Take me out to the ballgame

Whenever I get the chance, I like to go to Boshamer Stadium and watch the Diamond Heels play ball. The ping of the aluminum bat making contact with the baseball, the smell of the hot dogs, the contrast of the bright green grass and the Carolina blue sky – a summer afternoon or evening just doesn’t get any better than this.

Unlike football and basketball, the baseball season doesn’t fit comfortably into the academic year. The season for this summer pastime actually begins in icy February, the dead of winter, and the teams are still playing long after their classmates have graduated or headed to summer jobs.

But that timing has actually been a boon to the local economy, which is so tied to the UNC calendar. In the past six years, Carolina has hosted five NCAA regional tournaments and four super regionals, bringing in Tar Heel alums and fans as well as the followers of visiting teams during the normally slow month of June.

The Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau estimates that these baseball tournaments pumped about $1 million into the local economy this year. Just like football and basketball fans, baseball fans stay in area hotels, eat at local restaurants and shop at local stores when they come to Chapel Hill. I have a theory that baseball was also what brought that mysterious black bear to Chapel Hill at the end of May. He was just a little early for the baseball regional tournament, when the University of Maine Black Bears lost to James Madison University.

While I want to make sure Tar Heel baseball in general gets its due as a revenue sport and economic contributor, I also want to recognize this year’s team in particular for the special gentlemen they are and the adversities they have had to overcome.

Catcher Chase Jones is a prime example. In his first year at UNC, Chase was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had to endure surgery and chemotherapy. He was able to bounce back, but was forever affected by the young children he saw in the pediatric cancer unit. As a junior, he launched the UNC BaseBald for the Cure fundraiser for the Lineberger Pediatric Oncology Program. For each $100 raised, a Tar Heel baseball player had his head shaved. Chase and his teammates raised more than $6,000. This year’s BaseBald event nearly tripled that total, with coaches, donors and four young women joining in the hair-snipping fun to raise more than $17,000.

Then at the end of the season, the Tar Heels had to play a regional championship game against James Madison without the guidance of Coach Mike Fox, whose mother died of cancer the day before. To honor Barbara Fox, a Boshamer regular, the UNC team wore pink socks and sweatbands and clinched the regional title. Scott Forbes, the associate head coach and pitching coach who stepped in to lead the team in Coach Fox’s absence, had his own family crisis to deal with when his father-in-law passed away unexpectedly Tuesday after the regionals. Earl Passwaters, whom Coach Forbes called his “second daddy,” was also a regular at Boshamer Stadium and had planned to come down from Delaware for the super regional games.

That Saturday, despite all the adversities and disruptions – including a 3½-hour rain delay in the ninth inning – the Diamond Heels earned a slot in the College World Series by defeating the Stanford Cardinal 7-5 in the super regional championship. This was the Heels’ fifth trip to Omaha in the past six years. (By the way, did you know that Carolina and Texas A&M are the only two schools in the nation this year to play in a football bowl game, the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments and the College World Series?)

Even though UNC has won more games in NCAA postseason play in the past six years than any other baseball team, Omaha has not exactly been kind to us. In 2006 and 2007, we came away second best. This year, we lost twice to a surprising Vanderbilt team that is in its first World Series ever and were eliminated in the first round of play.

But despite what happened in Omaha, our Diamond Heels are winners in every sense of the word.