In last week's edition of this column, I wrote about a Kannapolis Intimidators superfan known by one and all as the "Uh-Huh Guy." The Uh-Huh Guy -- given name Paul Buchanan -- makes his presence known at CMC-Northeast Field via his constant pursuit of foul balls and constant full-throated repetition of his "Uh-Huh" catchphrase.
But fans come in all shapes, sizes and dispositions. The "Uh-Huh Guy" is a couldn't-miss-him-even-if-you-wanted-to sort of ballpark character, a man who responds to detractors with the message "don't let anyone steal your joy." Debby and Marshall Smith, a kind, soft-spoken married couple who live, as Marshall puts it, "two miles down the road," are Intimidators supporters of a far different sort. Their joy comes from just being at the ballpark, sitting in their second-row seats and rooting for players with whom they have forged a personal connection. Debby and Marshall Smith are loyal members of the Kannapolis Intimidators' Booster Club.
In loco parentis
The Smiths, who previously lived in the Tampa area, began coming to Intimidators games during the team's inaugural 1995 campaign. The team was known as the Piedmont Phillies that year, becoming the Boll Weevils the following season and then the Kannapolis Intimidators in 2001. The club has been affiliated with the White Sox since that 2001 season.
Marshall worked for the team during the 2001 and 2002 seasons, doing community relations work, and his increased exposure to the players during those years motivated Debby and him to get more involved with the team's Booster Club.
"We just love these guys, and we love the game," Debby tells me as June 10's contest between the Intimidators and Savannah Sand Gnats gets underway. This is immediately apparent. Debby is sitting to my left, with Marshall -- sporting a white Intimidators cap -- perched atop the seat across from me. Next to Debby is a white binder filled with all sorts of information related to the Intimidators' current roster, including yellow survey sheets that have been filled out by each player. On these sheets the players have listed information about themselves -- favorite and least favorite foods, for example -- that will help the Booster Club cater to them during their time in Kannapolis, however long or short it may be.
"Everybody on this team has a booster family. We don't house them, but we do serve as their contact, their support," explained Debby. "You know, like if they have a girlfriend coming in and they need us to pick her up at the airport. We provide food for our guys after they've come off of a road trip; their cupboards are probably bare after a week on the road so we bring a casserole out. We acknowledge birthdays. We send [newspaper] clippings to their parents."
If all of this makes it sound as if the Smiths and their booster club ilk are taking on a quasi-parental role, well, they are.
"We are their home away from home and we are well aware that for a lot of these guys it is their first full season," continued Debby. "For some of them, like our third baseman [Trey Michalczewski], it might be the first time away from home. He's 19 years old. For the sake of the players and their parents, we provide a sense of home, a safety net. When their parents come to visit, we introduce ourselves to them and let them know we're watching out for their kids, because we hope that somebody would do that for ours."
"One of the fun things is seeing these guys as they become successful, like Gio Gonzalez, Brandon McCarthy, Jimmy Rollins," added Marshall. Here he gestures to fellow Booster Club member Jo Stephens, who is sitting in the front row. "She's always referring to the players as 'one of her sons' and that's how we feel, too, like they're one of our kids."
"I get new sons every year!" added Stephens, laughing.
The Smiths offer comfort and familiarity to players thrown into a new town and team. (Ben Hill/MiLB.com)
It's so random
Gonzalez, McCarthy and Rollins are Kannapolis products who went on to achieve success in the Major Leagues. But they are exceptions rather than the rule, and the Smiths have become well aware of this.
"One thing we've learned," said Marshall, taking a deep breath and then pausing to consider his words, "It's not taking a hard view, but we've learned to become very realistic about what these guys are doing here. They may get promoted, or they may not, or they may get released. But it's become easier to understand that they're not just going to keep going up the line. In all this time [20 seasons] I think we've had something like 77 players make it to the bigs.
"But crazy things happen," he continued. "When Mike Morse was here [in 2002], he was the worst player we ever saw."
"He set records for errors," interjected Debby.
"The best third baseman we ever had, John Lackaff, he still holds the Sally League fielding percentage record," said Marshall. "But he got injured and his career was done."
"We are still in touch with players like that. We saw John this year," said Debby. "He is now on the staff at the University of Cincinnati."
This speaks to the heart of being a successful and enduring booster club member. It isn't about the chance to bask in reflected glory, supporting a young baseball player only because he might one day make a name for himself. It's about supporting that player, unconditionally, because of who he is in that moment: a young man, in a new and often overwhelming professional environment, struggling to find his way forward.
Seeking to do just this, the Smiths have embarked on all sorts of small adventures with the players whom they have taken under their wing. They've served as puppy-sitters, taken a player to the hospital after a pitch broke his hand and even served as retrievers of wayward automobiles.
"We've taken guys to pick up their cars when they've been shipped to the wrong city, because the guys don't necessarily know in Spring Training what level they'll be assigned to," said Debby. "We've got everything from low-A to high-A to Triple-A within an hour and a half from here, and sometimes they guess wrong."
If and when those players get promoted from Kannapolis, they may soon realize that they left something special behind.
"The players tell us, after they've gone up, they tell us that our booster club just beats the socks off of everybody else," said Marshall.