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FanGraphs: The Rocky Mount Pines, a baseball disaster Pt. 3

ROCKY MOUNT PINES

Rocky Mount Municipal Stadium is shown in 1987, shortly before being torn down. For one season, it was home to the Rocky Mount Pines, largely considered the worst team in professional baseball history.

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BY SAMUEL EVERS
Sports Writer

Monday, January 7, 2019

(This story — The Rocky Mount Pines, a baseball disaster — originally appeared at The Hardball Times and is reprinted with permission from The Hardball Times and FanGraphs.)

This is the third and final part of a three-part series. You can read the story in its entirety here.

On one anonymous August day in 1980 as the Rocky Mount Pines’ season was winding down, Terry Smith, a Wesleyan College professor who had a few pieces published on the history of minor league baseball in Rocky Mount, decided to attend a game.

All seemed fairly normal; a losing team well on its way to a 24-114-1 record, empty stands. But one thing caught his eye: A well-dressed man, clearly from out of town, who was sitting behind the dugout with a notebook.

Smith approached the man and asked what, with the dire situation of the Rocky Mount Pines, he was doing there.

Terry Smith: We got to talking, and he was the writer who Sports Illustrated sent down to Rocky Mount.

E.M. Swift, former SI writer, current WBUR contributor: I had never heard of the team before, of course. I just remember being there near the end of their season and it was pretty remote. But like a lot of people in that situation, they had funny stories to tell. Nobody had been giving them much attention regarding how poorly they played and how bad their record was.

Mike Morgal, a pitcher, who made the Pines roster on a tryout in spring training after going undrafted out of Lamar University:: What’s the old saying? Bad publicity is better than no publicity? They took a picture of us in Larry Caprio’s Cadillac — that was pretty cool.

Jim Gabella, Pines infielder, selected for the Carolina League All-Star Game, now a scout in Florida for the San Francisco Giants: The only time how much we were losing ever crossed my mind is when that Sports Illustrated article came out.

Al Myatt, Evening Telegram sports editor, covered the Pines: The piece was a small town Andy Griffith type thing. It was interesting, unique, really.

E.M. Swift: I remember there were like five guys in a hotel room that I visited. They were sleeping on the floor. There was one instance where the owner actually threatened to not pay them one month or didn’t pay them one month and they decided to keep playing rather than go on strike because they were bottom of the barrel. That had to be a reflection of them actually wanting to go to the ballpark every day. I was sort of taken with the anecdote where they weren’t blaming each other. They were blaming the lack of depth.

One unfortunate moment that wouldn’t help the Pines’ depth came when Swift was in town

Steve Swain, Pines first baseman, now a director of a scouting agency in Florida: I had to stretch toward home plate to catch the ball on a bunt and the runner ran into my glove hand and hyperextended my left elbow. It was a rather brutal injury. I spent a year trying to rehab my left elbow. Unfortunately I couldn’t get it strong enough to play again.

Ernie Suggs, bat boy and seventh grader, now a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: That was a sad day. He was gone basically. We all kind of knew that was a last chance for him.

In his story, Swift recounts more people huddled around Swain than there were fans in the stands.

E.M. Swift: That was probably a slight exaggeration, but I think I counted 42 people in the stands that day.

Ready for Duty

In all, 37 players logged at least a game for the Pines. All but one were at least considered professional baseball players.

Bob Bill, Pines’ trainer: In fact, towards the end of the year I ended up playing because we were short on players for whatever reason. I actually — we were playing in Wilson against Salem and we were just getting smoked. I had just signed the contract to dress or play or whatever, and I had the actual baseball uniform on which I somehow still have in my possession. Mal took my roommate out of the game — Dave Thomas — he was pitching and told me to go out to left field. He said we were getting killed and this was my one chance to get in.

So Bill made his professional debut, with the Baseball-Reference page to prove it.

Season’s End

The season would officially end on August 31, with a 13-1 loss to the Durham Bulls, completing the Pines’ record at 24-114-1.

Al Myatt: The team, they weren’t competitive, and it was just a shoestring operation. Everyone knew it had to end.

Indeed, the ink on the paperwork was barely dry before the last game was played: at the conclusion of the competitive and financial disaster, Lou Haneles, who once told the Los Angeles Times he lost around $80,000 on the Pines, took his team — debt and all — and moved it to Hagerstown, Maryland, where the Pines became the Suns.

That team stayed in the Carolina League and, in 1989, turned into the Frederick Keys, who remain in the same league; on road trips against the Carolina Mudcats, 30 minutes from Rocky Mount, the ghost of the Pines, the final minor league team to play in the town, still lingers.

Al Myatt: I don’t think Rocky Mount liked to be identified with a team that won — how many games was it? — 24? Rocky Mount likes winners, they don’t like losers. They just kind of faded away. There was no grand bon voyage or anything like that. The end of the season came and everybody went in their different direction and there was no more Rocky Mount Pines.

Neil Avent, Pines’ bat boy: I’m in pro baseball and I’ve been in it for 12 years, I say look man, I worked for the worst minor league team ever, so don’t tell me this team is bad. You don’t know bad. I know bad. I worked for the worst minor league team in the history of baseball. I say trust me. I say, “Look it up.”

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