Honeycrisps bring community baseball to Hendersonville

FIELD DAY: Athletes from Western North Carolina Special Needs Sports took the field with Hendersonville Honeycrisps players during the national anthem before a game last July. Photo courtesy of the Camera Club of Hendersonville

Brad Morrison sometimes gets puzzled looks when he talks about the Hendersonville Honeycrisps, the collegiate summer baseball team he co-owns. Even the name Honeycrisps — a nod to Henderson County’s position as the top apple-growing county in the state — can be a source of bewilderment. “Is that a cereal?” one person recently joked on the team’s Facebook page.

“There is general confusion, not just in our area, but everywhere,” says Morrison, who bought the team in 2022 with Kyle Aldridge and Doug Roper III under a partnership known as Third Street Sports LLC. “People want to know ‘What is the difference between collegiate summer ball, minor league ball and independent league ball?'”

Ultimately, he says, the only real difference is that collegiate summer league teams like the Honeycrisps operate in smaller cities and smaller venues. Otherwise, fans can expect a familiar experience of nine-inning games, concession-stand food, kids running the bases, dizzy-bat races and local businesses advertising on the outfield walls.

As the Honeycrisps get set to begin their third season this weekend, here’s what you should know: They are members of the Old North State League, a collegiate summer baseball organization that fields 20 teams in communities across the state (Hendersonville is the westernmost franchise). The roster is made up of college players, most with local ties, who are looking to develop their skills. Last season the team drew a total of 7,100 fans to 23 home games at Hendersonville’s 75-year-old Berkeley Mills Ballpark, which supporters have dubbed “The Orchard.”

“The ballpark is vintage Americana,” says Hendersonville resident Paul Harris, who has been a regular attendee the past two seasons. “You get to see some good ball and you get to sit behind home plate, and it doesn’t get any better than that. You certainly feel close to the players ’cause you’re right there on top of them.”

The team has enmeshed itself in the life of the community, forging partnerships with local businesses and nonprofits. The Honeycrisps are visible at parades and other public gatherings, hold youth camps, send their mascot to school events and even sponsor a team in Fletcher’s youth baseball league.

“This team belongs to Hendersonville, it doesn’t belong to us,” says Morrison. “We want to come in and enhance it and just create this incredible atmosphere and entertainment option for Hendersonville. And if you’re going to do that, you need to get to know the people in the community and be able to find folks that also share that vision and help build that.”

Helping nonprofits

The owners have been particularly passionate about working with nonprofit groups.

At each of 10 home games last season, the Honeycrisps spotlighted a different local organization, including the Interfaith Assistance Ministry, Henderson County Foster Care, the Blue Ridge Humane Society and Western North Carolina Special Needs Sports. The groups had the chance to set up tables, distribute brochures, talk to fans about their missions and more.

“We can be a connector between the audience that we’ve built in the community and the nonprofits in the community that have a need for visibility,” Morrison says. “And as we’ve dipped our toe into that, it’s kind of snowballed. We found we could promote on social media. We could give tickets to silent auctions. There’s so many different ways that our organization can help, and we’re kind of uniquely positioned to do that.”

The team is looking to expand the program this year so that every one of its 25 home games focuses on a charity, Morrison says.

One returning nonprofit will be Western North Carolina Special Needs Sports. Founded in 2011, the organization provides opportunities for people with special needs to participate in baseball, basketball and martial arts.

SAFE: Hendersonville Honeycrisps player Gray Wells slides into third base during a 2023 game. Photo courtesy of the Camera Club of Hendersonville

“We have no age limits, doesn’t matter where they live, there’s no restrictions of any kind,” says Donnie Jones, founder and director of the Hendersonville-based group. “The youngest I’ve got this year is a 2-year-old. The oldest is 74. We furnish everything they need to play, and even the snacks. There’s never a cost for anything that we do.”

During the Honeycrisps’ final home game last July, more than 20 of the nonprofit’s athletes took the field with the team’s players for the national anthem and got to run the bases. Morrison counts the game among the season’s highlights.

“I was literally crying,” he recalls. “It was a special, special day.”

Jones agrees, saying the special needs athletes were thrilled to interact with the Honeycrisp players. “Those guys were real good to stand and talk with them and joke with them. They love to have somebody to talk to. That’s all they want to do. They see those guys in uniform, real baseball players, and to them it could have been the Yankees.”

At this year’s game spotlighting WNC Special Needs Sports, Jones hopes his players will get a chance to get some at-bats between innings.

“There’s still people in Henderson County that don’t know this program exists who have special needs kids,” he says. “So that’s the biggest thing we get from working with the Honeycrisps — just letting people know that it is available to them.”

The Hendersonville-based Mobility Matters Foundation similarly hopes to educate people about its work when it is spotlighted during the Honeycrisps game on Saturday, June 1.

“They have a lot of people that follow them in the community, and by supporting a very small nonprofit like ours, it allows us to get a little bit of awareness,” says Amy Siegler, co-founder of the telehealth seating, mobility and accessibility clinic. “They just have been so accommodating of things that we asked: ‘Can we hand out flyers that day? Can we throw out the first pitch? Can we put some of our kids that we serve on the field to meet players?’ And they were like, ‘Absolutely!'”

Siegler and Kendell Blunden started the foundation in 2022, partly in response to state cuts to Medicaid reimbursement for telehealth services for many people, including patients 21 and older who were using private occupational therapy and physical therapy clinics. As a result of the cuts, rural areas face significant backlogs in wheelchair evaluations.

The pro bono Mobility Matters Foundation evaluates patients who require the use of a wheelchair for mobility and accessibility and helps them choose an appropriate one.

“It’s not something that you just order in a magazine or get online,” Blunden points out. “It’s customized to their medical needs and their measurements so that the chair is perfect for them.”

When a representative of the group throws out the first pitch on June 1, it will be done from an adaptive bike.

Local love story

The Honeycrisps averaged about 300 fans per game and drew capacity crowds of 500 several times last season. “You look around and you’re like, ‘Where are we going to put people?'” Morrison recalls.

CHILD’S PLAY: Members of the Hendersonville Honeyscrisps sign autographs for area kids. Photo courtesy of the Camera Club of Hendersonville

One reason the team draws well is that the coaching staff and many of the players are local, creating a ready-made audience of parents, grandparents, girlfriends and others. Honeycrisps head coach Will Lindsey serves in the same role at Brevard  High School while General Manager Daniel Corhn is the head baseball coach at East Henderson High School. Many of the players went to local high schools and play for nearby colleges like Western Carolina University, Mars Hill University and Brevard College.

“Part of that is because we are in a talent-rich area,” Morrison says. “You think about last year, with West Henderson [High School] winning the state championship. There are good players here that play college ball. So they come back home and play in a location where a lot of people want to be and they have the added benefit of being around family that can come out and see those games.”

Home games, particularly on weekends, can have a festive atmosphere. Loud music plays between innings. Kids seek autographs from players or pose for pictures with Crisper, the team’s anthropomorphic apple mascot. Each strikeout by a Honeycrisps pitcher is greeted with the prerecorded words “Thaaat’s crispy!” over the public address system (often to the bewilderment or annoyance of the opposing team).

During one rain delay last season, infielder Gray Wells led the large crowd in a singalong of Taylor Swift‘s “Love Story.”

“There’s little moments where they’ll do something fun and include the crowd in that,” says Hendersonville resident David Hawthorne, who started attending games with his family last season. “It’s just such a relaxed atmosphere. Nothing against the [Asheville] Tourists, but at a Honeycrisp game, it’s a more chill atmosphere. It’s just really more our speed.”

Hawthorne’s son Garrett, now 5, has become a fixture at the ballpark, familiar to fellow fans and players alike in his replica Honeycrisps jersey. “Garrett is our No. 1 fan,” Morrison says.

Garrett’s enthusiasm for the teams led him to play T-ball in the fall and again this spring.

“He absolutely loved interacting with the players and having that touch point that you normally wouldn’t get at a major league or a minor league game,” Hawthorne explains. “And the players,  I can’t say this enough, but they’re role models and they know it.”

Fellow fan Harris, whose family hosted two of the team’s players at their home last summer, has been similarly impressed. “The quality of all the boys, but especially the ones that stayed with us, was fabulous. It’s exactly what you would want in young men. They’re polite, respectful, hardworking. And they’re fun-loving,” he says.

The Honeycrisps’ regular season gets underway Saturday, May 18, at Berkeley Mills Ballpark, when the team plays a nonleague game against the Greensboro Yard Goats, and runs through Tuesday, July 23. The team will play 24 games against its Western Division rivals, the Lexington Flying Pigs, Lenoir Legends, Wilkes County Moonshiners and Pineville Porcupines. Additionally, it has 16 nonleague games scheduled and will play more games if it makes the playoffs for the third straight year.

Among those planning to be at most of the team’s 25 home dates are the Hawthornes, who purchased season tickets.

“It’s more than baseball teams,” David Hawthorne says of going to Honeycrisp games. “It’s the stadium that they play at being built by millworkers at Berkeley. It’s the vendors for food. It’s the apple cider doughnuts from Justus Orchard. It’s the baseball camps. It’s the recognition of our local nonprofits. It’s letting every single kid in free.”

He continues: “There’s just tons of opportunities for us as a community to sit together and cheer for this important thing in a world where it’s getting a lot more difficult to feel like that most days.”

For more information about the Honeycrisps, go to avl.mx/dmt. To learn more about Western North Carolina Special Needs Sports, visit avl.mx/dmu. For more on the Mobility Matters Foundation, go to avl.mx/dmv.


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About Justin McGuire
Justin McGuire is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate with more than 30 years of experience as a writer and editor. His work has appeared in The Sporting News, the (Rock Hill, SC) Herald and various other publications. Follow me @jmcguireMLB

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