Catawba baseball ready to deliver ‘First Pitch’
By Mike London
SALISBURY — Catawba baseball’s annual “First Pitch” dinner will be just a bit outside this year.
Like everything else in this COVID-19 winter, things are going to look a lot different.
Still, the major event, the primary fundraiser for Catawba’s powerful baseball program, is set to go forward on Jan. 23 at 7 p.m.
Instead of being conducted in a packed Peeler Crystal Lounge, the outdoor celebration will be held at West End Plaza — the old Salisbury Mall.
Catawba is pitching this new-look event as a major tail-gate party. Organizers are well aware it’s January, but outdoors is the only viable option.
The plan is for Catawba parents, alumni and supporters to listen to the program on car radios. Food can be delivered to the cars.
Gantt said it will have that “old-time drive-in movie feel.”
For tickets or more information, call 704-637-4474 or visit Catawba.edu/firstpitch by Jan. 15. A $100 ticket includes a meal and drink options.
Catawba head coach Jim Gantt said beer selections include a New Sarum concoction dubbed “Newman ’21.” The rookie beverage will commemorate the renovation of the old ball park. The remodeling of Newman Park, including a synthetic turf field, is scheduled to start as soon as the Indians complete the 2021 season.
“Tickets are going well for the dinner, but I don’t think we can officially sell out because you’re talking about people being in their cars in a parking lot,” Gantt said. “Even if you had 100 cars, with four people per car, 400 people, it wouldn’t be crowded. It won’t be the intimate sort of setting we’ve had at the Crystal Lounge, but this event has just about outgrown the Crystal Lounge, anyway.”
Gantt said those in attendance will have opportunities for some mini-mingling, but COVID protocols must be followed.
“We’re not going to put anyone in jeopardy,” Gantt said. “We’re going to follow all the guidelines.”
Many of Catawba’s older alumni who normally attend the event won’t make it this year, a combination of COVID concerns and weather.
This will be the sixth “First Pitch” dinner. Recent ones have attracted more than 200 people and have netted the baseball program more than $60,000 per event.
The event is a difference-maker for a baseball program that is the flagship sport for the school at this time. Catawba baseball is winning consistent championships and is in the mix for national honors at the Division II level.
The “First Pitch” helps purchase program basics such as pitching machines and batting cage nets. Beyond that, it’s the event that allows Catawba to compete at a very high level, usually with 90 percent of the talent coming from within 50 miles of Newman Park.
“This the fundraiser that enables us to make those Florida trips where we can play a more competitive regional schedule,” Gantt said. “Playing those Florida teams helps us to prepare to play on a national level. This event also helps us purchase technology for better player development. And this is the event that makes all the difference as far as our travel accommodations on the road. It’s a big asset as far as recruiting when you can tell a player that you travel to road games on a charter bus, not a van.”
The speakers for this year’s event include Chip Baker, a North Rowan graduate who has many connections to the area. His late father, long-time AD and basketball coach Walt Baker, was considered Mr. North Rowan. Chip’s brother, Jim Baker, coached Catawba men’s basketball for decades.
Baker has been part of the Florida State baseball staff for 37 years, including 19 as director of baseball operations. During his tenure with the Seminoles, he’s participated in 35 NCAA tournaments and 16 College World Series.
Baker was a standout player at High Point and is regarded as one of college baseball’s premier catching instructors.
Pat McQuaid will be the speaker representing Catawba’s alumni. A former Catawba football player, he recently retired after an incredible high school coaching career in Nova, Fla. He’s a Florida High School Athletic Association Hall and Broward County Sports Hall of Famer and always provided Catawba with a practice facility when the Indians made their Florida trips.
“We’re glad we’ve got an opportunity to recognize Coach McQuaid for his outstanding career and it’s an opportunity to welcome Chip Baker home,” Gantt said. “We’ve got a real Florida connection this year. Both speakers are a perfect fit.”
Catawba’s 2021 schedule indicates that a tangible “first pitch” on the field will be made this year at Lincoln Memorial on Feb. 13.
The Indians were 19-3 and ranked second nationally last March when COVID concerns stopped play. Seniors were granted an extra year of eligibility and most elected to return for one last ride. That means Catawba should have one of the deepest rosters it’s ever boasted.
“Well, we’re not going to be terrible,” Gantt said with a chuckle. “We had everything working last year, had the chemistry, had everything clicking, and you never know, it might have been our year. The goal now is to get back to where we were when last season was stopped. There’s no guarantee we can do that. We’re starting over. But we do have a chance to be good again. We’ve got multiple good players at every position.”