Opening night for the Charlotte Stone Crabs. The entire town turned out, it seemed.
The boss man, Cal Ripken Jr., was in the ballpark.
So was boss man junior, which is what the B.J. in B.J. Upton stands for.
Melvin Emmanuel Upton played center field and made five trips to the plate Friday as the Crabs leadoff hitter during the first game in franchise history. He was 0-for-2 with two walks and was hit by a pitch. The Crabs lost.
No one seemed to mind, except maybe the Crabs.
There were trivia questions and crab races for kids.
A guy twisted balloons in all shapes, including, it appeared, a catcher’s mask, which was a hit with the kids.
Ripken, who co-owns the team, signed a few autographs. So did Upton.
“Pretty good stuff,” said Crabs manager Jim Morrison, who lives in Bradenton with his wife, Nan, and their children.
Morrison is a little closer to home now, having spent the past two seasons managing the Rays’ Single-A team in Vero Beach. He’s renting a condo near the Myakka River, just a long fly ball from Charlotte Sports Park.
This is Morrison’s 25th season in pro baseball, and it’s no different than his first.
“New opportunities,” he said.
Hey, he got to write Upton’s name on the lineup card. That’s always fun.
“Good and bad,” Morrison said. “I wish he were up with the big club.”
Upton will be back with the Rays on Monday. He needed three games with the Crabs last week to play himself back into game shape.
Morrison was fine with that. Just as he was fine with writing Scott Kazmir’s name on the lineup card last season, and Dioner Navarro and Ben Zobrist and Matt Garza and Rocco Baldelli.
He welcomes the occasional major leaguer passing through on a minor league rehab assignment.
It’s good for his players to interact with a big leaguer.
“Always a good learning lesson,” Morrison said.
The washout rate in the minor leagues is overwhelming. Ripken admitted as much before the game when he said a number of Crabs are likely starting their last season of pro ball.
If so, Ripken wants them to look back someday and say the year they spent in Port Charlotte was the best year of their pro career.
Minor league baseball is as much about the balloon man as it is the power-hitting first baseman.
Ripken is concerned about what happens in the stands. The bases may be loaded late in a one-run game, but he knows a lot of fans are looking forward to the between-innings T-shirt toss, and who doesn’t want a free shirt?
Morrison is concerned with pitch selection and pitch location and whether his third baseman guard the line or not.
It’s a new season, and Morrison is just as excited as his players.
“I’m excited. I enjoy watching the young men be able to go out and play and how excited they are,” Morrison said. “I may not show it as much as they do, but I’m excited inside.”
Pretty good stuff.