Minor league baseball has a lot of things going for it, beyond the obvious attraction of the baseball game.
The fun food, the wacky promotions, the cheap prices, they're all part of the appeal that keeps fans coming out in record numbers.
But none of those things is nearly as important as the people who are working in all those ballparks every day during the summer. The people you see and the people you don't all contribute to the consistently enjoyable experience that is minor league baseball.
And even among that group of dedicated people is an amazing subculture: the ballpark character. Some of these people work for minor league clubs, while others just enjoy coming out to the ballpark every day, but just about every ballpark has someone like this.
I've been fortunate enough to go to a lot of ballparks over the years, though I won't presume to say I have a definitive perspective on ballpark characters across the nation. I was also lucky enough to grow up in eastern North Carolina, however, so I'm very familiar with the Carolina League's Kinston Indians and their singular ballpark character, Delmont Miller. As ballpark characters and people go, Miller was hard to beat. Unfortunately for fans in Kinston, though, his familiar voice was silenced in October, when he had a massive heart attack and died at age 42.
Never Met A Stranger
To help understand Miller it would also help to understand the atmosphere surrounding the Kinston Indians and Grainger Stadium. The K-Tribe plays in one of the smallest towns in the minor leagues, and while it has been updated over the years, Grainger is one of the oldest ballparks in the minors. So a trip to a Kinston game always feels like a trip back in time, with an unmistakable small-town feel.
Ostensibly, Miller was the K-Tribe's scoreboard operator—a job he had held for 22 years—though he really served as a ballpark ambassador. After all, how many scoreboard operators do you know who had promotional nights in their honor?
In fact, Miller was well known not just in the ballpark but all over Kinston, where his gregarious nature won him friends in every corner of the city. So it was no surprise that news of his death was front-page news, or that a throng estimated at 1,000 people turned out for his memorial service at the ballpark. He was remembered by everyone from city officials to big leaguers who passed through Kinston, and he was a buddy to all of them. And he was buried in a K-Tribe jersey with his name on the back, as well as an Indians baseball cap.
Miller's love of sports had first landed him a job at Kinston High School as a manager, and he had also worked as a disc jockey before landing a job with the Indians. After a stint as team mascot, he was merely a scoreboard operator until he got the opportunity to grab the public-address microphone one night.
As these things always happen, an off-the-cuff moment became a ballpark tradition, as Miller would address the crowd during each game and send shout-outs to players, fans or friends in the ballpark and recount what he had for dinner, typically finished with "an ice-cold Mountain Dew to wash it all down." Audio clips of some of his favorite catchphrases were played as people filed out of his memorial service.
Love Affair With Baseball
Miller combined a love for people with a love for baseball, and he was just as well known for his ability to recall baseball trivia—particularly related to Kinston—as for riding his bicycle around town to visit friends.
He was particularly beloved by the people who saw him every day at the park: Kinston's players, coaches and managers, as well as the team's employees and media who covered the Carolina League. During spring training in 2006, former Kinston players C.C. Sabathia, Grady Sizemore and Willy Taveras were among the players who wished Miller a happy 40th birthday. He was a fixture in the Kinston press box, and there is already a movement afoot to name it in his honor.
He often wore Indians jerseys that had been given to him, and former Kinston players and coaches were among those who mourned his death. "It's just hard to imagine not having Delmont there at Grainger Stadium," former Kinston manager Mike Sarbaugh told the Kinston Free Press. "Every time you think of Delmont, you always have a smile on your face. He'll definitely be missed, I know, by everybody."