Hickory turned out to be the quintessential minor league ballpark experience, and then some.
First off, I commend the Crawdads on being the one team in North Carolina that plays all of its Sunday games in the evening, by which time the sweltering summer heat has been reduced.
As I pulled into the nearly full parking lot, the game had already entered the third inning, and I showed up late enough to avoid the $1 parking fee.
Located three miles from I-40 in Winkler Park, L.P. Frans Stadium was built on donated land in 1993 and named after the local Pepsi-Cola bottler who partially funded the stadium’s construction.
After parking in the rising tiered lot, I walked downhill toward the picturesque brick ballpark that has already hosted two league All-Star games.
By the time I entered, I was very hungry and I wound up in The Crawdad Café, a sports-bar like restaurant behind first base with outdoor patio seating reminiscent of the big leagues, albeit with “normal” prices.
Eight tables were set up on two levels, although the first level was reserved and the second level had some hand-railings that partly obstructed my view. For $5.50 I had a large plate of nachos with all the trimmings, which at a big league park would’ve been half the size, high in price and not as sumptuous.
Although the outdoor Café was unique, it was the people I met there that provided me with my lasting impression of Hickory.
The folks were as friendly as you’d expect from a small Southern town, but the hospitality extended to me as I ate and watched the game exceeded all reasonable expectations.
After the table next to me found out that I was from out of town, they arranged for the Crawdad’s general manager, David Haas, to come over and greet me. David brought over a complimentary team program with him and explained the in-and-outs of his duties with the team.
I found out that the Pirates, the Crawdads’ affiliate, pay for player salaries and medical expenses, but Hickory is responsible for the majority of the rest, such as uniforms, travel expenses and player accommodations for road games, and paying the umpires’ salaries.
When he found out that I was going to Charlotte for the next night’s game he took down my name and told me I’d have a free ticket waiting at the will call. His reasoning was that since I had traveled so far, I should at least have a free ticket. As it turned out, the same people own the Crawdads and Charlotte Knights.
As for the rest of the ballpark, I found it cozy, colorful, and accommodating: it had wide aisles, red and blue seats, billboard ads four stories high in right field, and a merry-go-round in the third-base concourse. It was, however, the dominating presence of brick that made L.P. Frans Stadium a true jewel in the Carolina foothills.
After watching the Crawdads defeat Lakewood before a crowd of 2,775, the players signed autograph after autograph. But this is friendly Hickory, where after the game fans are allowed to walk along the dirt path that leads to the home dugout, making it even easier to obtain signatures and pictures. This just further underscored the “friendly confines” theme that marked my visit to Hickory, where fans could go to the players instead of waiting for them to come over.