In September 2017, I was diagnosed with terminal cancer and made a bucket list. At the very top of the list was a trip to see a minor-league baseball game. A road trip was also on there, so in 2018, I went to the Deep South with my wife to see various games. Along the way, I also discovered independent baseball, which was possibly the best thing of all.
One day, I came across a tweet from the Macon Bacon, which must be one of the greatest team names in the world, and started to follow their feed. It was full of fun posts which really got my attention, especially their rivalry with the Savannah Bananas. I did a little more research and found out they played in a league called the Coastal Plains League, where college baseball players who didn’t have a professional team yet showcased their skills over the summer months.
Amazingly, going into the 2020 season, there are apparently 1650 alumni of this league who have been drafted by MLB teams. 131 of them made it onto MLB rosters, including Justin Verlander, Ryan Zimmerman, Kevin Youkilis, and the Yankees’ Mike Tauchman, who once played on the Fayetteville Swampdogs.
Since that day on Twitter, I’d been following the fortunes of the Bacon and they were honestly probably why we went on the Deep South road trip. I know, who else would choose to visit a town in deepest Georgia, based on a baseball team name? Baseball love is a crazy thing.
My wife, Helen, without my knowing, had been in touch with the Macon Bacon and they said I could throw out the ceremonial first pitch, where a guest throws from the pitcher’s mound to the team’s catcher before the game starts.
I’d been practising in the garden for about a week and placed a baseball mitt at the other end of the garden to the bird bath, which was the same distance as the mound I would be pitching from – 18 metres. Further than you think. I could now get the baseball in the glove about three quarters of the time.
A famous video exists on YouTube of the rapper 50 Cent when he threw out the first pitch for the New York Mets. It was an embarrassing attempt and I was determined that would not be me.
On arrival in Macon, we had checked into a rather plush, historical guesthouse. The owner had restored the house to its former splendour, and we were invited to drink cocktails in the lounge before dinner. A tray with a series of expensive spirits was placed atop a period sideboard beneath the largest chandelier I have ever seen.
I don’t think the guesthouse owner was expecting the two of us to rock up wearing streaky bacon-covered caps and Macon Bacon outfits. He was a wealthy Southern gentleman, who had a room covered in photos of him with various presidents, celebrities and politicians and he had attended the inauguration of the last three presidents. Clearly, he viewed himself as a pillar of the local community.
Inwardly, I thanked God that I had not purchased the bacon-scented shirt I’d eyed excitedly in the club shop earlier, or we might have found the locks changed when we returned!
Luther Williams Field is one of the oldest ballparks in the country and played host to the Macon Peaches and Macon Braves in its past. However, both teams had relocated to other cities and Macon was left bereft of baseball.
But it returned after a few barren years. I’d seen that the Bacon sold out some games before we went, but wasn’t expecting a crowd of almost 2000. It felt like the whole city had descended on the ballpark. The Macon Bacon were playing the Gastonia Grizzlies, a team from North Carolina.
Before our trip, I’d watched Friday Night Lights, a TV series set in Texas that showed the fanaticism a town has for their local football team. There was a field just outside the stadium and looking out at the vivid orange sunset silhouetting the posts, it felt like Friday Night Lights had landed in Macon.
The car park was teeming with cars and scores of people were making their way in. At the entrance to the ballpark, we were greeted by Kevin Bacon (not that one), the Macon mascot. As you’d expect, Kevin was a giant piece of foam pork goodness. We met some of the players before the game, who seemed astonished that anyone would visit them from England or that we understood the game of baseball at all.
I couldn’t resist trying the local craft brews for some good, old-fashioned Dutch courage before my moment of fame. Both beers were made locally and aptly named—Macon Money and Macon Love—which Macon me chuckle (sorry, couldn’t help myself!).
Hearing my name over the public address system was a surreal experience and the crowd reacted with loud, supportive cheers. They obviously don’t get many British visitors to a Thursday night game in Macon!
Walking to the mound with baseball in hand, I milked it for all I was worth, waving to the crowd and then tossing the baseball from one hand to the other, trying to make it look like I knew what I was doing.
It was a very humid summer evening, and on the mound, my hands were sweating. I was increasingly worried that I might do a 50 Cent. Gulping a few cooling breaths and saying a few words to the big man upstairs (Macon is known as the buckle of the Bible Belt after all), I assumed the pitching position and launched the ball in the direction of the catcher. The ball bounced once but landed straight into the catcher’s mitt.
Phew, I’ll take that, I thought.
The rest of the night I felt like a celebrity. People recognised me in the stands and came over for a few words. Most of the words were, “What on earth are you doing in Macon?” or “How do British people know about baseball?” Little do they know, eh?
Our luck must have been in—the Bacon won 3-2 in the 10th inning.
The whole night must be one of the most fun I have ever had at a ballpark! There was something to watch or look at between every inning and the crowd absolutely lapped it up. If you are ever in the Deep South, or just fancy doing something utterly crazy, head to Macon. You’ll definitely thank me for it. #baconrules #startthesizzle
Sarah is covering the New York Yankees during 2020 as part of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow her on Twitter @sarah2572