On the back end of a weekend baseball trip to North Carolina, we visited CaroMont Health Park in Gastonia, home of the Atlantic League’s (ALPB) Honey Hunters. Playing their inaugural season, Gastonia offered an opportunity to again visit the Tar Heel State (having done so before in 2017 and 2019). Following an eight hour drive on Friday, and after attending a Charlotte Knights game on Saturday night, we visited Gastonia on Sunday afternoon, in advance of their 450 pm game against the Lexington Legends.
Headquartered in Charlotte for the weekend, we took Interstate 85 south from there to Gastonia, a trip that lasted about 25 minutes. Arriving about 30 minutes before the gates opened at CaroMont Health Park, we parked on West Main Street, and walked through the downtown area. Along the strip, there were many storefronts that reminded me of a small town you might expect to find in North Carolina. In fact, we encountered a sign that stated Gastonia was named an All American City in 1979, 2000 and again in 2010. After walking for about 30 minutes in the hot late August sun, we headed back toward the vehicle and headed toward the ballpark.
Located about a mile down West Main St is CaroMont Health Park. The ballpark is the centerpiece of the Franklin Urban Sports and Entertainment (FUSE) District , an economic zone developed to reinvigorate downtown Gastonia. Interestingly, there was only parking for season ticket holders onsite, but we were able to secure parking across the street from the stadium in the lot of a church. Parking was free, and just a couple minute walk to the main entrance of the ballpark. My brother wore his vintage Montreal Expos hat to the game, and that did not go unnoticed in Gastonia. The hat spurred a short conversation at the main gate, and later members of the Legends commented on the hat as well. Given that the Montreal Expos have not existed for 17 years, I was mildly surprised that the insignia was still so recognizable.
It did not take long, after entering the ballpark, to see that there was something different about this place. Like BBT Point (home of the High Point Rockers), CaroMont Health Park has an all turf field, including the mound, home plate, and the bullpens (which have odd, wedge shaped mounds). Just as unique is the vast amount of foul territory on the first and third base lines. After studying the ballpark, it became clear that the stadium was designed for multi purpose use, and that we were seeing its baseball configuration. In fact, during the game, there were several announcements concerning a high school football game that was to take place later in the week.
Per our standard operating procedure, we toured the inside of the ballpark. The concrete concourse at CaroMont Health Park rings the stadium, providing us with unfettered access to the entire ballpark. For the most part, the stadium is rather spartan. An entrance gate graces right field, with the Gas House Grill located in centerfield (located beneath the main scoreboard/videoboard). Though we did not actually eat anything at the park (it was simply too hot to eat), it was obvious that the Gas House Grill is meant to be the centerpiece of the dining and drinking experience in the ballpark. A Kids Zone sits between the Gas House Grill and the left field seats, filled with bouncy houses. When we passed, there were no kids playing, but later, from our vantage point down the first base line, we could see the bouncy houses bouncing.
Left field in CaroMont Health Park is yet another interesting element of the stadium. Because the left field wall is close to the plate (a mere 304 feet), a 20 foot net was placed in front the of the seats there, ostensibly to protect fans from balls leaving the playing field, and to prevent “cheap” home runs. Located beyond the netting is a covered picnic area. On this late afternoon, the area was closed for a private event. We have noticed that sadly, even in minor league and ALPB ballparks, exclusivity has become more prevalent. Working our way back toward home plate, we saw two additional covered picnic areas (complete with ceilings fans) before we reached the main concession stands behind home plate. As mentioned, we did not eat that night, but the concession stands offered standard baseball fare at reasonable prices. Loading up on cold drinks to combat the late August heat, we went in search of our seats.
My brother chose great seats down the first base side, immediately adjacent to the visitor’s dugout (at CaroMont Health Park, the home team occupies the third base dugout). Those seats provided us with an unobstructed view of the Lexington Legends, and their antics in the dugout. Fortunately, there were no kids near the dugout, because the Legends players were spewing almost nonstop colorful metaphors. Our seats gave us a great view of the entire park, including the surprisingly large scoreboard in centerfield. Unlike most ballparks, clusters of seats were scattered throughout the ballpark, rather than one or two large seating sections. Including the six luxury cabanas located in the second deck behind home plate, the stadium has a capacity of 5,000, though from my perspective, I would not have estimated a capacity quite that high.
Being an ALPB game, there were some important rules differences from the MLB and minor leagues. Balls and strikes were called automatically by the Automated Ball-Strike System (ABS), with the output from the system relayed to the home plate umpire, who then makes the call to the players and fans. During this game, many players were visibly upset by the calls. Another rule change included the use of larger bases (18 inches), in hopes of reducing inquires on the base paths. When a starting pitcher is removed from the game, that team loses its designated hitter from the lineup. Dubbed the Double Hook, the rule is intended to inject some strategy back into the game, perhaps encouraging managers to stick with starting pitchers longer. Finally, this was the first ALPB game we had seen since the pitching rubber was moved back one foot to 61 feet 6 inches (the change seemed to have negligible effects on the pitchers). Each of these “experiments” were at the behest of MLB, with which the ALPB has a developmental agreement. It is possible some or all of these rules could someday become part of the MLB game.
Clearly the most recognizable member of either team was the Lexington Legends second baseman Brandon Phillips. A seven time All Star with the Cincinnati Reds, Phillips attracted quite a bit of attention as he crossed the field before the game. A part owner of the Legends, Phillips seemed to be enjoying his tenure in the ALPB, and had a smile for everyone he encountered that day. First pitch occurred at 455 PM, and the first inning saw only one run scored. However, from there, the game quickly got out of hand, as both teams scored runs by the bunch. Lexington scored nine runs in the top of the second inning, chasing the Gastonia starter from the game. Not to be outdone, the Honey Hunters scored five runs in the bottom of the third inning, and the slugfest was on!
Until recently, the ALPB was a league where the pitching was almost always better than the hitting. Since the beginning of the 2019 season, the quality of pitching in the league has dwindled, and the game in Gastonia was the quintessential case in point. Even the starting pitcher for Lexington (right hander JJ Hoover, the winner pitcher) surrendered nine runs in his five innings of work. Nearly continuous scoring slowed the pace of the game to a crawl, as late afternoon slowly faded into early evening. That time gave us a better opportunity to take in the environment. Though the crowd was fairly sparse (which is not usual for a Sunday game), they were vocal when the Honey Hunters scored, and were supportive when Lexington was running up the score. Eventually, the home team simply ran out of pitchers, sending outfielder Boog Powell to the mound for the top of the ninth inning. Predictably, Powell was tattooed as he threw batting practice fastballs that were swatted for home runs by the Lexington batters. Powell was replaced by center fielder Jake Sloke, who induced a double play to end the inning.
Mercifully, the Honey Hunters went down relatively quietly to end the contest. The final score was 26-12 in favor of Lexington, who hit eight home runs during the game. My brother dubbed the game a “train wreck”, and I would be hard pressed to disagree. Watching an outfielder take the mound brought the game to a standstill, and I seriously considered leaving before the game concluded. As we exited the stadium, I took one last look at the ballpark. CaroMont Health Park is a bare bones, multi purpose community facility, something akin to what we saw in High Point. It is possible that lower levels of the minor leagues, as well as independent baseball, could follow this blueprint when constructing ballparks in the future. We left shortly after the game, heading back to our hotel in Charlotte. While I am glad we visited Gastonia during its maiden season, there is not enough to bring me back to this North Carolina town.