatcher pitching in the event of a shortage of arms.
Hatcher’s services were needed on the mound and the right-hander primarily threw fastballs.
Later, Andrew Miller, now one of baseball’s top relievers, rushed to him and exclaimed: “You hit 98 (miles per hour) on the gun.”
Hatcher, during his question-and-answer session, admitted he was unhappy about being traded from a contending Dodgers club to the “bottom-of-the-totem-pole” A’s. But the opportunity to work to 23 innings in relief with Oakland left him much more upbeat about his plight.
Wilson’s reputation as a baseball town drew the attention of Barton’s Chester.
“I was informed Wilson was a baseball town,” he remarked, “and, tonight, I see that. Amazing! I am happy to call Wilson home. Let’s have a great baseball year.”
And as the Mudcats’ Lawrence quipped: “The barbecue is the great part of being here.”