When John Spencer finished his first year coaching the Carolina Stingers summer college baseball team in Fort Mill, he wanted a change.The team struggled to an 18-24 record, good for last place in their division of the Southern Collegiate Baseball League. The field conditions were subpar, according to Spencer, and attendance lagged. So when Spencer and his partners Chad Tracy and John deMaine bought the team after the season, they wanted a fresh start. They considered Waxhaw, Indian Trail and Weddington, but Ballantyne was the perfect fit. Sure, the sponsorship opportunities with the small businesses and shops in the area were nice, but it wasn’t just the money that attracted Spencer to Ballantyne. “We were looking for an area where the community would really wrap their arms around us,” said Spencer, 32. Deep into the 2012 summer season, the Ballantyne Smokies (named after Ballantyne developer H.C. “Smoky” Bissell) look comfortable in their new home, leading the SCBL’s summer division with a 17-10 record (through July 5).The Smokies are a summer wood-bat team, which gives college baseball players from around the country the opportunity to play with wood bats, as they would in professional baseball. The Smokies play at Ardrey Kell High and the team is made up mostly of Charlotte-area players, but also includes players from California, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and even as far away as Cuba. Olen Little, a former pitcher at East Mecklenburg who is a rising junior at Wingate, said the atmosphere and the community support at the games has been great. “We get a good bit of people every game so it’s kind of nice to see that we have a lot of people coming out ... and supporting us,” said Little.Little played American Legion baseball last year. He wanted to play something more competitive this year, but also wanted to stay close to home. Brian Holberton, a rising junior infielder at North Carolina who played for Spencer at Myers Park, played on a summer college team in Wilson last year. “I didn’t want to come home and sit at home and do nothing all summer,” said Holberton, 20. “You come out and play baseball and have fun.” Having fun is what Spencer wants. The Smokies don’t practice and usually play six games a week. Spencer doesn’t try to control his players, but instead lets them make their own decisions about when to steal, what pitches to throw and whether to bunt.“I think there’s a big void in baseball as far as guys being their own player,” said Spencer. “I think a lot of coaches try to mold guys into their stereotypical player. ... I don’t necessarily agree with that. I think guys learn from making their own mistakes and then adjusting to them individually.” For Grant Fisher, a rising junior pitcher at Elon who also played for Spencer at Myers Park, that atmosphere is welcome. “I think we’re all coming off the school season where there’s a lot of stress and tension,” said Fisher, 20. “It’s nice to come out here and play and have fun.” The relaxed atmosphere doesn’t mean that winning isn’t important to Spencer. The Pineville Pioneers won the SCBL in their first year last year. Spencer would like the Smokies to do the same this season. “This year, we want to win a championship,” he said. But it’s also important to him that the players get something out of the experience. “I want the players to get better and I want them to go back to their schools next year better than when they got here.” Spencer also wants to create a bond with the community and also help recreation baseball teams, a group he says is being hurt by travel and showcase teams. The Smokies invite recreation teams to run out on the field with the players and let the rec coach call the shots at first base for an inning. “It’s really set up to do what we can to help kind of rebuild or patch up these rec leagues,” said Spencer. “I’m a big rec league and Legion guy. That’s just good fun community baseball and I think we’ve lost touch with the community or neighborhood baseball team.” Spencer has big plans for the Smokies. He would love for the team to have its own stadium and become a social event in Ballantyne. “It’s a big goal and it’s going to take a little while, but I think it can be done and I think it can be something that’s very successful and a big part of the community,” said Spencer. A Ballantyne with it’s own baseball team and stadium would be a drastic change from the area Spencer remembers growing up in south Charlotte. When Spencer traveled to play youth baseball in Pineville, he drove from his Raintree home down Providence Road West through an area that was nothing but trees. Since then, Ballantyne has developed into a thriving neighborhood and business center. Spencer hopes the baseball community will develop in the same way.
Wednesday, Aug. 08, 2012
Smokies is their name; baseball is their game
New college summer team hopes to bond with Ballantyne community
Want to go? The Ballantyne Smokies play at the Ardrey Kell High School baseball field. Admission is $5 with children 12 and younger free. For information and a schedule, visit www.ballantynesmokies.com.
Inscoe: 704-358-5923; Twitter: @CoreyInscoe
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