A summer stint with a college-league team is a hit with Duke baseball players

Chris Crabtree, left, and Wil Hoyle before one of their Holly Springs Salamanders' games

The Holly Springs Salamanders, losing 8-0 in the bottom of the ninth on a humid Piedmont evening, are down to their last at-bat. With desperation baserunners the ’Manders’ only sliver of hope, rising junior Chris Crabtree faced a three-and-one pitch well out of the strike zone. There are times when you take that pitch, work the base on balls, get a runner on, and hope against hope.

This is not one of those times. Crabtree reaches low, trying to golf that lousy pitch out of Ting Stadium in Holly Springs for home run number twelve on the season.

Nope. Crabtree, one of two Duke players on the Salamanders roster, swings through it, though to give him credit, he does walk on the next pitch. It doesn’t help: final score, Fayetteville Swampdogs 8, Salamanders 0.

No matter. After the game, all along the left-field stands, a crush of adoring fans, mostly age nine or younger, press against the fence, offering hats, balls, programs for autographs. Crabtree grins wide and signs as long as anybody asks. So does his teammate, rising junior Wil Hoyle, a slick-fielding shortstop who turned down a draft by the Oakland Athletics to instead play for Duke. Crabtree plays first and hasn’t yet had to turn down a draft, but he represented the Salamanders in the Coastal Plain League all-star game in Savannah, where he took his shots in the home-run derby. “It was fun,” he says. “I hit four out.”

His eleven home runs led the Salamanders, who ended up 19-32 and out of the Coastal Plain League playoffs.

That didn’t bother Hoyle and Crabtree much. Playing for the Salamanders—playing for any team in any of the dozens of college leagues nationwide—is less about winning than about keeping your skills up. Last year he played for Wilmington, “and Crab was here,” Hoyle says. They both enjoyed their summers, but being together gave them the opportunity not only to spend a full summer as teammates but also to keep each other on task regarding workouts.

“We wake up, eat breakfast, go lift, go hit, then come here” to crisp, new Ting Stadium, when there’s a home game. An away game is pretty much the same, just with two long bus rides. Most of the teams in the Coastal Plain League are in small North and South Carolina towns like Edenton and Florence, in Single A-level ballparks old or new. “We’re so central, we’re right in the middle of everything,” Crabtree says. “We haven’t stayed overnight once.”

The two share a rental house in Durham, but most players in the league stay with host families. Getting paid to play baseball would invalidate scholarships, so the league provides housing, though host families like to provide food, too, for those late-night returns home.

“Wilmington was an awesome place to play last year,” Hoyle says. “Beautiful ballpark, great fans. When we went back there this year people in the stands were yelling, ‘We miss you!’ ” That give and take with the fans is part of the casual nature of Coastal Plain ball. Without the pressure of a Duke season, the players relax into taking their swings and fielding their positions. The trim new stadium has a standard minor-league feel—a dog fetches the bats after players hit, seats and food are cheap, and there are the between-innings races, contests, and mascots one would expect at the DBAP.

Even the notification Hoyle got last year from his Wilmington host mother was casual. “Basically one day last spring I just got a text from a woman, and she said, like, ‘You’re gonna be living with me this summer.’ That was my first interaction. She was amazing. Asked me questions about what I liked to eat, anything I need, things like that. She was a model host mother.” They’re still friends. Many host families have young children and see the ballplayers as role models; others have kids who have moved out and miss the hubbub.

The players love the league. Holly Springs has players from dozens of colleges, as close as Duke and N.C. Central and as far away as South Dakota State. And though the autographs, mascots, and casual atmosphere make for a pleasant summer, the players are looking to get better, and they know where they come from. “You see Duke shirts in the stands,” Hoyle says. “And every time you come up to hit, they say, ‘from Duke University.’ ”

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