Two Huge Losses

KINSTON, N.C.—Matt Meyer stood on the mound in Winston-Salem, N.C., his body in one place and part of his mind in another.

A reliever in his fourth year in the Indians organization, Meyer was laboring through his 18th appearance of the season for high Class A Kinston, where he has pitched most of the past three years. His thoughts, clouded by grief, wandered toward yet another crippling loss to the Carolina League Franchise.

The previous day, on May 26, word had gotten back to Winston-Salem that longtime K-Tribe clubhouse manager Robert Smeraldo had died at 59, less than 48 hours after suffering a massive stroke. Following the loss of scoreboard operator and Grainger Stadium fixture Delmont Miller to a sudden heart attack at age 42 in October, Smeraldo’s death was the second among Kinston’s minuscule staff in a matter of seven months. For an organization that considers its staff like extended family, the loss of two employees with nearly 40 years combined experience has been difficult to take.

“It’s been really incomprehensible,” general manager Shari Massengill said. “It’s a huge hit, especially for a team like us, where we don’t have a lot of employees. It’s major for us.”

To understand Smeraldo’s place with the team, consider that he was one of four employees to work in the building that houses the front office. He was, in other words, a quarter of the building’s tight-knit staff.

Part Of The Team

Smeraldo, known throughout Cleveland’s organization as a tireless worker who loved to take care of players, was Kinston’s clubhouse manager for 17 years. Like clubbies around baseball, who do invaluable work in the shadows to keep teams up and running, Smeraldo was often the first Indians staffer to arrive at the stadium and almost always the last to leave. When the team completed a road trip at 4 a.m.—a regular occurrence in the low and mid-minors—Smeraldo was there to unload the bus. He washed the uniforms, prepared the daily clubhouse spread, kept the building clean and, when asked, did little things like making sure a player’s Mother’s Day card made it to the mailbox on time

“If you needed anything, he was right on everything,” said Victor Martinez, Cleveland’s all-star catcher who last played in Kinston in 2001 but caught up with Smeraldo at spring training every year. “He wouldn’t let you go without whatever you needed, and that was pretty special.”

While Smeraldo was a behind-the-scenes contributor to the Indians, Miller was more of a ballpark character and arguably the face of the franchise. Born and raised in Kinston, Miller began working as the team’s mascot as a youth before graduating eventually to the press box, where he pushed the buttons on the stadium’s scoreboard for 22 years.

But that’s not what made him notable. Every night after the top of the first inning, the outgoing Miller entertained the crowd with his trademark “shout-outs,” a usually humorous Q&A session with the P.A. announcer during which he’d greet friends and dignitaries in the crowd. Miller endeared himself to both fans and players. When he stepped to the microphone in the first inning, heads in both dugouts would swivel toward the press box to hear what he might say that night.

“Delmont always had a big smile on his face,” said Cleveland farmhand Wes Hodges, who spent the 2007 season in Kinston. “It was always great to see him because you knew he was going to make you laugh.”

Since Miller’s death occurred during the offseason, no players made it to his funeral, which was held at Grainger Stadium. But some 1,000 Kinstonians turned out to remember him, a sign of his mass appeal in the nation’s smallest market with affiliated, full-season baseball.

The loss of Smeraldo, due to the behind-the-scenes nature of his job and his intensely close relationship with players and staff, was more internalized. While a smaller crowd came out for his funeral—the second ever held at the 60-year-old ballpark—some of the faces in the crowd were telling.

Saying Farewell

Five current players and all of Kinston’s field staff arranged to leave Winston-Salem, where they were in the middle of a three-game series, to attend the service. The players and part of the staff rented a van for the 31/2-hour drive, while some staff members cut the trip to 45 minutes by flying on a jet owned by K-Tribe owner Cam McRae. They made it back after the funeral about two hours before game time.

The effort, they said, was well worth it.

“I think it was a great thing,” Kinston manager Chris Tremie said. “I know a lot of (the players) definitely wanted to come, and that says a lot about Robert in itself. I think that it showed how much we did care about him as an organization, as players and staff.”

Meyer was among the players who made the trip, sitting with teammates in a box behind home plate as Smeraldo’s coffin, draped in an American flag, sat just on the other side of the backstop.

Meyer, a gregarious Minnesotan, said he had a special relationship with Smeraldo, who liked to engage in good-natured ribbing with the players but was someone Meyer considered “like an uncle.”

Smeraldo’s death was doubly hard for the club to swallow because his 28-year-old son, Robert Smeraldo Jr., is Grainger Stadium’s visitors’ clubhouse manager and has interacted with the players for nearly a decade.

“They’re familiar faces at the baseball field, and you become accustomed to seeing them every day,” Meyer said. “When one of them passes away—in this case, we’ve had two fixtures at the ballpark pass on—it kind of weighs on your mind. Playing baseball kind of becomes the background, and these guys are pushed to the forefront. I’m out on the mound and my mind’s in the game, but in the back of my mind I’m thinking about Robert and how it’s going to be weird coming home without him in the clubhouse.”

David Hall covers the Kinston Indians for the Kinston Free Press.