At NewBridge Bank Park, home of the Greensboro Grasshoppers, everybody seems to know Zeb Vance. And for good reason -- he's the speaker of the house.
Zeb, along with his father, Gil, and mother, Carol, has been a constant presence at Grasshoppers games for the past decade. He can be found in Section 105, Row M, sitting directly in front of the tunnel that leads from the clubhouses to the playing field. As the Grasshopper players emerge from this tunnel, it's a sure bet that many of them will stop to acknowledge Zeb as he shouts words of encouragement (and, occasionally, good-natured criticism).
Zeb, 28, is developmentally disabled. He was born with hydrocephalus -- caused by excess fluid on the brain -- and is deaf in his left ear. This has not prevented him from living a rich, full life, however. Zeb loves spending time with his 10-year-old Great Dane, Angus, and 1-year-old niece, Sadie. He also has a job at Greensboro-based ArcBARKS, making organic dog treats alongside other special needs adults.
Gil and Carol started taking Zeb to see the Grasshoppers, Class A affiliate of the Florida Marlins, shortly after NewBridge Bank Park opened in 2005. They soon found it was a fit for his sensibilities, as the experience provided plenty of stimulation but not so much as to be overwhelming.
"It's kind of like on Cheers, when Norm would come in and everybody would yell 'Norm!'" said Gil, sitting next to Zeb during May 6's ballgame against the Columbia Fireflies. "That's like him, where he'll walk in and seven, eight, 10 people will yell 'Zeb!' It's one of the few places in town -- we've never done it -- where we'd feel comfortable dropping him off and then coming back to pick him up."
As if to illustrate this point, Zeb then darted up the staircase with an empty souvenir soda cup in hand.
"Oh, and he sure loves the bottomless cups of soda," said Gil, laughing.
The "speaker of the house" moniker was bestowed upon Zeb by Grasshoppers president Donald Moore, thereby putting him third in the team hierarchy behind vice president Katie Dannemiller and Moore himself.
"I've been [speaker of the house] for about five years," said Zeb, having returned from the concession stands with a freshly refilled Pepsi. "I just talk to people."
"Like John Boehner," added Gil.
"I know everybody. I know 'em all," said Zeb.
Of all the regular ballpark denizens that Zeb has gotten to know through the years, it is his relationship with Dannemiller that has had the most impact.
"Katie's like a member of the family," said Gil. "She had an older brother with Down's [Syndrome], and she really took a shine to Zeb. That's really how our relationship with the Grasshoppers started."
"During my first season with the Grasshoppers in 2006, I immediately took notice of Zeb as I had left behind my family in Akron, Ohio, which included my Down Syndrome brother, Jere," explained Dannemiller. "Of course, I immediately became friendly with Zeb and his parents…. For me, he helps fill the void of my brother, who I unfortunately lost in April of 2009. I always know when I look up from the field or walk through the tunnel Zeb is there and has something to say with a smile."
Zeb at May 6's Greensboro Grasshoppers game and alongside Grasshoppers vice president Katie Dannemiller.
Dannemiller went on to say that Zeb has become "a huge favorite of all the current and past Grasshoppers coaches and players." Jose Fernandez and J.T. Realmuto, now teammates on the Marlins, were named by Zeb as two of his favorites.
"He doesn't look at them the way somebody else would -- he just thinks they're buddies," said Gil. "It's just a friendship for him, but he does like seeing them on TV. He's still shy around most people, but it's fun when they interact with him. I think it's good for [the players] too. It keeps them a little bit grounded."
Zeb is occasionally recruited by the Grasshoppers to put on a uniform and give the team a pep talk, a practice that was begun by hitting coach Frank Moore (now with the Class A Advanced Jupiter Hammerheads) during the team's 2011 championship season.
"Yeah, I talk to them," said Zeb. "Yeah, yeah. I do."
"And you also tell them some things you can't put in an article," added Gil.
At this, Zeb only smiled.
"And what do you tell Jake when you seen him?" asked Gil, referring to head groundskeeper Jake Holloway.
"Make sure to water my field!" replied Zeb.
"See, it's his field," said Gil. "By now this is old hat, but it's because the players, the staff, they've all made us feel so comfortable. It's great."