14aIn the Hope Mills Municipal field, the sun hangs low in the background as faded clouds paint the Carolina blue sky. Players for Hope Mills Rockfish are scattered across the freshly mowed, green field — practicing pitches, catching balls or letting the bat rip the dust-covered white balls to the backs of batting cages. The crack of the ball connecting to the bat can be heard from the surrounding fields — an unmistakable sound.
Today, the Rockfish wear their alter-ego shirts — the Millers. Melissa Marsh, General Manager for the team, says this is a norm among teams. Occasionally, they'll play under an alter ego name.
As the players come and switch out their shirts for the Millers shirts, they laugh and joke. Pewee Holland and Colby Thorndyke stand close to each other. Holland's legal name is something entirely different but neither him nor his teammates say anything other than “Peewee.” Holland's longer blond hair falls past his ears. He's quieter, a stark difference from Thorndyke who doesn't shy away from conversation and is often joking with everyone around him. Holland quietly answers questions and often keeps it to just one or two words.
"He's as country as a turnip green," Assistant Coach Jeff Nance says about Holland.
Holland grew up playing rec ball in these fields and played during his high school years where Nance was his coach at Gray's Creek. Holland says he followed Nance to the team.
"I wanted to play for him one more time," he says while looking off in the distance.
While Holland says he doesn't want to pursue pro ball, he wants to play for a few more years. He says he'll probably end up in construction or another line of work.
Thorndyke, on the other hand, is a new addition to the team and has his sights on pro-ball, a dream he shares with many of the other players. He talks freely about baseball and his love for the game. On Thorndyke's left hand is a white bandage — a souvenir from the night before where cleats met his hand at first base.
"I probably needed stitches," he says looking down at it.
Another team member reports that the medic said he definitely needed stitches. But Thorndyke wanted to play, so butterfly bandages it was and he played the rest of the previous game with the hurt hand. Tonight, it'll be no different. Marsh describes him as a "trooper."
Finally, the crack of the balls hitting bats stops and it's time to play ball. The other players start heading toward the dugout to get ready for the game to begin. It's about that time. Their side of the field is filled with conversations and laughing among the players changing into their game shirts or putting equipment on.
"Let's mix it up," Thorndyke yells to the others laughing.
"No, you'll get us canceled," laughs another teammate.
When they are all dressed and ready, the teammates huddle on bent knees in a quick prayer. Their arms are around the person next to them, knitted in a close circle, heads touching. Around them is the lush color of green, well-kept grass and the dusty brown color of dirt. This field is partially kept up by the head coach Jeff Edwards.
"He's the only coach I know that brings a push lawn mower in a BMW," Marsh says.
Hope Mills Rockfish is a collegiate woodbat summer league that pulls players from all over. Many of the 30 team members, however, are from the area. Among those are Holland, who is from the Hope Mills area, and Thorndyke who comes from Lumberton. Others come from a little further to play ball in North Carolina like Steven Shaffer who came from New Jersey last summer and is back again for this summer's program. Shaffer says his ultimate goal is to play at the next level.
"I think that's why we are all here -- try and get seen. Try and keep developing and get that chance to go to the next level," he says.
As the prayer ends, the players stand at attention for the National Anthem. When it's over, they disperse to their various positions. They are ready for the assortment of lessons that baseball gives them. Failure, according to Thorndyke, is one of the best lessons and best things about playing ball.
"In life, you are going to fail and you have to get back up and keep going. Baseball is a game of failure,” he said.
This year is the first year the league has played in Hope Mills. Prior to that, it was based out of Fayetteville. The change from Fayetteville to Hope Mills came about because the team wasn't able to garner as much support, says Marsh. They are hoping the change to Hope Mills will bring about some new interest and keep that hometown feel.
As the players take their places throughout the field, "Sweet Home Alabama" starts playing throughout the stands. Some of the attendees bring their own chairs while others take spots in the bleachers. Except for the background of Lynard Skynard, there is a brief moment of quiet and no talking as the first ball is thrown, everyone waiting for that first electric crack and Hope Mills Rockfish is happy to oblige.
Hope Mills Rockfish games will run through July and include multiple games per week. Tickets are $10 for adults and free for kids under the age of 10. Refreshments are available for purchase at the games and meal packages and tickets are also available online at www.hopemillsrockfish.com.

(Photo: The Hope Mills Rockfish huddle before a game. Photos by Kathleen Ramsey)

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