South Charlotte

Pioneers love to hear the crack of wood bats

Terry Brewer could be a Charlotte baseball historian. One of his first jobs growing up was working at the old Charlotte Hornets minor league baseball stadium. He went on to play baseball at Independence High and in college at Gardner-Webb.

Starting in 1973, Brewer coached high school baseball in Charlotte for 21 years, first at West Charlotte, then at his alma mater and finally at Garinger.

From 1997 until last year, he was a scout for the Baltimore Orioles and the Tampa Bay Rays.

Now Brewer, 61, is helping to start the next chapter in Charlotte's baseball story as the coach of the Pineville Pioneers, a first-year summer college baseball team.

The Pioneers, whose season started June 6, play in the Southern Collegiate Baseball League and is made up of Division I and Division II college baseball players from the East Coast and Ohio. The team uses wood bats instead of the aluminum bats used in college and plays a 42-game schedule against teams from North and South Carolina.

"If you look at college wood-bat summer leagues, they're a great tool for these kids to figure out if they've got any abilities to play beyond the collegiate level," said Brewer. "It gives them a chance to travel, play with different teammates, with guys from different areas, different coaches."

The team is owned and operated by Carolina's Baseball Center and On Deck Baseball, training centers that recently merged.

Dave Collins, chief operating officer of the team, became interested in starting a wood-bat team after his son, Brad, played in the SCBL last year in Fort Mill. In March, he got a call from the league saying a team from Tennessee was folding. Collins acquired the team and moved it to the newly renovated Jack D. Hughes Memorial Park in Pineville.

"One of the things that helps make these college teams successful is the small town feel," he said. "Pineville has that feel within the Charlotte community."

Half of the players on this year's team came from the Tennessee team. The other half came from networking with college coaches and finding players who didn't have anywhere to play. Five south Charlotte players are on this year's team: Tyler Tewell (Butler), Joe Hager (Myers Park), Alex Askey (Providence), Jeff Barkley (South Mecklenburg) and Michael Atz (South Mecklenburg), a pitcher at USC Sumter who does the play-by-play for the Pioneers during home games and plays at away games.

This is the first wood-bat league Barkley has played for. He said he liked being close to home.

"Being right here at home is a big plus for me because I don't have to travel at all to play or go with a host family or something," said Barkley, 20, who will be a junior pitcher at Pfieffer next year. "It's a benefit for me, being home with the family and people I don't get to see during the (school) year."

Many of the players live at home, but 10 players from out of town stay with host families for the summer. All players pay a small fee at the beginning of the season for charter buses.

Tewell and Askey both played in the SCBL last year for the Lake Norman Copperheads, which won the league title. Tewell said he'd like to win the league title again, but Askey said he likes that the pressure to win is not so high in the summer league.

Brewer said he focuses on making sure his players have fun.

"I gave them three rules when I came through the door," he said. "Have fun, get better and give us a chance to win."

The team got out to a slow start to open the season, but the Pioneers have started to win with an 9-11 record (through June 30).

The Pioneers play nine-inning games on Monday and Wednesday and seven-inning double headers Friday and Saturday.

"For me, as a pitcher, it helps a lot getting to throw at live batters all summer," said Askey, who will be a junior pitcher at Lenoir-Rhyne next year. "Taking three to four months off live action can hurt a lot."

Playing with wood bats is a new experience for most of the players, but it prepares them for professional baseball, if they make it to the next level.

"I love hitting with wood bats," said Tewell, 19, who will be a junior at Appalachian State next year. "It's just a better feeling when you're out there and you're getting hits with wood bats."

The Pioneers and opposing players have both been impressed with the facility and atmosphere at the games in Pineville so far this season. Brewer called the stadium the "pride of the league."

"We've been blessed to have a lot of people come to our games and the kids come up to us after games to get autographs," said Askey, 20.

Brewer wants to recreate the feel of the early days of baseball in North Carolina, when small mill towns fielded teams. When he looks into the stands, he hopes to see some older Charlotte residents who remember those teams, but he also hopes to attract younger fans.

"That's as much enjoyment as anything for me, to bring baseball back to this age group and to these small communities and small towns all over the Southeast," he said. "The town of Pineville, I can't thank them enough. ... That's what I'd love to see every little town do is take the pride that Pineville took and build that type of facility where things like this can go on."