A town that pays its ballplayers with berry pie

Lenny Plummber is the clubhouse manager - and part owner - of the Edenton Steamers, one of the nation's newest semi-professional baseball franchises.

Admittedly, that's a rather inflated title. George Steinbrenner, he isn't.

Besides keeping the gym weights straight for the ballplayers, Mr. Plummer works as team bus driver and laundry boy. He gets no pay or perquisites for his duties, other than a seat in the dugout for every game and the chance to wear his baseball whites, with cleats.

"We call this our summer hustle," says Plummer, beaming. The enthusiastic volunteer is one of dozens of residents in this coastal North Carolina community who pitch in to support the nation's smallest community-owned baseball franchise.

Cheering the Steamers from underneath the last working wooden grandstand east of the Mississippi, Plummer is typical of the many in Edenton who dote on their pro-ball progeny as though they were family, not a franchise. While major leaguers in the All-Star game enjoyed the klieg lights and roar of the crowds last night, here the rewards are more down-home: Players get fresh-baked pies and uniforms sewn by residents in lieu of a paycheck.

Those 5,500 residents have a lot at stake: This town spent $300,000 to renovate a rotting old grandstand built by the Works Progress Administration workers in 1939. Then, in 1999, Edenton bought the whole team - for $120,000.

Today, these townie owners are enjoying success with their baseball experiment - with a game plan more out of "Antiques Roadshow" than the MLB owners' handbook.

"They haven't started talking rough with me yet," says Todd Hunter, the Steamers' general manager. "That must mean we're doing something right."

Packing the seats nearly every night, the Steamers are hot on the heels of a small-town baseball revival in this region. In 1997, organizers resurrected the defunct Coastal Plain League, lining up Edenton and towns like Petersburg, Va., and Florence, S.C. Using college players, wooden bats, and creaky stadiums, the 12-team summer league is now considered second in quality only to the Northeast's Cape Cod League.

It's not the first time Edenton has strived to bolster an old-fashioned image. From preserving the state's oldest working courthouse to overhauling its mangrove-dotted harbor, this former state capital has invested in its past, and has a turn-of-the-century downtown to show for it. Likewise, when it came to the new Hicks Field, even the scoreboard had to be vintage - complete with a scoreboard boy to change the tally.

"This is a very unusual town," says Plummer. "You can still go to a movie at the downtown theater and then stroll over to the counter across the street afterward for a burger and a Coke, and pay only $1.25. Where else in America does that still happen?"

When townspeople began the project, the grandstand was buried under five layers of chickenwire. Today, the 1,500-seat stadium is a sturdy paean to the game's egalitarian history. And every year, the coach signs a couple of local high school graduates, like pitcher Whitley Benson, who grew up across Albemarle Sound in Plymouth, N.C.

But the team's biggest coup so far was signing Mr. Hunter as its manager and sole salaried employee. Minus the handlebar moustache, Hunter is the spitting image of his father, the late Yankee pitcher Jim "Catfish" Hunter, who hailed from nearby Hertford, N.C.

"I remember seeing his dad play in the farm teams around here," says octogenarian fan Anna Winslow. "It's great to have a team in this town again."

The baseball idyll that the Steamers have brought back for the first time since the Edenton Colonials quit town in 1951 is in full display as the team takes on the Thomasville Hi-Toms on an uncommonly cool Saturday evening recently.

With nearly 1,200 fans in the high-school-size ballpark, the scene is a pastiche of wholesome fun: A gaggle of girls from the Virginia Forks Produce T-ball team wave pens and call out, "Andy, Andy," for pitcher Andy Hirko, the team's spiritual leader and, apparently, resident hunk. In the seventh-inning stretch, five of the girls belt out "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" from home plate.

In the dugout, the boys lean, spit, and scratch under their caps, nervous as they teeter in fifth place of the Northern Division. On the field, Mr. Benson gets flustered as the Hi-Toms nab several bunts, adding a flurry of runs. The Hi-Toms win, 4-2. After shaking hands, the teams gather to pray - and then chow on burgers and dogs.

For the 19 young men drawn to Edenton from all over the South, playing semi-pro ball in these farm leagues is a way to get used to the heavier wooden bats while playing for a bona fide club. In this case, it's also their first taste of what it feels like to be a star.

A catcher out of Presbyterian University, Kenny Campbell couldn't believe his eyes when he pulled into town: People were standing along Broad Street, waving. "They knew who I was before I even got here!"

For now, the players' lives are the sundry stuff of summer: At night, they stay in "host homes." During the days, they jet-ski and fish on the sounds, using equipment loaned by town residents, or go down to the local swimming hole. At four o'clock, they filter into the clubhouse to prepare for the game. Some work, but most like to rest between the long, late-night bus rides across the broad sounds and endless farm fields.

Whether he makes it to the majors or not, first baseman Matt Warren says it'll be hard to ever forget this town's commitment to America's game and its bashful hopefuls.

"They know everything about you," he marvels about his team's owners. "If you're struggling, they know that, too."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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