As the Hickory Crawdads celebrate their 25th anniversary season, it’s time for a look back.
Unless there’s someone out there I don’t recall, I’m the only journalist still around who was there in 1993 (covering the team that year and in 1994 during my tenure as a sports reporter with The Charlotte Observer).
I was reporting from the time the franchise was granted, during the early construction of L.P. Frans Stadium, at the first home game on April 16, 1993 and at the now famous “Free Pizza” game promotion on April 20, 1993 that made Chris Mader a hero.
My trip down memory lane…
There are many things that come to mind when I first sit back and reflect on that year, 25 years ago, when the Crawdads came to Hickory.
It was an exciting time for the city — especially for hardcore baseball fans — and as fine a moment as I can recall for the city to stand proud and tall about an effort that took a lot of hard work and cooperation from so many people to come to fruition.
I vividly remember the weeks leading up to April 1993, especially all the grading and dirt and mud we’d often find if you made a trip over to see how construction on completing L.P. Frans Stadium was coming.
The thing I probably remember most about the home opener – April 16, when a team that was 2-6 and had played its first eight games on the road faced and beat Fayetteville’s Generals 5-3 – was the players dressing in multiple trailers that sat on a hill that, if you attend a game now, was part of the back parking spots in the lot in front of the stadium.
There wasn’t much room in any of the trailers – you had to squeeze in or wait outside the door(s) and ask for a player… and Crawdads manager Fred Kendall, the former big-league catcher, had to sort of hunch over at one end because the roof of those trailers was so low.
As time went on, and the locker rooms and offices for the coaches were built (just left of left field at the current stadium), I can remember so many conversations about the Crawdads – and baseball – in Kendall’s office.
If you knew baseball and loved it, as Kendall also did, he’d share his thoughts freely. He was a joy to work with.
THE HOME OPENER: When David Elsbernd went to the mound to throw the first official pitch by a Crawdads hurler in the sparkling new stadium, there were 5,026 fans in the stands.
The fans first got something to cheer about by the second inning, when Eddie Pearson doubled and scored on a single to left by Scott Patton, and Magglio Ordonez hit into a fielder’s choice that — with a throwing error mixed in — scored another run.
Up 2-1 as they headed to the third inning, the Crawdads got their first long ball, a two-out home run to right-center, by Juan Thomas (who build-wise and other ways reminded you of Frank Thomas).
Fayetteville tied it at 3 with two runs in the fourth inning, but Hickory grabbed a victory with a two-run seventh inning that featured a two-RBI hit, with the bases loaded, by Mader.
Mader was in the midst of a hot hitting streak. By the next game, he was six for his last 16 at-bats (.375) and his batting average rose 99 points during that stretch.
But the thing that made him a player many still remember was a few days away.
FREE PIZZA FOR EVERYONE: April 20, 1993 was a Tuesday night, with Asheville in town.
The Crawdads were 3-8 coming in and the Tourists were 2-8, and a crowd of 2, 867 readied for the second homestand in team history.
I don’t think we ever came up with exactly who thought up a promotion that saddled a local pizza place (Domino’s) with this: If the Crawdads score 10 runs in the game, everyone at the game would receive – the next day only – a free cheese pizza.
That’s a lot of pizzas.
And as it turned out, making that many was an overwhelming task that Wednesday.
When Asheville’s Todd Hobson led off the seventh inning with a home run, the game was tied at 8.
Mader led off the Crawdads’ seventh at-bat with a single. After two errors and a wild pitch, he was at third base and he scored on another Asheville error, making it 9-8 Hickory.
By the time, Mader got to the plate again in the eighth inning, there were two outs. Jimmy Reyes reached on an infield single to deep shortstop and pinch-hitter Wilfredo Polidor dropped a bunt down the third-base line and got on.
I can’t remember if the PA announcer specifically addressed the ‘We score 10, you get free pizza’ promotion – I think that did happen – as Mader stepped into the batter’s box.
When Mader smacked a double into right-center, driving in two runs to make it 11-8, it was to loud cheers because it meant free pizza.
Hickory gave up two runs in the ninth but still won 11-10, but everyone was thinking pizza.
Because of deadline, I didn’t get to ask Mader about the pizza.
From my game notes that night, his comments: “Base running (played a key role). The other day, it was horrible. Today we were aggressive but not stupid and it ended up being the difference.
“We didn’t run ourselves into outs… it’s all starting to come together.”
In an interview I found online from a few years back, Mader mentioned that night as one of his best memories from playing for the Crawdads. He thought they led 8-2 at one point.
How Mader described the night:
“We had runners on first and second and I remember coming to the plate, but I really don’t honestly (remember) being aware of the promotion until the 4,000-6,000 people in the stands start shouting, “PIZ-ZA! PIZ-ZA!”
“I had never heard a crowd like that and I’m like, ‘If we get 10 runs, they’re going to get a free pizza; they’re pretty amped up about this.
“Usually, when you’re up 8-2 with two runners on, you’re not really nervous. I remember being extremely nervous at the plate because I was like, ‘Don’t strike out, just hit ball, do something.’
“Thankfully, I hit a line drive into right-center field and the guys were rounding from first and second, and I had a stand-up double.
“And I remember turning, when I was at second base, watching home plate, because there was a play at the plate because the guy made the throw. The guys from second scored easily and the guy from first was trying to leg it out and score. It was (a) really close play at the plate and he slid and he was safe.
“The place just exploded, and I thought we had just won a World Series or something. I get chills thinking about it.
“I stood there on second base and the place was going crazy and I’m thinking, ‘This is pretty cool; that was a lot of fun.’
“The guys from the paper came out to the game; it was a lot of fun and that was great.
“The next morning, my roommate goes out and we get the paper and on the front page of the paper, it said “The Pizza Man Delivers”… and there was a big picture of me with a smile on my face standing on second base.
“Of course, the guys on my team started giving me a hard time about that. I think that’s was what probably started to spawn some of the popularity that I had. I was very lucky to garner the support that I got.”
AND THEN HE WAS GONE: I built a good relationship with Mader – we still communicate some to this day – and he was involved with one of the stories I wrote that quickly cemented how much baseball is also a business.
We talked one day about his disappointment that the White Sox didn’t promote him after he’d had a pretty good season.
Always candid, Mader responded to a question by saying he didn’t know why he was in Hickory again. He was disappointed — he, like all the players, wanted to reach the big leagues someday.
It all took a bad turn when, feeling the White Sox should have a chance to talk about their roster decisions in Hickory before writing a story (I did a full page on the Crawdads every Sunday), I called and spoke with someone involved in player development.
I told them what Mader had said and asked about — in general terms not about Mader specifically – what went into building a minor league roster and the decision-making process in when players advance or stay put.
The response (and I am going from memory, as I don’t have the interview notes in front of me): “Maybe what Mader should worry about is all those ground balls going through his legs at third base.”
Within days, the White Sox released Mader.
He is still the one Crawdads player that comes to my mind when I think about their 25-year history and, more specifically, about their arrival in 1993. I’d always planned to fly to Chicago or to the location needed to watch Mader’s major-league debut.
A SUGGESTION: If you are a big Crawdads fan, follow them at crawdadsbeat.com, a personal blog by Mark Parker.
I have as much historical and detailed information about the franchise’s first two years as anyone does – probably more than the club does – but Mark is THE historian, with amazing lists like all of the players who played in Hickory who reached the major leagues (a list he keeps active).