BY MATT LaWELL
HICKORY, North Carolina | Jerry Lawler spends so many summer nights behind tables.
On Mondays, those tables are on the floors of arenas around the country, sometimes around the world. Lawler will walk down a ramp in front of a crowd of tens of thousands, position his crown in front of him and talk and talk, for more than two hours, the pitch of his partner, Michael Cole, in one ear, the faceless voices of his director, his producer and Vince McMahon, the most powerful man in professional wresting, in the other. This is Raw, the flagship show for World Wrestling Entertainment for almost two decades. Lawler is a commentator here, far more than a talking head. In a scripted world of madness, he is the closest thing to a voice of reason.
On Saturdays, those tables are on the concourses of minor league baseball stadiums, far smaller and more open places. He talks and talks here, too, though he almost never brings his crown and his audience numbers in the dozens, hundreds tops. He signs autographs, shares stories, poses for photographs. When the lens of a camera or the eye of a phone is on him, he almost always extends an index finger at the fan next to him. In an unpredictable world of prospects and entertainment, he is the closest thing to a sure thing.
Lawler talks with every fan in line and signs every autograph. He walks toward the mound and fires a first pitch outside but strong. He roams the concourse. During the fourth inning, he walks into the press box for a hamburger, his throne for the night the same sort of folding chair he might have used to hit Jeff Jarrett in the head, his table a pile of cardboard boxes filled with pocket schedules.
Lawler is one of a handful of professional wrestlers who spends his springs and summers somewhere in the minors. Old pros like “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan and Bret “The Hitman” Hart tour parks all season. Lesser names like midget wrestlers Beautiful Bobby and Little Kato battle each other after games, the championship belt up for grabs every time. The Majors are like WWE, the singular entity every young player or wrestler wants to reach. The minors are like the indies, the old territories, all unforgiving schedules and torturous travel and four to a room.
Lawler is like a light for the minors now, the veteran who comes back. His schedule is filled with about 20 appearances this season. They provide some extra income, of course. They also provide an opportunity to meet fans, to go to a game, to get out for a couple hours. All that is more important than some money. “There is no better place to be,” he says, “than a professional baseball stadium.”
Here in Hickory, he sits behind a picnic table at the end of a party deck near the corner in right. An open can of Sierra Mist. A box of a dozen fresh black Sharpies. A line of fans, some with photos, some with championship belts, at least one with a pro wrestling encyclopedia.
“Thanks for coming to see me,” he says to one man.
“I listened to you for three hours the other night,” the man says.
“Gosh,” Lawler says. “Sorry.”
He talks with every fan in line and signs every autograph. He walks toward the mound and fires a first pitch outside but strong. He roams the concourse. During the fourth inning, he walks into the press box for a hamburger, his throne for the night the same sort of folding chair he might have used to hit Jeff Jarrett in the head, his table a pile of cardboard boxes filled with pocket schedules.
Lawler sometimes sits for an inning with the radio broadcaster, which is unfortunate for people listening, he jokes, “because we end up talking more about wrestling than baseball.” Tonight though, he walks onto the field after the sixth and comes to the rescue of a Crawdads intern dressed as the Tooth Fairy. Another intern, a college wrestler who now plays a character named Magic Man, is bullying the Tooth Fairy. Magic Man snaps an oversized toothbrush over a knee of his yellow singlet and Lawler feigns offense. “Magic Man,” Lawler says, “what in the world are you doing?”
Then Magic Man walks toward Lawler, Lawler laughs and Magic Man pulls powder from his hat, a foreign object. Lawler, always smart about foreign objects, pulls Magic Man toward him, drops back on his heels and delivers a perfect piledriver. The crowd cheers. Pro wrestling is scripted, minor league baseball is not, but both are entertainment, and Lawler laying out a kid in a blue cape is entertainment.
Lawler is a Cleveland Indians fan by geography. He lived about a half hour west of the city when he was a teenager and he cheered for years for Rocky Colavito. He still returns to Cleveland to watch games and talk with the Indians who love pro wrestling.
Tonight, though, Lawler is a Crawdads fan, a Hickory fan.
His fans are here, and theirs are the only voices in his ears.
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Time for minor league trivia. Three Crawdads have won the South Atlantic League MVP award since the team moved from Gastonia, North Carolina, after the 1992 season — first baseman Walter Young in 2002, outfielder Jorge Cortes in 2003 and what current Texas Rangers shortstop prospect just last season? (Keep reading for the answer.)
The Crawdads scored five runs in the bottom of the first inning and never trailed on their way to an 11-5 win over the Greensboro Grasshoppers. Designated hitter Jorge Alfaro batted 3-for-5 with a homer and five RBI, second baseman Alejando Selen batted 2-for-4 with a homer and four RBI, rightfielder Drew Robinson batted 3-for-4 and scored three runs, and righty Jerad Eickhoff pitched six quality innings to pick up the win — the third straight for the Crawdads out of the break.
Perhaps the most successful SAL team since the turn of the century, the Crawdads have qualified for the league playoffs six of the last 10 seasons, more often than any other team in the league over that span. Granted, they did lose in the first round four times, but they also won the championship two times — in 2002 and again in 2004. Among teams still in the league, only the Delmarva Shorebirds (six trips and two championships from 1996 to 2005) and the Augusta GreenJackets (seven straight trips and two championships from 1995 to 2002) have enjoyed as successful as a run.
Want the answer? The last Crawdad to win the league MVP award was Jurickson Profar, who batted .286 last season with 37 doubles, eight triples, a dozen home runs, 86 runs scored, 65 more runs driven in, 23 steals, more walks than strikeouts and a .955 fielding percentage at shortstop. Perhaps the most amazing number for Profar — who is playing just as well this season for the Frisco RoughRiders of the Double-A Texas League — was his age. He was just 18.
And in random statistical news, Angela Dean sang the national anthem in 1 minute, 31.7 seconds, the game started four minutes late, the first pitch was a strike and the first batter struck out swinging. We ate a soft pretzel and a couple hamburgers. Not sure why, though. After enough hamburgers, even the best start to lose all their flavor. Maybe we should lay off the burgers and dogs for a while.
Want to read stories about the other teams on our schedule? Click here and scroll to the calendar.