This blog is where I can pour out my heart with my longing for God.

Archive for the ‘sports’ Category

The Old Paths: The Right Thing to Do

**This was originally published on Thursday, August 8, 2013, in my newspaper column, “The Old Paths,” in The Stokes News. Due to a website change a few years ago, the publishing company broke all links to our old articles which were archived online. This was a tragic mistake and resulted in the loss of thousands of newspaper articles. Little by little, I am putting my old columns on this blog so that they can be preserved. Each column may be updated to reflect present times when transferred to this blog.**

do the right thing
“It may not be the RIGHT thing to do, but it’s the THING to do,” said my hubster after a particularly tense baseball game.

“But if it isn’t the right thing to do, then isn’t it the wrong thing to do?” I asked, trying to understand the logic of situational ethics.

The situation in question had occurred when an opposing pitcher in our men’s baseball league had purposely hit one of our players. Since the hit batsman happened to be our ace pitcher, our team’s strategy was that HE would hit THEIR pitcher next time he was up to bat.

I disagreed with the strategy, arguing that it was antiChristian. The hubster informed me that baseball was different—that such “eye for an eye” behavior was expected in a fiercely competitive atmosphere.

So good ethics for daily living are discarded on the field of play? Really?

This ethics morass in baseball troubles me. Yes, this game which I so love is indeed a competition where the best man/team wins, but must we incorporate dirty play? Must we bean them with a pitch after they bean us? Must we take performance-enhancing drugs to make us more successful? Have we lost some of the beauty and joy of America’s grand old game?

no right way to do wrong thing

Then I was reminded of something that happened in that tension-filled ballgame when even I—mild-mannered Leslie—stood up from the bleachers and cried, “Let’s just all go home. We don’t have to play under these conditions!” (The ump had just unfairly removed one of our players after accusing him of doing something he truly didn’t do.)

Shortly after the explosive situation on the field, a Hispanic boy—maybe 14—wandered up to the bleachers with his mother in tow. She did not speak English. They sat right beside me although the bleachers were fairly empty. At first, that irritated me.

Then he began talking to me, which normally irritates me as well in the middle of an action-packed game. But his face was so cherubic and innocent and his voice so polite and kind that I was quickly won over.

“Is your team the blue team?” he asked with a sweet smile. As I nodded yes, he declared, “Then I’m pulling for them, too!”

Then in a tone of awed wonder, “Are they a professional team?” I laughingly assured him they were not.

DSCN9339.JPG

My hubster batting at that field in High Point.

My heart melted even more as the boy kept explaining the game to his clueless mother with a respectful, loving tone. I understand Spanish fairly well and tried not to chuckle at his somewhat muddled explanations.

I asked him if he watched baseball on TV. He said sometimes. I told him I liked the Yankees. He got excited and said that was the team that played football in New Jersey, wasn’t it? I hid a smile as I explained to him that the Yankees were a baseball team in New York.

He obviously did not understand the rules of baseball very well, so I explained some fundamental ones to him so that he could, in turn, teach his mother. His mistakes were cute ones a much younger child might make, yet this teenager was so humble that no embarrassment entered into his realization that he had a lot to learn.

Suddenly I was seeing this tired old game with new eyes—like someone watching it for the first time and finding great joy in it. I was a little girl again, watching MLB with my dad as he explained the game to me.

innocence of a child

Then a fan nearby yelled something in a mean tone to the umpire. The fan’s cohort loudly echoed the ugly sentiment. Puzzled, the boy turned to look at the angry fans. His face was truly troubled—pained, even.

I felt horribly embarrassed. It was as if we had besmeared something innocent, as if we had poured black grease onto a solid white robe.

I apologized to the boy and explained to him that we had had some unfair officiating earlier. He smiled kindly and tried to understand. But I was ashamed—ashamed of my previous fit of temper and ashamed of the continued loudmouthed heckling by others.

Before long, the boy turned to me with his humble demeanor and thanked me for talking with him. His dark eyes were alight as he wished our team the best. “Maybe I’ll come back some time, and you guys will be playing again!” he said, as if it were the deepest desire of his heart.

As they stood to go, his mother nodded to me and tried to convey her appreciation in broken and heavily-accented English. She finally just stopped and haltingly said “Thank you” with an appreciative smile.

As he walked away, the boy turned back with a smile of pure joy and waved to me. Although I have returned many times to that field in High Point, I have never seen him again. I don’t even know his name. But I will never forget him. His behavior was so “unearthly” that I have even questioned if he was a real person or if I was entertaining an angel unawares, as the Good Book says we will sometimes do.

Later, as my hubster insisted that intentionally hitting a batter “may not be the right thing to do, but it’s the thing to do,” I felt led to tell him the story of the innocent boy and his joy in watching that game. In the telling of the story, my voice unexpectedly broke, and my eyes filled with tears. My hubster’s eyes also got suspiciously moist as he shook his head and said, “I was wrong. The right thing to do is ALWAYS the right thing to do.”

Sometimes it takes an innocent child to turn us back to the old paths of what is good and pure.

right time--right thing--mlk

Advertisements

The Old Paths: A Manic March

**This was originally published in a similar form in The Stokes News on March 21, 2013. When the publishers changed websites a few years back, all links to archived articles were tragically lost. I am attempting to republish in my blog all of my columns that once appeared in the newspaper. I have updated this column to reflect life in 2016.

March--hello--spring

I have always told people that June was my favorite month. Yes, yes, I’m biased because June is my birth month. But I’m wondering if I might have to change my favorite month to March. With the madness of March, you wouldn’t think it appeals to me, but it does.

March madnessThe term “March Madness” is technically a reference to the intensity of the NCAA basketball tournament and the conference tournaments that lead into it.
But the phrase also pretty much sums up my life in March for the past several years.

In fact, this year’s March is downright manic. There is so much going on that you barely have time to breathe and sit a spell. (You, too, huh?)

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Easter comes in March this year. Most of us identify Easter with April, but every so often it hits in late March. That makes for a much busier month.

Add to that the fact that it’s time for my hubster’s adult baseball team to start practicing. Since my son is now on that team—having graduated from high school baseball—you will probably find me headed to practices as I did on the old paths of his childhood baseball career. Opening Day of the season is in early April, so March is preparation month. (My sportswriter friend Dennis says the sanctity of the first day of the Major League Baseball season demands proper-noun-like capital letters: Opening Day. I have taken the liberty of using the caps for my family’s season-opener as well.)

DSCN8955

My son Elijah batting for the Twins adult baseball team in 2015.

Let’s throw something else into the mix—Daylight Saving Time. On the old paths, DST started the first Sunday in April. But the U.S. government passed an energy bill in 2005 which changed all of that. Since 2007, DST has begun the second Sunday in March.

That may not seem like such a big deal, but since it takes a few weeks for most people to physically acclimate to the time change, it is an especially huge deal this year with such a busy March. Many of us may feel draggy, blah, sleepy, even sick once we spring forward on March 13. Yes, our bodies’ circadian rhythms are so delicate that a mere hour’s change affects us in myriad ways—even resulting in more heart attacks and auto accidents the first few weeks after the time change. (Let’s don’t claim that—okay?)DST--Frodo

So just when we need that extra energy—to start running the kids to baseball, softball and soccer practices; to fill out our tournament brackets and get pumped over “one-and-done” basketball games; to start dying ye old Easter eggs and plan the family Easter gathering—we are zapped, slammed, run over by a time truck that took an hour of our sleep.

But lest we become despondent, let’s look at the joy that is March. The energy-sapping time change has given us more time in the evening after work to throw ball with the kids, start tilling up the garden spot, sit out on the porch and feast our eyes on the forsythia.

Then there’s St. Patrick’s Day—a holiday I am particularly partial to, given my love for Ireland and for St. Patrick, that phenomenal man of God who evangelized the Emerald Isle. We don the springlike green clothing and playfully pinch party-poopers who refuse the wearin’ o’ the green. We eat corned beef and cabbage followed by doughnuts or cookies decorated with green icing. Some drink green beer and Irish dance in parades and Celtic festivals.

DSCN4188

My kids and I at our 2014 March 4-H meeting!

And if that’s not enough joy for you, there’s that most excellent and bodacious day of the year—the vernal equinox. Before you wrinkle your brow, let’s put it in simpler terms—THE FIRST DAY OF SPRING!

I would lobby to make this a government holiday and give everyone the day off. We should celebrate the day we cross the line into more light than darkness. “Equinox” is the word for the day of the year that the periods of daylight and dark are equal. “Ver” is the Latin word for spring, so we arrive at the “vernal equinox” when hours of light begin to outnumber the dark…..until the autumnal equinox in September.Spring--1st day

We should all wake up rejoicing on this day—the cold winter has ended, buds are sighted on the trees, early flowers are blooming, days are steadily warmer on the average. We need a day off to drink in this nectar of nature’s new life, to sip this ambrosia of nodding yellow daffodils and cheerful red tulips, to lap up every last morsel of morning birdsong and evening peeper sounds from the creek.

Who’s with me? Let’s march on Washington! (It’d be nice to see the cherry blossoms anyway, wouldn’t it?)

And this year, we get the added bonus of Easter in this manic month of March—a celebration of spiritual resurrection paralleling nature’s resurrection. In the midst of it all, we figuratively hold our breaths for the beauty that is to come: azaleas, redbud trees, dogwoods, lilacs and more. No wonder I have spring fever all winter long!

Yep, March is closing in on June as my favorite month. I could do without the chilly gales and blustery breezes, but there’s much else to be thankful for.DSCN2611

I have always said spring is such an evanescent and fleeting season that we must savor every second of it before it’s gone. The British poet A. E. Housman was only 20 when he realized the poignancy of how quickly spring is past. He penned a poem called “Loveliest of Trees” in which he speculated that he may only have 50 years of life left. And so he wrote:

“And since to look at things in bloom

Fifty springs are little room

About the woodlands I will go

To see the cherry hung with snow.”

No matter how busy this manic March finds you—watching basketball, perfecting the Easter cantata, practicing baseball—don’t forget to get out into the woods and imbibe the essence of spring before it’s gone.DSCN2609

The Old Paths: Fight the Winter Blahs

**This was originally published in a similar form in The Stokes News on February 28, 2008. When the publishers changed websites a few years back, all links to archived articles were tragically lost. I am attempting to republish in my blog all of my columns that once appeared in the newspaper. Although much of this info is dated by now, there are still universal truths to be gained by reading it.

winter blahsIf you’re like me, you’re starting to notice the days getting longer and some daffodils prematurely pushing up through February’s hard ground. I actually saw a bird taking a bath in my birdbath today and nearly freaked out; I’ve never seen one do that in the 14 years we’ve lived here! And when I parked behind London Elementary School a few evenings ago, I heard croaking down at the creek—do they call them “peepers” maybe? The sound made me long for spring which is indeed right around the corner. Signs everywhere are pointing to my favorite season!

But until then I’m still working my way through the winter blahs. I’ve found some great ways to beat them. “American Idol” came back on in January, and that sure has helped. (I agree with those of you who say there is to be no idol before God, so yes, the title of that show bothers me. However, my family and I enjoy hearing excellent singing and critiquing below-par singing!)

A friend of mine declared vehemently in the fall that he would NOT watch such a cheesy show as “American Idol,” but I’ve heard he’s on the couch every Tuesday and Wednesday night as he boos Simon or agrees with Paula and Randy. He even headed up a “Fantasy Idol” draft. I’m quite impressed with the labor he went to—cutting out pictures of the Top 24 and working out an elaborate point system. My fantasy football season may have gone sour, but so far, I’m at the top of the leader board in the “American Idol” league! (Eat your heart out, Stokes News employees who beat me at Fantasy Football!)

My favorite-ever "American Idol" David Cook was on the show in 2008 when this column was originally published.

My favorite-ever “American Idol” David Cook was on the show in 2008 when this column was originally published.

Another excellent way of beating the late winter blahs is to have friends and/or family TV sessions to watch ACC basketball. It’s not quite as much fun as the World Series or football season was in my den, but it’s much better than watching “The Weather Channel” 24/7. (Then again, maybe not. How I love that weather stuff!) Somehow I have failed in my job as a mother—the fruit of my labors having produced two Carolina fans. It makes for interesting times when the Duke or NC State fans in our family get riled up. It’s a pretty even split around here.

However, my favorite way to attack those winter blahs is to get out into the community and be active. I enjoyed seeing so many of you at the South Stokes basketball games. And I must confess I was always disappointed during the varsity games. That gym should’ve been packed out instead of half-empty!

“I don’t have anyone playing on the teams,” you may say. Neither did I. Neither did Margie Dunlap or Carol Wiles. Horace and Brenda Boles stayed long after their granddaughter finished playing. Don and Nancy Lester could be counted on to hang around way past the time their relative played. The point is that it was great fun to watch, whether or not you had anyone playing. The sense of community unity was heartening as all races, creeds and genders pulled together for the common goal—a Saura victory.

For many years, my kids and I missed very few ballgames at my alma mater, South Stokes High!

For many years, my kids and I missed very few ballgames at my alma mater, South Stokes High!

Remember the days of Kenny Dennard when there was standing room only in the gym? They tell me the whole town came out to watch on the old paths of the 1920’s and ’30’s when the likes of my grandmother, Reny Richardson Smith, led Walnut Cove High School to victory. Athletics has always been a great common denominator for the varied types of people who inhabit our town and county. I encourage you to come out to watch your local teams whether or not you have a vested interest. You’ll find someone you know there in the bleachers, you’ll see some kid playing that you recognize and you’ll find that the winter blahs are lost in the cries of “Defense!” or “Let’s go, Sauras!”

I found the same camaraderie in London Gym this winter. How encouraged I was to be forced to stand at the door one night last week because the bleachers were jam-packed full! All to watch eight- and nine-year-olds play. That’s the spirit!

Even the little kids' games are exciting at London Gym! And it's free until tournament time.

Even the little kids’ games are exciting at London Gym! And it’s free until tournament time.

These kids are the future of our town, our county, our world. Watching them learn to play as a team, to be gracious in victory or loss, to compete with as much determination as Alan Iverson or Tim Duncan—this warms the heart, chasing away winter’s chill. And I doubt Iverson or Duncan goes running into Grandma’s arms after the game or high-fives Grandpa to be congratulated on the lay-up that finally went in! I’d rather be in London Gym during tournament week than at an NBA arena.

And it's not just boys. Girls play, too!

And it’s not just boys. Girls play, too!

I sat in that gym a lot this winter, often contemplating its rich history. I thought of the marvelous teams London High School must have had back in the day. Not discounting those incredible teams I have heard tell of, I was nonetheless encouraged now to see children of all races playing together on that floor. What a different world our children are growing up in—not perfect by any means, but coming along slowly but surely in the area of race relations.

Yes, I still get a chill when I hear the part of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech that says, “I have a dream that one day. . .little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” Perhaps I am privileged enough to be able to see the dawning of that day, even on basketball courts in crowded gyms.

Children of different races play together at London Gym—something that would have been unheard of even 50 years ago.

Children of different races play together at London Gym—something that would have been unheard of even 50 years ago.

So how are your winter blahs now? Mine are rapidly disappearing in the warmth of what I’ve experienced this winter. Next year, take my advice and experience community unity with me. Support the children who will one day be your doctors, nurses, teachers, firefighters, accountants, etc. Basketball may be almost over, but early season baseball is just around the bend. Put on your earmuffs and scarves, grab the blanket and get out of the house. You’ll soon find that the winter blahs are old news and that spring has sprung once more.

Tournament season in the Walnut Cove Youth Basketball League starts this coming Saturday, February 27, 2016. Come watch these kids play; I promise you won’t be disappointed. We had a nail-biter there just last night!

The Old Paths: Our Loss, Heaven’s Gain

(This was originally published in The Stokes News on December 8, 2011, in my regular column, “The Old Paths.” Due to the fact that all Internet links were broken to our old articles when Civitas Media switched websites, I am slowly but surely posting all of my old columns in my blog so that they will be archived as they SHOULD’VE been on the newspaper website.)

Mike Joyce, the longest-running sheriff in Stokes County history!

Mike Joyce, the longest-running sheriff in Stokes County history!

It was a breezy Sunday morning in Iowa. The September sun shone on my ballcap-clad head as I walked into the tunnel made by the arching cornstalks at the Field of Dreams.

I plucked an ear of corn and guiltily put it inside my jacket. Even though I had found no restrictions on picking corn, I still worried that I was committing a crime. Was that the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson shaking his head at me?

But ever since former Sheriff Mike Joyce had shown me the ear of corn his stepson Joe had brought him from the Field of Dreams, I had been determined to have one. And now I couldn’t wait to tell him about mine.

I never got to tell him.

Once home, I had to work furiously so I could resign from The Stokes News in late September. One of my final stories was about Joyce preparing for a bone marrow transplant and the importance of him being shielded from infection.

So I figured I would just save the story for when he came home from Duke Medical Center at the first of the year. He and I had big things to do! We shared a dream–to create a Stokes County Sports Hall of Fame/Museum.

On the old paths, I’d go to Danbury each Thursday to pick up the public records for the paper. If it was “my lucky day,” Sheriff Joyce would beckon me into his office–a baseball lover’s dream. His cherished baseball memorabilia adorned the walls, the cabinets, the desk.

I never tired of hearing his stories–usually baseball stories, because he was one of the few people I knew whose passion for that most excellent sport surpassed even my own. He’d loan me baseball movies, tell me little-known baseball facts and often discuss Stokes County’s own rich baseball heritage.

Sheriff Joyce felt that Stokes should have a place where local sports heroes and their accomplishments could be memorialized for the public to view. His idea captured my fancy.

I imagined the fruition of that dream. I could see the ribbon-cutting, with Sheriff Joyce presiding and local sports legends present–the Nunn brothers from up Nancy Reynolds way, Kenny Dennard, Bill Murrell, Dusty Ackley, Mikey Joyce and so many others.

I had a sneaky little plan to persuade museum supporters to name the museum in honor of Mike Joyce. I kept my idea under wraps because he would have protested, being the incredibly humble and unselfish man that he was.

We never got to plan that museum together. Just two months after Sheriff Joyce announced in late 2009 that he would not seek re-election, he was diagnosed with leukemia.

I watched him fight the good fight for nearly two years. Although I wasn’t the sports editor, I begged to cover him throwing out the ceremonial first pitch in April 2010 when Field Two at Lions Park in Walnut Cove was named after him. He reminisced about coaching teams there, telling me how he still had the game ball from when his son Mikey pitched a perfect game.

It was a cruel blow to hear that the leukemia had reared its ugly head again late in the spring of 2011. But through aggressive treatment, it was soon forced back into the abyss where it belongs.

And then it was time for the final assault on the disease–a bone marrow transplant that would conceivably put the lid on the cancer and bring Joyce home again to his beloved wife Gail and family, his trusty motorcycle and plenty of good sports to watch.

But none of us are promised tomorrow, and neither was Sheriff Joyce. Before the transplant, leukemia came back with a vengeance for a third time. I kept thinking that surely such a great man who had done such enormous good for Stokes County wouldn’t die before enjoying retirement. It didn’t seem fair somehow.

But that’s not how it works. In this fallen world, the rain falls on the just and the unjust, and as Billy Joel sang, sometimes “only the good die young.”

I was on the road to Orlando, FL, when a county leader texted me on December 1, “He’s gone to Heaven.” I was asked to write the newspaper story even though I was on vacation and was no longer the editor of The Stokes News. I gladly wrote it on my laptop as my daughter drove. It was loaded to the website using McDonald’s free Wi-fi in a little Florida town.

I spent the evening searching for remembrances of Sheriff Joyce on Facebook, taking notes on the heartfelt stories I found there. And then it hit me. I was doing exactly what writer Terence Mann (played by James Earl Jones) did in the movie that Sheriff Joyce and I loved so dearly, “Field of Dreams.”

Mann collected notes from personal testimonies about the life of a small-town doctor–Archibald “Moonlight” Graham. I had once compared Sheriff Joyce to Graham in a feature story I wrote, and now I was collecting testimonies about him. Both men had dreamed of playing professional baseball.

Here are the last couple of paragraphs of my 2009 story:

Archie Graham makes it to the majors for about five minutes—not even long enough to get one at-bat. He returns to his hometown and becomes a doctor who is beloved by the entire region for over half a century.

Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) agonizes over Graham’s coming so close to a dream that was never realized. “Some men would call that a tragedy,” he insists.

The wise old doctor replies, “Son, if I’d only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes, then that would’ve been a tragedy.”

Many would argue that the analogy is a good one for Sheriff Mike Joyce’s life. Law enforcement may not have been the “field of his dreams,” but he has striven to fulfill his destiny with loyalty and integrity. A tragedy, perhaps, for Joyce that he didn’t get to play major league baseball, but a tragedy indeed, for the citizens of Stokes County, if he had.

When Mann interviewed the locals about Doc Graham, he heard how children who could not afford eyeglasses or milk or clothing would never be denied these essentials because Dr. Graham would make sure they were provided for.

Similarly, I heard stories of Sheriff Joyce’s big heart. Kathy Grubbs Marshall told how she dropped in one day to see her grandpa about six months after her grandmother died. Sheriff Joyce was there and confessed that he often went by to check on Mr. Burke. He was so at home there that he went to get the “nabs jar” and they all shared a Pepsi.

Mr. Burke was a staunch Democrat and Sheriff Joyce, a rigid Republican. But that didn’t matter when it came down to deeper issues of the heart.

Another person told how the unpretentious sheriff once dressed up as a woman to take part in a womanless beauty pageant to benefit a young boy who had leukemia. Jennifer Mickey Fulp shared the story of Sheriff Joyce going weekly to visit her ailing grandpa, former Stokes County Sheriff Clyde Duggins.

No fanfare, no self-promotion, no ulterior motive other than doing the right thing and caring about fellow human beings.

Was he perfect? Of course not–the only perfect man walked the earth 2,000 years ago.

But Mike Joyce will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the best people to ever breathe our good ole Stokes County air. He was one of the most beloved leaders in county history, with support from people in all political parties.

Sheriff Joyce, I will miss your quiet laugh that sometimes made no sound but shook your body. I will recall your compassionate eyes and hear your slow-paced, kind voice. I will remember your true humility and integrity and use it as a model to aspire to.

I will even admit that I pulled for the Texas Rangers in the World Series but am still glad your beloved St. Louis Cardinals won, for your sake.

I hope to press on with plans for a Stokes County Sports Hall of Fame/Museum, but it won’t be the same without you. I won’t rest until it bears your name, but how I wish you could be there to cut the ribbon.

But you’ll be watching from Heaven, I figure. I’ll bet that somehow you even know about my ear of corn from the Field of Dreams in Iowa. Hope to see you on the other side–on the new paths where there is no leukemia, no sickness, no pain.

And if there’s a field up there where old baseball players go to play the games of their dreams, save me a spot on the bleachers right beside you, will ya?

Me and Mike Joyce at WCLL

Me with Sheriff Mike Joyce on the opening day of Walnut Cove Little League when Field 2 at Lions Park was named after him. He threw out the first pitch of the 2009 season.

A Day With Dustin Ackley–Carolina’s Shooting Star!

**I wrote this article for The Stokes News in the spring of 2007 when I was just a contributing writer–before my days as editor. Now that Dustin Ackley has recently been traded to the New York Yankees–my favorite team–from the Seattle Mariners, I thought I would pull this old article from my archives. I remember with fondness the day I traveled to my alma mater in Chapel Hill to spend some time interviewing our hometown boy, Dusty, on the beautiful Carolina campus. Hope you enjoy what I wrote!

Me and Dusty at Carolina

Me with Dusty at Carolina–my mouth open to talk as usual!

I had joked for years that if I wore a Carolina cap, my head might rot off. Then, doggone it, two of my children’s basketball teams had Carolina Blue uniforms this winter. I wore a Carolina cap AND sweatshirt to one of their games and emerged, four quarters later, healthy and whole. So with no fear of head-rot, I donned the cap again and headed down to Chapel Hill last week, stepping onto the campus for the first time in 25 years.
After I left “Blue Heaven” a quarter of a century ago, I intended to go back to visit. I thought I might take in a baseball game at Boshamer Stadium where I had been a bat girl for the Tar Heel team. My good intentions never bore fruit. . .until I heard the local buzz. One of Walnut Cove’s own, one of our elite Saura starting nine from state championship days, was taking the ACC by storm as a starting freshman for the nationally ranked UNC team.
It all began on a Sunday afternoon when my daddy asked, “Bess, whatcha hear about that Ackley boy down at Carolina? They say he’s really hot.” Curiosity drove me straight to the Internet, thinking that if I punched in his name—“Dustin Ackley”—I might get a few references. I didn’t expect 586 of them! As I hopped from website to website, my excitement mounted. We should be riding through town with a loudspeaker telling the news! This kid was a phenomenon, not only in the ACC but also in the entire nation!

After he became such a star in college, Dusty's cousin, Amber (seen here with him), and I collaborated to plan a big "Welcome Home" celebration for him at Lions Park in Walnut Cove, where he grew up playing ball. It was a big deal and lots of fun!

After he became such a star in college, Dusty’s cousin, Amber (seen here with him), and I collaborated to plan a big “Welcome Home” celebration for him at Lions Park in Walnut Cove, where he grew up playing ball. It was a big deal and lots of fun!

I had heard that Ackley was signed by Carolina last year after being ranked the number four NC prospect by Impact Baseball. I knew he was named to the pre- and postseason Louisville Slugger All-American team as a high school senior. I remember well when he was voted 1-A conference player of the year while just a junior at South Stokes.
But what I was reading now was the stuff of dreams. Ackley was named ACC Player of the Week two times in a row in March—the first week batting .667 with a three-game stint where he went 11 for 12 at the plate, the second week batting .500 with nine RBI’s and two home runs. Highest overall batting average (.489) in the ACC and second-highest in the nation! ACC RBI leader. Number one in seven different Tar Heel offensive categories. The accolades seemed endless. And to top it all off, like a luscious mountain of whipped cream, was a hitting streak that had already smashed Carolina’s rookie record! At that time, Ackley’s hot bat had sizzled out a hit in 19 straight games. This “lowly” freshman who could be found helping other rookies clean the dugout after each home game was riding the crest of a monster wave.

Dusty batting for the Carolina Tar Heels

Dusty batting for the Carolina Tar Heels

I was hooked, “pert near” obsessed. With no cable TV, I was forced to listen to Carolina games on the Internet. I did my chores with the play-by-play description in the background. One day Ackley hit a grand slam to add to his home run tally, which was already among the league leaders. Often he would get a hit in his first at bat, saving me from undue stress about this hitting streak.
With each hit to keep the streak going, my 16-year-old baseball-freak daughter and I would jump up and yell in jubilation. Who cared about Barry Bonds and his pursuit of Hank Aaron? We had a local boy taking us for a pretty exciting ride!
Finally, I could stand it no longer—hence, my trip to Chapel Hill. I rationalized that I had been planning to go anyway to research Walnut Cove history at UNC’s Wilson Library. With the prohibitive cost of gas, why not throw in a baseball game for economy’s sake? (It sounded noble and did indeed convince my family!) So on a gorgeously sunny Tuesday, I found myself on ground that some consider hallowed. There I stood in “The Pit,” looking for Dustin Ackley who had graciously agreed to meet me for an interview. I hadn’t seen him since last summer when I watched him swat homer after homer for the Walnut Cove Senior League team.
There he was, wearing a St. Louis Cardinals’ hat—his favorite pro baseball team—looking quite different from the toddler I had seen holding onto his mom at the library’s summer reading program many years ago. As I shook his hand, I made a mental note to try to call him “Dustin” instead of the “Dusty” I had always known him by—just in case this meteoric rise to fame had formalized things a little.
I needn’t have worried. The freshman sensation, whom Baseball America had just named “Midseason Freshman of the Year” and ranked as the sixth-best first baseman in the country, was still his quiet, humble self. He was happy to be at UNC; they had recruited him heavily and offered him substantial scholarships. (He grinned as he admitted he was somewhat influenced by the fact that his family was full of Tar Heel fans!) Was it hugely different from playing high school ball? Surprisingly, Ackley feels that there’s not as big a difference as he had expected. “There’s not a lot of change in pitch velocity,” he explained. “But I’m facing smarter pitchers overall.  And the atmosphere is different on the field. There’s a really big base of fan support.”
I had wondered why this former pitcher/outfielder/shortstop was now playing first base. Ackley attributes the change in position to an elbow injury sustained in high school pitching days, but says he may play outfield in the future. “I wouldn’t mind pitching again,” Ackley says. “But I won’t miss it real bad.  If I made it to the pros, it would probably be as an outfielder.”

Dusty indeed played first base at Carolina. My family and I enjoyed watching him play for 3 years there.

Dusty indeed played first base at Carolina. My family and I enjoyed watching him play for 3 years there.

Dusty ended up starting at 2nd base in the Major Leagues. Here is the lineup for his MLB debut.

Dusty ended up starting at 2nd base in the Major Leagues. Here is the lineup for his MLB debut. I organized a viewing party for local fans in the South Stokes High School auditorium on this memorable night.

I figure most little boys who love baseball dream of making it to the Major Leagues one day. Ackley was no exception. Ackley says his dream team would be Atlanta since the Braves are close to home. He really doesn’t care, as long as he gets the chance to play. He was actively scouted by the Pirates and Phillies in high school and got letters from many other pro teams. (Being the Yankees fan that I am, I had to know if he would want to play for New York. Since his dad was a star catcher in the Red Sox Triple A organization, I thought Ackley might be adamant about not wanting to play for the Bronx Bombers, but he graciously said he would be glad to have the opportunity to play anywhere.)

He ended up being drafted by the Seattle Mariners in June 2009 and made his MLB debut on June 17, 2011.

He ended up being drafted by the Seattle Mariners in June 2009 and made his MLB debut on June 17, 2011. Here is his first at-bat. We had quite a crowd–including many of his family members–watching together at Dusty’s old high school. You should’ve seen us erupt when he got a hit in that first time at the plate!

But my dream came true when he was traded to my favorite team, the New York Yankees, in July 2015!

But my dream came true when he was traded to my favorite team, the New York Yankees, in July 2015!

With the then 26-game hitting streak making headlines, I was curious if it weighed heavily on his mind. “No one mentioned it much until about 20 games,” Ackley replied. “But now it’s hard not to think about it.” Could he tell me the secret to his hitting success? He laughed, “A little luck maybe.” When I scoffed at that, saying that luck can’t possibly explain such phenomenal hitting statistics over so many years, he admitted that he had always been a pretty good hitter but had never hired a hitting coach or spent more than the normal amount of hours at batting centers. Ackley credited his dad with having been a good influence and teacher but never one of those overbearing baseball dads determined to live out his dreams through his son. A left-handed batter, Ackley often gets his hits by swinging at the first or second pitch.
Sitting at the Carolina Student Union in the April sun, Ackley and I talked of summer plans. He has been invited to play in the prestigious Cape Cod Summer League, a rare rookie honor, and may even be eligible for USA Baseball. At this point, things are still up in the air. There’s even a possibility Ackley may come home to Walnut Cove to rest the elbow in hopes of total healing.
Mentioning the elbow injury brought me to the inevitable question: how was the shoulder that he had injured by sliding headfirst into third up at Boston College the previous weekend? I had been listening to the game as the announcers oohed and aahed over Ackley’s incredible base running as he stretched a single into a triple with the headfirst slide, while the ball went home in an unsuccessful attempt to get another runner. He felt nothing that day but woke up the next morning to incredible pain in his right shoulder—his throwing arm. To keep his blazing bat in the lineup, Ackley started the very next day as the designated hitter and felt no real hindrance from the injury, going 1-for-3 at the plate.
I had the opportunity to see the streak continue that night as the Tar Heels took on UNC-Charlotte. Again, Ackley put me out of my misery by ripping a single to right on his first trip to the plate. I jumped up screaming, giving the thumbs up to Ackley’s grandpa, Gray Wall, who was on his feet with a Texas-sized grin on his face.

Dusty's grandpa, Gray Wall, has followed his baseball career since Dusty was a tiny boy.

Dusty’s grandpa, Gray Wall, has followed his baseball career since Dusty was a tiny boy.

Our hometown hero added a few cherries to the whipped cream by getting a couple more hits, batting .750 on the night.  Ackley now had the third-longest hitting streak in Carolina history.
I couldn’t get enough. I persuaded my parents to drive back down with me just three days later as the Heels played those despised Duke Blue Devils. It took no persuasion to get two of my children into the car.

My son Elijah and I watching Dusty play at Carolina.

My son Elijah and I watching Dusty play at Carolina.

My 11-year old son is a rabid Tar Heel fan who sat in ecstasy at the game, holding an autographed copy of Dustin Ackley’s rookie trading card. Even my dad was on his feet when Ackley, mercifully in the first inning again, extended the hitting streak to 28 games, tantalizingly close to the record of 31.
UNC’s baseball coach, Mike Fox, called me at home the next day to discuss Ackley—someone he calls “a special talent” and “pretty spectacular.” I wondered if, in his 25 years of coaching, he had ever seen a freshman do this. The response was immediate: not only had he never seen a freshman do this—he had never seen any player do this! Coach Fox credits Ackley with incredible hand/eye coordination, great balance and a “picture-perfect” swing. “Dustin keeps the barrel of the bat in the hitting zone as long as anyone I’ve seen,” he explains.“Then he gets out of the box quickly, almost while he is swinging—what we call a transfer swing.” As we said our goodbyes, I asked Coach Fox if he had a final comment. With a chuckle, he said, “I’m just glad he’s on my team!”
With 39 games down and 18 to go, the Heels travel to Florida State this weekend to take on the Seminoles who are first in the ACC and ranked by USA Today as number two in the nation, just one spot ahead of the Heels. Baseball America has the teams reversed, ranking UNC number two and Florida State, number three. Ackley’s streak was snapped this past Saturday as the Tar Heels lost to Duke in the first game of a doubleheader, but he was unfazed as he went 2-for-4 in the second game, back in the field for the first time since his injury.
The campus newspaper, The Daily Tarheel, called him “Mighty Ackley at the Bat.” His teammates nicknamed him “Roy Hobbs,” a la Robert Redford in “The Natural,” leading the Charlotte Observer to dub him “Wonder Boy.” But despite all the attention, you’ll find he’s still just “Dusty”—genuinely humble about his success. He didn’t even tell his mother when he was ACC Player of the Week; she had to hear it through the grapevine. Dustin Ackley, Carolina’s shooting star, just wants to do what he’s done for as long he can remember—play baseball.

On the June 2009 day that Dusty was drafted 2nd in the 1st round of the MLB draft, I started out the day in NYC where I had just seen the Yankees (his current team) play the night before. While on the tour bus there, I got a cell phone call from Dusty's mom who just wanted to say she needed "a Leslie hug" on this momentous day. I was so touched. That very night, I was in Baltimore watching the Seattle Mariners play the Orioles on the very night that Dusy was drafted by the Mariners. I always felt that was a very special moment for me.

On the June 2009 day that Dusty was drafted 2nd in the 1st round of the MLB draft, I started out the day in NYC where I had just seen the Yankees (his current team) play the night before. While on the tour bus there, I got a cell phone call from Dusty’s mom who just wanted to say she needed “a Leslie hug” on this momentous day. I was so touched. That very night, I was in Baltimore watching the Seattle Mariners play the Orioles at the time that Dusy was drafted by the Mariners. I always felt that was a very special moment for me.

Tag Cloud