by Rob Grubbs
The conclusion of another successful high school baseball season, which saw three schools qualify for the state playoffs and one make it to the final four, is a great reminder that our local schools routinely send multiple players to the collegiate and professional levels. Fayette County alumni Niko Goodrum is having a breakout season for the Detroit Tigers, and Whitewater alumni Tyler Doanes was just named to the All-Big 12 Freshman team at West Virginia, just to give a couple of examples. While the players take different routes, they all have the same dream of playing at the highest level. Some are drafted directly out of high school, like Goodrum in 2010, and work their way through the minors, while others go to college to combine academics to their athletic development.
College players generally play a 55-game schedule that concludes in mid-May. That leaves a void for the remainder of the summer as their minor-league counterparts play a full 140-game schedule. Hence, the need for collegiate summer leagues, which have become big business in today’s sports economy. The purpose is to allow athletes that play college-level ball and not fall behind in their development. It also became a bastion for innovative marketing, promotions, and great family entertainment.
Savannah got things rolling in Georgia with the introduction of the Savannah Bananas in 2016 to sellout crowds and a competitive brand of baseball. Like Savannah, Macon had some similar circumstances, a historic stadium that was left vacant when the minor leagues went looking for newer stadiums and better amenities. Also there is a rabid fan base that missed those summer nights at the ballpark.
It was the perfect recipe for the birth of the Macon Bacon, a marketing masterpiece (their mascot is a piece of bacon named Kevin, of course!) who opened their inaugural season on Thursday night with two local players in head coach Danny Higginbotham’s opening lineup in Jabari Richards from Whitewater and Jake Arnold from Starr’s Mill.
A League Built on Dreams
The Coastal Plain League (CPL) was formed in 1997 with six teams and has grown to 16, with teams in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. When a player signs with a four-year college, they cannot be drafted until they complete their junior year, thus creating a need to face top competition during the summer months. The Major League scouts play a part in filling out the CPL rosters as they recommend players they want to follow. In addition, the players use aluminum bats in college but the CPL requires wooden bats that are used in professional baseball. Players are not paid but are provided local host housing through the home teams.
Playing on Hallowed Ground
Luther Williams Field in Macon has a long, storied history. It was built in 1929 and is one of the oldest active stadiums in the country. The players who got their start here reads like a virtual who’s who of baseball. Pete Rose played in 1962, Chipper Jones played his first full minor league season in 1991, fellow Hall-of-Famer Tony Perez in 1963, just to name a few.
Between the home and visiting teams and the exhibitions played there over the years, it is safe to say that most of the all-time greats have stepped foot on the field at some point. Richards, who started in centerfield on Saturday night, stands where Andruw Jones once patrolled the outfield grass in 1995, while Arnold mans the same infield spot that Perez did 55 years ago. When you sit in the ballpark, you cannot help but close your eyes and listen to the echoes of history. The park also has movie star status as it has been used as the backdrop for several baseball movies such as “42,” “Trouble with the Curve,” and “Bingo Long and the Traveling All-Stars.”
Vacant since 2010, the facility got a $2.5-million facelift in anticipation of the return of baseball. While the original historical structure is still in place, there have been the additions of beer gardens, VIP seating, and unique concession options. The crowd is pumped up on enthusiasm, family fun, and the baseball dreams of the athletes.
Jake Arnold was the Fayette County News Pitcher of the Year in 2017 after going 9-0 with a 1.13 ERA for Starr’s Mill on their way to a Final Four appearance. One of his many highlights included a four-hit shutout against eventual state champion Loganville in his last pitching start. As a freshman for the North Georgia Saints, Arnold was the everyday first baseman and had a solid rookie year with 8 home runs and 30 RBIs.
“It was a big learning experience for me as a baseball player,” said Arnold of his freshman campaign. “I learned more in one season than I had in my previous 15 years of playing baseball, from the mental side of the game to everything else.”
Arnold was picked up by the Bacon because several of their players are still competing in the NCAA playoffs.
“This is an amazing opportunity for a freshman like me. It helps me get noticed by other teams in the CPL and allows me to showcase my skills to the coaches at Macon,” he said. “Coach is great. He and his staff know the game very well and really motivate us to play and perform at our highest level.”
North Georgia home games at Bob Stein Stadium usually draw around 300 fans to a game, but now Arnold is playing in front of 3,500 people and it’s a big step up.
“Playing in an environment like that is unbelievable. Our fans are great and help us get ready to play.”
One fan heckled Arnold during an at bat, asking him repeatedly where his khakis were (a reference to the Jake from State Farm commercial).
“I heard the khakis comment after I had taken a pitch and stepped out of the box, but once I step back in, everything goes quiet.”
A Three-Year Veteran
Jabari Richards was an integral part of Whitewater teams that went to back-to-back state championship series in 2014 and 2015. Fans still talk about his over-the-fence catch in the seventh inning to preserve a 5-4 win over Greenbrier in the 2014 state semifinals. He just completed his junior season for the Furman Purple Paladins, where he was named the Southern Conference Freshman of the Year in 2016. He has been a three-year starter for Furman, and this is also his third season in the CPL, having spent the previous two years playing for Lexington County. He is a business and marketing major at Furman and is not only playing for the Bacon but also interning with them in the front office. It is a win-win for him and the team.
As a junior, Richards is eligible for the MLB amateur draft this year and could hear his name called, but if not, he is onboard for a full season with the Bacon and then back for his senior year of college. “Furman has been a great experience,” said Richards. “It has taught me how to be on my own and get an incredible education.”
He’s enjoying his time with the Bacon.
“Macon is closer to home, and there is a great atmosphere here,” he said. “It is just like Savannah, the crowd really gets into it. Georgia has great baseball talent and having a team in Macon just gives players more opportunity to play and showcase their skills.”
The Bacon did not have their best game on Saturday night against the rival Savannah Bananas. They took their first loss of the season after two opening wins. It is going to be an exciting summer at the ball park, so why not take the hour drive to Macon to enjoy a historical ballpark, some local talent, and players that you might be able to see playing in the majors one day?