Longtime Lynchburg Hillcats fans reflect on love of the game
LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) — Norma Glass remembers the days she and friends weren’t focused on the game going on in front of them. They were content simply running around City Stadium, “just mooching” food off fans who’d come to support the Lynchburg Minor League Baseball team.
That was decades ago, in the 1940s. It was then, Glass said, that she first started coming to games.
“My dad used to come to all the games,” Glass explained, remembering the era of the Lynchburg Cardinals, named for their Major League affiliate St. Louis, “and he used to bring me with him when I was a child.”
All those nights spent at the ballpark as a girl aren’t just memories for the 75-year-old Glass, though.
As she grew older, City Stadium became more than a playground or place where she could enjoy a summer snack. It became the place she developed a love for the sport and the Lynchburg baseball team.
And today, trips to City Stadium are still part of Glass’s routine. When her hometown team, now the Lynchburg Hillcats, is at home, Glass is in the stands.
“I can’t imagine a season without baseball,” Glass said during a game in mid-June.
A love for baseball and the Hillcats, she explained, “is in our blood.”
Sharing in the game with the team, now clad in shades of blue and green, is as constant as two other very important parts of her life.
“Everybody says, ‘Why do you stay in Lynchburg?’” Glass said. “My family’s here, my church is here, and the Hillcats.”
For several other diehard fans scattered about the stadium, being at Hillcats games is part of a decades-long routine.
They’ve sat through chilly nights in April, when the season first begins, and summer showers.
They’ve spent hundreds of nights at the stadium, following the ups and downs of each 140-game season that lasts through September — from the 96 wins of the legendary 1983 Lynchburg Mets, thanks to players like pitching phenom Dwight Gooden, to the disappointing 29-win total in the first half for today’s Cleveland Indians farm team.
They’ve seen the Lynchburg baseball club change major league affiliations nine times, but the fans remain constant in their support.
Just above the seats decades-long fans Glass, Nancy Trent, Betty Cauley and Jerry Fortuna occupy to the right of home plate, a group of fellow fans have made the rocking chairs on the concourse a second home.
Pat and Bill Jefferson have been season ticketholders for years and have come to games since the ’80s. They have plenty of other obligations — spending time with family, including their grandkids, and volunteering, for example — but they always work in time for the ’Cats.
“I missed some because I had both of my knees replaced, but I tried to get out when I could,” Pat Jefferson said. “But after that, I was here. . When baseball season’s in, this is what we do.”
Three days a week, she and Bill volunteer at the hospital; when the clock hits 7 p.m., though, they’re off to the ballpark.
The two also are part of the Hillcats booster club, now 35 members strong after its founding in 1993, helping the players — who go through a grind that includes lots of travel and being bounced around to unfamiliar places — feel just as at home at City Stadium and in Lynchburg as the fans by funding meals and special events, such as team picnics.
One of the beauties of minor league baseball, and the Hillcats organization, Pat Jefferson contends, is the opportunity it gives for young men to develop on the diamond and off.
“I just love the sport itself. It helps them to get themselves together and manage themselves,” she said. “You have to be able to get along with other team members there, so that always helps.”
A handful of players have developed the skills it takes to make it to the majors after making their way through Lynchburg.
“Every once in a while you’ll have those players who go all the way up (to the majors), and you’ll go, ‘I knew him when,’” longtime fan Linda Jones said.
But even those who haven’t made it to the big leagues have made an impact.
Cauley and Glass can rattle off the extended history of the Lynchburg baseball teams, but those players contribute more than the numbers in game notes or record books.
“We’ve had a lot of players come that we really have cared about,” Cauley said.
Maybe that’s because those players have helped make possible the experiences these diehard fans will remember for years to come.
Some of those fans, like the duo of Gene and Faye Coleman, look at the Hillcats games as a place to enjoy each other’s company. Baseball, they said, is something the couple, longtime friends who married after each lost their first spouse, bond over.
“This is a relaxing atmosphere,” Gene said.
The couple has been to major league games to take in their favorite pastime, too, visiting multiple stadiums. But City Stadium is the place they enjoy being the most during the summer.
“It’s home,” Faye said.
The Colemans are much more reserved than the group a few rows above them. There, Glass, Trent and Cauley in particular are unabashed about their love for the ’Cats and the sport. Hillcats games are just as much about nostalgia as they are having fun, they demonstrate.
“We critique the national anthem,” Glass said with a smile.
Her response to a less-than-impressive rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” ahead of a game last month — two thumbs down — was quick and light-hearted.
“That was ‘American Idol’ in the worst way,” Cauley added jokingly.
The group has gained a reputation as a loud crew who doesn’t hesitate to let other patrons know how they feel about the action going on in front of them.
“What’s the point of coming to a game if you’re just gonna sit there like a log?” Cauley said. “Why are you here if you’re not gonna cheer sometime?”
Recalling a time recently when a casual fan took exception to the cheering, Glass explained her mom probably wanted to “reach down from heaven” and stop Glass from saying what she did. But Glass is unashamed of her fandom.
“I had a lady sit here one night, and she turned around and told us we were making too much noise,” Glass said, “and I just politely said to her, ‘Ma’am, there are other seats in this stadium you can move to. If you sit here, we’re gonna be hollering. And if you’re offended, tough.’”
Like the ladies who’ve gained acclaim around the stadium for the fun they have with the game and each other, Linda and Kelly Jones, too, enjoy the opportunity to spend time with fellow Hillcats fans.
“Those of us who sit down here, we’re regulars,” Linda Jones said.
“We bond,” Kelly Jones, her daughter, added.
Three generations of Joneses have spent nights at the ballpark in support of the Lynchburg team.
“It just kept going. I guess it got in my blood at a young age. The whole family had a real love for baseball, and that love got passed on,” referring to Kelly, who said she’d take a night at the ballpark over a night spent inside binge-watching Netflix any day.
This season, the Hillcats faithful had less to cheer about — at least during the first half, when Lynchburg finished last in the Northern Division — than they would’ve hoped. But that doesn’t dim their enthusiasm.
Glass will continue to fill out her scorecard with each play, as she has every game for decades now. She and her fellow fans will still keep coming to games, and they’ll still keep chanting, “Let’s go Hillcats.”
Baseball will always be more than a game, they explained, and the Hillcats will still excite them.
“Wow,” Glass yelled after witnessing outfielder Mitch Longo hit a leadoff home run during a game in mid-June. “That’s the way to get it started.”
Information from: The News & Advance, http://www.newsadvance.com/