SHELBY As Arey Poston helps park thousands of cars, sounds of baseball action spill outside Keeter Stadium, drawing him back to an earlier summer.
The crack of a bat, a crowd’s sudden roar: vivid reminders of the night in 1976 when he hit the first home run out of this same ballpark.
Working as a volunteer at the American Legion World Series, Poston, 54, slips inside from time to time to watch snatches of games alongside fans from across the United States.
Last year, when Shelby became home for the five-day tournament, 86,000 tickets were sold, breaking an all-time record. The 2012 tournament starts Friday and organizers say advance sales are stronger than ever. This time, they hope to top 100,000 tickets.
The series will be dedicated to the Charlotte-based crew of an Air National Guard C-130 that crashed in the Black Hills of South Dakota in July, killing four and injuring two, including Josh Marlowe of Cleveland County.
At the opening ceremony, Charlotte American Legion Post 9 – winner of the 1965 national championship – will be recognized on the field. Another night, Shelby’s 1945 national champs will be honored.
The entire series will be shown online over ESPN3.
A retired paramedic with Cleveland County Emergency Medical Services, Poston lives in Clearwater, Fla., but spends about a week-and-a-half in Shelby during the series. He typically works from 7:30 a.m. until midnight or whenever the stadium lights go off.
“I’m a baseball nut,” said Poston, a former Shelby legion ball player. “I like to come back and help out. I get to watch a little baseball and have some fun parking cars.”
Poston is part of a small army of volunteers – more than 500 – making the 15-game series possible. They sell souvenirs, run concessions, clean restrooms, pick up baseball teams at airports and wash uniforms – among other things.
Volunteers also organize concerts that highlight the week. The 2011 headliner was Grammy-winning country singer Ronnie Dunn.
This year, a second concert has been added: Award-winning Christian rock band MercyMe kicks off world series week Sunday at the Cleveland County Fairgrounds. The country music duo Montgomery Gentry performs on Thursday.
The concerts will be on the midway with festival-style seating. Each show is expected to draw 10,000 fans.
Organizers want visitors to stick around the community for a while.
“We hope people will come early and stay late,” said Jackie Sibley, executive director of TourClevelandCounty. “This is by far our biggest event.”
The series has a significant economic impact – $2.5 million based on out-of-town visitors, Sibley said. The figure jumps to $6 million when including spending by residents and people from the region who don’t stay the night in hotels.
Sibley said the county’s 640 hotel rooms are booked for the series with the spillover going to hotels in Gastonia, Forest City and Gaffney, S.C.
A visitors information booth will be at the stadium on the Shelby High School campus. Also, fans can buy tickets for motor-coach tours to such locations as Chimney Rock/Lake Lure, Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden, the U.S. National Whitewater Center and the NASCAR Hall of Fame. There’s a free walking tour in Shelby of sites where the “Hunger Games” movie was filmed.
“We really want to showcase the entire region while people are here,” Sibley said. “Many people are visiting the Carolinas for the first time.”
Based in Indianapolis, the American Legion is the nation’s largest veterans service organization. The summer baseball program has 5,000 teams with 95,000 teenage players.
Until 20 years ago, the world series went to large cities, but then switched to medium-sized communities that don’t have big-time ball clubs.
Shelby hosted the legion baseball’s Southeastern regionals in 2002 and then in 2008 hosted the world series. For each event, a committee raised money to upgrade the Shelby High School stadium, built in 1976.
A community committee worked for nine years to get Shelby as the first permanent location for the legion world series.
“They’re doing a bang-up job,” said Jim Quinlan, national program coordinator for American Legion Baseball. “They do things above and beyond what we require.”
Things like adding a second concert; inviting country singer Lee Greenwood to perform at a reception for the national legion commander; using freshly ground beef instead of frozen hamburger patties in the stadium’s concession stands; and adding Cleveland County livermush to the concession menu this year.
“It’s the little touches they do that make the difference,” Quinlan said. “There’s a right way, a wrong way and there’s the Shelby way.”
Last year, the only local team playing in the series was from Gaffney.
Cherryville Post 100 almost earned a slot this year, but lost 11-1 to Wilmington in the state finals on Aug. 5.
Wilmington and Florence, S.C., will be the closest local teams this year.
Other teams will be coming from such places as Sacramento, Calif., Billings, Mont., and New Orleans – a total of eight teams with 160 players and coaches.
‘A good start’
Andy Price, chairman of the series committee’s manpower division, said having a local team in the lineup helps draw fans, but “you can never count on that. It’s icing on the cake.”
What can be counted on is the quality of baseball action.
“You’ve got teams out there that have played a full season,” Price said. “You’ve got some pretty incredible baseball out on the field. There’s a fan base that comes to the series every year. They don’t care who is playing.”
Price heads a division with 300 volunteers and said recruitment isn’t a problem – in fact, he has more than he needs. The standard work shift is four hours, but most go far beyond that “because they’re excited and want to be around it.”
Jim Horn, series co-chairman, hopes excitement among volunteers and fans can be sustained once the novelty wears off.
“In time, we’ll all wear out,” he said. “We’ve got to keep that enthusiasm. We’ve got to keep it as exciting as we can.”
The local committee continues to develop a base of volunteers, laying a foundation and keeping it strong.
Meanwhile, with sold-out games in the past and the promise of more to come, “I think we’re off to a good start,” Horn said.