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K-Tribe loses treasured family member05/21/2010 10:00 AM ET
By Benjamin Hill / MLB.com
Minor League Baseball lost a unique and irreplaceable figure last Friday when Evelyn "Mama" Kornegay passed away at age 81 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
"Mama," a 4-foot-9 spark plug, might not have been well known outside of her native city of Kinston, N.C., but as a long-time host mother she played a key role in the lives of many Cleveland Indian farmhands. From 1996 through 2009, she welcomed over 150 Kinston Indians players into her large 100-year-old home, with as many as a dozen staying with her at any given time. These players were drawn in by her loving and boisterous personality, infectious laugh and legendary home-style cooking. And all they had to do in return was follow two simple rules, spelled out in a hand-written sign that hung on the banister -- no food or girls upstairs.
Mama was also a regular and much-loved presence at Kinston's Grainger Stadium, a long-time season ticket holder who sat in a front-row seat that bore its own commemorative plaque. The outpouring of love that has greeted her passing is a testament to the impact she had in her community and helps bring to light the tight-knit, small-town values that guide Minor League Baseball teams across the country.
Mama didn't speak Spanish, and yet the overwhelming majority of the players she hosted were Hispanic. Often new to the United States and feeling culturally isolated, these players viewed Mama's house as a welcoming refuge.
The most successful player to have roomed at Mama's was also one of her favorites: All-Star catcher Victor Martinez, who stayed with her in 2000-01.
"I was one of eight or 10 people living at Mama's house. There were Dominican guys, Venezuelan guys, and we all got along pretty good," recalled Martinez, who kept in touch with Mama through the years and often visited with her during Spring Training. "We'd all take turns washing the dishes."
Although in her 70s at the time, Martinez remembers Mama as a constant whirlwind of activity.
"One second you'd see her in the kitchen and then, all of a sudden, you'd see her out in the yard," he said. "I will always remember her as a happy lady with a great attitude."
Everyone goes to Mama's
Because of this reputation, young players often would seek Mama out upon arriving in Kinston.
"I first heard about her in 2008, talking in Spring Training with players who had stayed with her before," explained catcher Alex Castillo, who lived at Mama's house in 2008-09. "We were like a family at that house, always talking, playing games and hanging out, and she was like our mother. She would always find a way to make sure we were comfortable and kept us out of trouble."
Castillo was sent down to Kinston earlier this week after a stint with Double-A Akron, and the sting of the demotion was intensified due to Mama's absence.
"I don't know how to describe it, her not being here," he said. "She made a huge difference."
The Cleveland Indians were certainly aware of Mama's value to the organization. Indians GM Mark Shapiro participated in a get-well video that was shot in Goodyear, Ariz., during Spring Training, and player development director Ross Atkins was recently quoted in the Kinston Free Press as saying, "We will never be able to thank Mama enough for her kindness in opening up her home to our young players.
"You couldn't help but love her."
But one didn't need to live with Mama in order to share her home and enjoy her company. Torey Lovullo, who managed the Kinston club in 2003-04, was immediately taken with Mama's open and generous nature.
"The first day I met her she said, 'You call me Mama, because you're a part of this family now and I look forward to knowing you,'" recalled Lovullo, now the manager of the International League's Pawtucket Red Sox. "She was very loving and very trusting. That's a combination that often describes mothers -- and that was Mama. That name was just perfect for her.
"That giant house of hers was right in the middle of town," he added. "And countless times when I'd be traveling by I'd sneak in and say hello to her. I didn't need to see the players [at the house], because I'd see them at the ballpark later. I would just stop in to see Mama's smile, and to hear her laugh. She had the best giggle, it was just so infectious. ... And if I ever thought any of my players were getting too skinny, I'd just tell Mama they needed to be eating more and you know she'd take care of that."
Lovullo's Pawtucket ballclub will be playing in Durham, N.C., this weekend, a fortuitous bit of scheduling that may allow Lovullo to attend Mama's funeral in Kinston on Saturday morning.
"If fate is giving me that opportunity, then I'm going to do my absolute best to be there," he said. "I'd love the chance to spend one last minute with her, to be able to say goodbye."
A tight-knit community
As a Grainger Stadium fixture, Mama made an impression on a wide variety of ballpark regulars. David Hall covers the K-Tribe for the Kinston Free Press and, in that capacity, he got to know Mama very well.
"When you see the same people every night, you naturally get to know them," said Hall. "But we didn't interact so much at the ballpark. What I'll remember is talking at the house, with her cooking something and insisting I try it. I'm a vegetarian, and she didn't really understand that.
"Her apple turnovers were famous," he added. "They were almost like tortillas, folded in half and deep fried. She would make huge batches and deliver them to offices around town."
Hall has written several articles about Mama over the years, providing insight into her personality as well as the unique household dynamic.
"Mama helped to insulate these guys, who are trying to adjust to being in a different country," he said. "And that big kitchen gave them a place to cook their home-style foods. She didn't know any Spanish, but she always had a good supply of rice and beans."
Mama was always ready to lend a helping hand, so it's no surprise that others were always ready to lend one for her. Kinston Indians GM Shari Massengill developed a very close relationship with Mama through the years, one that far exceeded the team employee-fan dynamic.
"I don't quite remember how it began, but over the last five or six years, I got in the habit of calling her every morning just to say hello," said Massengill. "I'd take her out to eat, go with her to pick up her medicine from the doctor's office, stop by the grocery store ... anything and everything, really. I grew up without a grandmother, and she became one to me and my children."
Such close relationships are perhaps easier to come by in small markets such as Kinston, as the relative lack of people makes ballpark regulars that much easier to identify and appreciate. A public memorial will take place for Mama on Friday at Grainger Stadium, marking the third time in less than two years that a beloved stadium fixture has been honored in such a way. Scoreboard operator Delmont Miller passed away in fall 2008, and clubhouse manager Robert Smeraldo died suddenly last May.
Each of these individuals played a unique and often-overlooked role in the day-to-day functioning of a team, and Mama's was one that will not soon be forgotten.
"We look at these ballplayers as adults, but in a lot of ways they are still boys," said Massengill. "And Mama, she knew what she was doing. She taught them things that they'll remember for the rest of their lives. They needed a figure like that, which is why what she did for us was so incredible, and so valuable."
Evelyn "Mama" Kornegay is survived by a son, a daughter, several grandchildren and, incredibly, her own mother -- 102-year-old Nora Clark. A public visitation will take place Friday evening at Grainger Stadium, with funeral services at a local Baptist church the following afternoon.