Column – The Salem Red Sox

Jose Sermo of the Salem Red Sox competes in last week’s Home Run Derby. Photo by Brian Hoffman

The weather man threw a lemon at the Salem Red Sox last week but the staff hit it out of the park, then served lemonade to the assembled crowd at Salem Memorial Ballpark.

A lot of planning went into the Carolina League Hitting Challenge, which was scheduled in conjunction with the CL All-Star game, won by the host North team, 2-0. The two day festivities celebrated 50 years of Carolina League baseball in the valley and they were a long time in the making.

The “Hitting Challenge,” which was essentially a home run derby, was originally scheduled for Kiwanis Field, home to the local Carolina League Club for the first 27 and a half years of its time in the league. It was a much-anticipated event with the short Kiwanis Field walls and the nostalgic feel to the 85 year old ballpark.

A 4:30 pm block party was planned with a closed street, music, food carts and even things like a sword swallower and a stilt walker. It just doesn’t get more fun than that.

Then the rain came. About noon a thunderstorm hit the Salem area that had folks rolling up their windows and saving stuff on their computers. When the skies cleared Kiwanis Field, which doesn’t drain nearly as well as Salem Memorial, was soaked and muddy. More rain was in the forecast, right up until 8 pm according to the weather folks, so the stilt walkers, food carts and musicians were cancelled.

So was the home run derby at Kiwanis Field. Instead it was moved to Salem Memorial Ballpark, where the 20 foot walls are anything but tempting to would-be home run hitters. Still, it was better than no contest at all, and surprisingly enough it turned into a fantastic night.

While there weren’t as many home runs as we would have had at Kiwanis, the site of baseballs soaring into the sky and dropping into the trees behind the Memorial wall was nothing short of breath-taking. It was something you don’t see on a regular basis at Salem Red Sox games, because it’s darned tough to hit a home run there off Carolina League pitching.

However, not so much against high school baseball coaches. William Byrd coach Neil Zimmerman and Salem High coach Wes McMillan took turns grooving batting practice pitches to eight different Carolina League sluggers. Apparently, McMillan was tougher to hit. The first two competitors, Salem’s Jose Sermo and Zack Collins of Winston-Salem, combined to hit all of five home runs off McMillan. Sermo won, 3-2, to advance to the next round.

Carolina’s Jake Gatewood and Josh Altmann of Down East went next as Zimmerman served ‘em up. Gatewood responded with 13 home runs in his three minutes plus 30 seconds of bonus time, which you earned by homering in the last 30 seconds of regular time. Altman had nine homers but couldn’t hang with Gatewood.

Next was Sicnarf Loopstok of Lynchburg against Anderson Miller of Wilmington, and the Lynchburg catcher thrilled the crowd with 17 taters to win easily. In the final third round matchup Elroy Jimenez of Myrtle Beach beat Isan Diaz of Carolina, 3-1.

In the semifinals Loopstok edged Sermo, 13-12, in double overtime while Gatewood beat Jimenez, 13-8, despite Jimenez stunning the crowd with a drive that broke a light in the standard high above the wall in dead left. Glass rained down on the kids from the Cutter travel baseball team that served to catch and retrieve balls that didn’t clear the wall.

That set up a final between Gatewood and Loopstok, who were clearly the two best to that point. Loopstok looked to have it clinched with a 14-10 lead and time running out on Gatewood, but the Mudcats’ slugger homered on his final swing of the three minutes to earn bonus time and cut the lead to 14-11. Then, in the bonus 30 seconds, he drilled four more, just beating the time limit to win a watch and $500 for a local charity.

Upon conclusion, North all-star teammates mobbed Gatewood on the field like they just won the Carolina League championship. Fans who paid $12 for a ticket filed to the exit not with a feeling of being cheated by missing out on the sword swallowers and broken windows on Florida Street, but instead thinking they got a bargain for a darned good show.

It could have been a sour night, but the rain held off and it was lemonade and hot dogs for all. Maybe we’ll try it again at Kiwanis in another 50 years.

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