1000 x 90

The Boys of Summer

By David Rogers

Since it was first codified in the middle of the 19th century, the uniquely American game of baseball has largely survived the winds of change. Technology brought instant replay to TV monitors, digitized strike zones, and aluminum bats, but the bases are still roughly 90 feet apart, and the pitcher’s mound is 60 feet from home plate. 

Nine players still make up a team, and the pungent smell of linseed oil still makes the leather glove more pliable after hanging in the closet all winter. Artificial intelligence may soon replace umpires in calling balls and strikes, but the players’ respective missions remain the same: throw the ball, hit the ball, catch the ball, and tag a runner out.

The crack of a bat in a corner of the city park still brings curious smiles to passersby who stop to watch a kid run to first base while another chases the ball rolling to the right field fence. The throw from the outfield is more of a desperate heave, skying into the air before falling into the outstretched glove of an infielder, the tag just missing as the batter-turned-sliding-runner arches around impossibly to grab second base, the umpire spreading his arms wide while yelling “safe!”

Big league scouts still scour rural sandlots, hoping to discover hidden talent, listening intently for the decisive smack of a ball being delivered into a catcher’s mitt, a sound that just might foreshadow discovery of the next Whitey Ford, Nolan Ryan, and Randy Johnson of yesteryear, or maybe the next Aroldis Chapman of the present day.

Speed and power command each decisive moment in baseball, reflexes pitted against reflexes.

The faces playing baseball may change from year to year or even decade to decade, but the game remains largely the same. When we grow too old to take the field for a man’s game demanding a lot of the boys in us to play it, we sit in the stands and remember our glory days on the diamond. We are fascinated. We applaud. We rejoice at the walk-off grand slam home run or the ninth inning slide into home plate to win the game.

The team’s mission is to provide competitive baseball and fun fan entertainment for all the High Country to enjoy. Photo courtesy of The Boone Bigfoots.

Young and old, we marvel at the accomplishments wrought by the boys of summer. 

The High Country is blessed to have organized summertime ball being played not just by our kids competing in recreation leagues but at an even higher level by the Boone Bigfoots, featuring student athletes who take the field during the school year on college and university teams around the country. 

The Bigfoots, named after the mythical creature said to haunt the Appalachian Mountains, compete in the Coastal Plain League, a Southern equivalent to the Cape Cod League made famous in the 2001 movie, “Summer Catch,” starring Freddie Prinze, Jr. and Jessica Biel.

The CPL teams have unusual names, similar to the Bigfoots, reflecting the local area: the Macon Bacon, Asheboro Zookeepers, the Forest City Owls, the Wilmington Sharks, the Florence Flamingos, the Wilson Tobs (think, “tobacco”), and more.

Like the other teams, the Bigfoots’ coaches and managers recruit players from different schools. Because of the milder summer temperatures in the High Country and the beautiful App State facilities, it is an easy sell.

Bigfoots shortstop Jalen Vasquez powers through a pitch vs. the High Point-Thomasville HiToms. Photo by David Rogers
The Boone Bigfoots’ star outfielder, Nadir Lewis, rips into the ball vs. HP-Thomasville.
Photo by David Rogers.

The Boone roster includes a couple of Appalachian State athletes (Braxton Church, Dante Chirico, Zach Lewis) and at least one, Tristan Salinas, who just graduated Watauga High School and will soon be headed to play at another NCAA Division I school, University of South Carolina.

Several NCAA Division I schools are represented, but still others compete during the school year as some of the better players at Division II and even Division III levels. Transylvania, Mars Hill, High Point, USC Beaufort, North Carolina Wesleyan, Presbyterian, Lenoir-Rhyne, UNC Pembroke, Long Island, and Western Carolina are among the less well-known names, all with good baseball programs.

Shortstop Carlos Amezquita rounds 3rd base and heads for home to score vs. the Forest City Owls. Photo by David Rogers.

The Ivy League is also represented — those schools generally regarded as among the most academically challenging, with a couple of players from Princeton University.

After competing in a lower division summer college league the last two seasons, the Bigfoots graduated to the higher level CPL in 2023.

Team organizer Bob Wilson, whose professional career as a television and film producer spanned at least three decades in California, revealed in a recent interview that he loves baseball at the collegiate level, was impressed with the facilities at Appalachian State, and made officials at the university an offer they couldn’t refuse.

“In the CPL, we are the only team organized as a non-profit organization. In my professional career as a film producer, I have been blessed, financially, so I committed 100 percent of our net proceeds to the App State fund to support student athletes in exchange for the opportunity to use Smith Stadium and Beaver Field as the Bigfoots’ home venue,” Wilson explained.

There are common themes among the players interviewed: the ability to concentrate on playing baseball and getting comfortable in a more competitive environment.

“I am very grateful for the opportunity provided me by Coach (Randall) Ortiz and Bob (Wilson),” said recent Watauga High School graduate Tristan Salinas, who will be playing for the University of South Carolina in 2024. “One of my coaches at South Carolina put it best. He said it is like driving a car. When you first get your license, you are comfortable at 30-40 miles per hour, then you get faster as you get better. Playing ball in the SEC you are facing pitchers throwing 80-90 miles per hour, perhaps even faster. This is a good chance for me to get used to that middle ground, maybe 75-85 miles per hour, before I get onto the bigger stage in Columbia.”

“I have always loved playing travel ball during the summer, and last year was my last year playing on the team I had been with for 13 years,” Salinas added. “This is an opportunity to continue playing in the summer, make new friends, branch out, and improve my skills. It is a great new chapter of my life.”

Outfielder Walter Munday, center, gets some team love after returning to the dugout after a run-scoring double. Photo by David Rogers.

Right-handed pitcher Luke Patton is one of those NCAA Division III players, attending Transylvania University in Lexington, KY.

“After my freshman year this past season, my coach told me that playing for the Bigfoots would be a great opportunity to play with and against even better talent. And that is exactly what I am finding. Coming here, there are guys from big time programs, even Power 5 programs like Duke University and South Carolina, all baseball programs that are well known, like George Mason,” Patton said. “This is a great experience. In D3, there are things that you can get away with, but down here, at this higher level, even small mistakes are exposed during a game. You have to be better prepared.”

“It is a little different playing summer college ball without having to worry about academic studies,” Patton continued. “You are waking up in the morning, and all you have to do is play baseball. It is a great feeling knowing that you don’t have to go home and study.”

After a June 4 win by the Bigfoots over the Asheboro Zookeepers, Caden Wagner analyzed his big hit, a home run in the seventh inning that helped propel the Bigfoots’ comeback victory.

“A couple of pitches earlier he was throwing off-speed on the outer half of the plate, so I was thinking to myself to try and stay in the middle of the field or try to catch a gap, don’t try to do too much. As it turned out, I connected with the ball just right,” Wagner recalled of his rocket that sailed over the 385-foot sign in left center.

Wagner hails from Parker, Colorado, and attends school at the University of Northern Colorado, an NCAA Division I school competing in the Summit League against good baseball schools like Oral Roberts, North Dakota State, South Dakota State, and Nebraska-Omaha.

Appalachian State and Bigfoots catcher Braxton Church (16) has been a key addition to the Bigfoots’ 2023 roster. Here, he powers a double at the expense of the Tri-City Chili Peppers.
Photo by David Rogers.

“I played in the CPL last summer with Martinsville and Coach Randall Ortiz, our coach here at the Bigfoots this year. My summer last year was cut a little bit short in order to have some back surgery, so I wanted to come back out here and play a full summer for Coach Ortiz,” Wagner said.  

“We have fun. Summer ball in the CPL allows you to play pretty free and easy vs. playing college ball where you have to worry about academics, too,” said Wagner, a business and finance major in school. “Every summer, I come out here with a plan, knowing what I need to work on as an individual, and then I get to take that back to the university and our school ball. That is the biggest thing, just being able to focus on what you need to work on. You play baseball every day and put your focus there.”

Bob Wilson:
 The Man and His Mission

Bob Wilson moved to the High Country from California roughly six years ago. As he winds down a long, successful career serving in the film and television industry as a producer, he is falling back in love with a lifelong passion: baseball. But even more than that, he is using the game to teach business, professional, and life lessons to young people just emerging into adulthood.

“Cobra Kai is most likely my last show,” he said of his current hit TV show, a sequel to The Karate Kid. In 2021, Cobra Kai was nominated for a Primetime Emmy in the comedy TV category. “I am a baseball guy. Once I moved here, I came up here to App State to watch a baseball game and saw this beautiful field and stadium. I kept coming back, eventually saying to myself, ‘I need to do something here in the summer. I need baseball here in the summer, and this place is too beautiful to remain quiet in the summer months.’”

Even nearing retirement, Wilson can’t take the Hollywood showman out of his persona.

“I had been at Smith Stadium to watch games about five times when App State’s head baseball coach, Kermit Smith, walked out of his office one day, said he had seen me around and wondered if he could help me in any way,” Wilson recalled. “I replied that this place, Smith Stadium, would be a great place to field a summer baseball team. He said, ‘Sure. Who are you, and what are your intentions?’”

Wilson chuckled in his recollection of the encounter. It isn’t every day that someone broaches what may at first sound like an outlandish idea — much less someone with the resources and resourcefulness to see it through.

After I told him that I only had good intentions, that conversation led to an introduction to athletic director Doug Gillin. I explained to Doug that I had been very blessed in my professional career and that I did not want to do this for the money, but for the players and the heartbeat of the High Country, which I see in App State, and because I love baseball,” Wilson said.

Let’s Make a Deal

So, Wilson organized and capitalized a 501(c)3 company. He also soon realized there were other great opportunities and benefits related to the endeavor other than putting a good baseball product on the field.

“Each year, we give App State students real world experience in business operations while putting the best baseball product in this stadium as fast as we can,” Wilson said. “The other message that I wanted to communicate to the ball players on the field is how their respective lives would be changing within a relatively short period of time. They would soon be needing to do something else besides baseball.”

Wilson’s personal mission, he says, is wanting the players to walk away from the game by having the best baseball experience they ever had. 

“I remain close to almost every player from our first two years, and I think most would say it was their best baseball experience. We had a ton of fun,” Wilson said.

As successful as the first two years were, Wilson knew there was more to be gained for the players, as well as for the university and his operational staff.

“I wanted the level of competition to get better, so we joined the CPL this year. With that, there were some things that had to change because now we are not only playing at a higher level, but we are only a couple of steps removed from professional baseball.”

Does that mean Wilson has to corral his showman instincts?

“Well, we have to find a balance between the non-athletic entertainment and playing great baseball as the entertainment focus.”

Carving out summer market share has not been easy.

“Those first two years have required a lot of work by me, our staff, and our players. Most of the people in Boone had no idea there was a baseball team here. You would come to an App State game, and there might be 50 people in the stands. Over the last year, especially, I’ve noticed that the interest level has grown. There are much bigger crowds at the App State games, and we are getting 400 to 600 for Bigfoot games every single night,” Wilson said.

Wilson draws parallels to his career in film and television.

“Whether it is a $50 million budget or this much smaller budget, you are still making something,” Wilson noted. “It comes down to hard work, and that is what the first year was: hard work. Now the challenges are the result of change. Because we are hiring students, there is a lot of turnover from year to year.”

“And I am not talking about the baseball players, but the students in administrative roles. We are still running a business, and they have to be trained, educated. You are running a franchise. For instance, we go on the road to play games. The bus has to be here, it has to be reliable, and it has to be here on time. Someone has to make that happen,” Wilson said.

But there are many administrative tasks besides arranging transportation.

“There is promotion, taking tickets, arranging for security, concessions, umpires, scorekeepers, public address announcers, statisticians, video people, advertising and marketing. It is not as simple as just putting nine guys on the field. It is as complex of a business as you want to make it. And from year to year, it is a different team in the back office, and you are throwing students into roles that they have never been in before.”

Wilson is quick to point out that the Bigfoots, compared to other CPL franchises, is in a unique situation.

“Those other organizations are larger, with a full-time general manager. They are 12-month businesses, with other teams they are fielding, like travel teams for younger players. We are basically a 12-week business and the only one in CPL that is organized as a non-profit. Eventually, if we can generate enough revenue, perhaps we can hire a full-time GM and expand our operations, too. The goal is to have a full-time person that we can pay a living wage.”

In the meantime, Wilson and his staff are working hard.

“You can’t just expect the fans to show up,” Wilson said. “You have to get out in the community. You have to go down to King Street. You have work through social media. You have to work blasts through the alumni and the student body. You have to do these things. On the days that we don’t send players down to King Street to walk and greet people, I notice a 20 percent drop in attendance.

“There are 900 seats in the grandstands and another two or three hundred in the special seating and along the right field line,” Wilson said. “Our goal is to fill them up with a great baseball product and an entertaining fan experience.” 

Nick DiPietrantonio is one of two Ivy League players from Princeton University playing for the Bigfoots in 2023. Like Wagner, he also clubbed a big home run on June 4 against the Zookeepers that served as a catalyst for the Boone team’s comeback win.

“I played in the CPL last summer with Martinsville, too, so I am a little bit familiar with North Carolina but have not been here for an extended period of time. My hometown is Manalapan, New Jersey. I really like playing in this summer league because every day you wake up and get to make every decision based on baseball. We play ball almost every night and everything revolves around the competition. We get to hone-in on what we are trying to accomplish. I don’t have to worry about all the pre-med stuff during the summer!” said the future healthcare professional. “In school, there is a lot of balancing. Here, it is all about baseball.”

The Boone Bigfoots celebrate a teammate’s game-winning hit. Photo by David Rogers.

Catcher Braxton Church didn’t have much time to kick back and relax after his Appalachian State team went deep into the Sun Belt Conference tournament before losing to Southern Miss in the semifinals. Not only does he get to play home games in the familiar environment of Smith Stadium, but his family frequently gets to see him play since his hometown is Wilkesboro.

“This is awesome, being close to home and still getting to stay in Boone for the summer,” Church said. “This is like college ball, of course. There are guys from all over who can sling it, and everybody competes. Having Hayden Cross as the Bigfoots’ assistant coach is terrific because I have learned a lot from playing behind him here, for App State, since he was the older catcher ahead of me. Now I am learning even more with him as my coach.”

Hayden Cross, once Church’s teammate but now officially his mentor, is taking the next step on a potential career by assuming a coaching role with the Bigfoots.

Solid contact? There’s very little doubt that Nikko Andre was ‘dialed in’ when he connected for this hit in the Bigfoots home opener vs the Carolina Disco Turkeys. Photo by David Rogers.

“I am pretty much done playing baseball,” Cross said. “I am out of college eligibility, but I get to spend another summer in baseball as a coach. I eventually want to get into coaching, so this is a great opportunity. This is good baseball. There are guys from really good college programs.”

Although Cross had a final “look” recently from the Chicago Cubs, he said he is not banking on getting drafted.

“My degree is in education,” he said. “So, I would like to coach and teach at either the high school or college level. As a high school teacher, it would probably be in math.”

The guy charged with tying it all together for the Bigfoots in 2023 is head coach Randall Ortiz, an alum of Catawba Valley Community College and Wichita State University as a player. He is also beginning his fifth year with CVCC as a coach.

Zach Weaver trots the bases after his two home runs vs the HiToms. Photo by David Rogers.

“In high school, I was a lot smaller than I am now,” said the man with the stocky build of a catcher. “So, in high school, I began as a shortstop. Then halfway through my freshman year they made me the catcher after the regular guy got injured, and I never looked back.”

Given their view of the game from behind home plate with the entire baseball arena in front of them, athletes who played the game as a catcher have a special perspective as they transition into coaching.

“I am definitely excited by this opportunity,” said Ortiz, his face breaking into a big smile. “Last year, I was in the CPL with the Martinsville team as a coach. I knew that eventually I wanted to be a head coach. I didn’t know how soon my chance would come, but it has been what I wanted. The opportunity here in Boone opened up, and one of my friends from college got me connected with Bob Wilson. The first time I visited here and saw the field and facilities, I knew this was where I wanted to be  — the head coach for the Boone Bigfoots.”

Coastal Plain League action is fast. Here a Forest City Owls player barely beats a pickoff throw to Bigfoots first baseman J C Navarro. Photo by David Rogers.

Ortiz echoed the common theme heard from among the players.

“Summer baseball in the CPL is good,” Ortiz said. “You have the players’ attention pretty much 100 percent. They aren’t having to worry about homework for their academic studies. To add to that, I think we have a special group of players here this year. We have only been here for three weeks, but it has been awesome so far. The guys all get along with each other, and they can focus on baseball, not worrying about school.”

When it comes to summer jobs, it doesn’t get much better than it is for the boys of summer.