North Carolina Natural

Last year, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dustin Ackley for a piece that appeared in the Tacoma Rainiers game program, The Dirt. Here’s the result.

North Carolina Natural

By Melissa Marchionna

Seattle Mariners 2009 second overall pick, Dustin Ackley may be just 22 years old, but that doesn’t mean his name doesn’t carry any lore. Since breaking out as a star at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ackley has drawn comparisons to such players as Chase Utley, Tony Gwynn and…Roy Hobbs.

Roy Hobbs?

Yes, Roy Hobbs, the protagonist from one of baseball’s classic tales, The Natural. While one might argue that Ackley is a natural himself, born of baseball blood (his father John was drafted in the third round of the 1979 draft by the Boston Red Sox and played professionally for seven seasons), the comparisons go back to the first year of his collegiate career. In an early spring matchup against UNC Wilmington, Ackley hit a grand slam. While grand slams are always considered remarkable, the truly spectacular part of the hit was that it broke Ackley’s bat.

His aluminum bat.

That one swing inspired the nickname “Roy Hobbs,” something Ackley’s teammates continued to call him throughout his college career.

While Hobbs famously said “I coulda’ broke every record in the book,” Ackley almost did. During his storied freshman year, he broke UNC records and led the nation with 119 hits, 296 at-bats and 73 games. He became just the fifth Tar Heel in program history to bat over .400 in a single season and he set a UNC rookie record with 74 runs.

North Carolina Natural Article - Seattle Mariners Dustin Ackley
Click here if you'd like to read this article in "magazine" format, as it appeared in The Dirt.

Even before heading to Chapel Hill, Ackley attracted quite a bit of national attention. He played for South Stoke High School for three seasons, helping his team to back-to-back North Carolina 1A state titles in 2003 and 2004. After transferring from South Stoke to North Forsyth High School for his senior year, Ackley earned preseason and postseason Louisville Slugger All-America honors.

Despite those accolades, Ackley went undrafted after high school. Even if he had been picked up by a team, there’s a good chance he would have turned it down in lieu of university life.

“A lot of kids go through high school and they see the money and want to go straight to professional ball,” said Ackley. “I think the best thing for me was going through college for three years and getting experience there. I think that was the best preparation for me to play professional baseball that I ever could have had.”

The decision to go to school in Chapel Hill was not a difficult one for Ackley. UNC was always in the picture for the North Carolina native.

“The baseball team had been really successful in recent years. It’s a really good program. A couple guys I had played summer ball with committed there.

“Plus, everyone in my family is a basketball fan there, so it made it really easy decision,” Ackley said with a smile.

As challenging as it might have been to balance baseball and UNC’s rigorous academic program, Ackley did follow in his family’s footsteps by cheering on the Tar Heels basketball team. “I went to quite a few of the games at Carolina. I think I went to every Carolina versus Duke game at Chapel Hill,” recalled Ackley.

While Ackley has followed in his family’s footsteps as a basketball fan and in professional baseball, they never forced him in a certain direction, allowing him to forge his own path. When asked about how his father John may have guided his career track, Ackley responded with the perhaps surprising answer that he has not tried to.

“He’s let me go my own way since college. He knew I was old enough to know what to do when the situation came,” Ackley explained.

“He’s told me about the things that went on in his professional career. The things he did. But other than that, he’s let me take this in and experience it for myself.”

Still, when you see Ackley volunteering in the community, posing for pictures with Rainiers season ticket holders, or signing autographs for fans before and after each game, you are seeing his family’s influence. When it comes to those “little things”—the little things that have big meaning for baseball fans—Ackley credits his upbringing.

“I was raised right by my parents,” he noted.

With his family across the country, Ackley now looks to role models in the Mariners organization.

“Since coming here I’ve been around a lot of people who have been in the game for awhile. They are teaching me the right way to do things. I try to do them and hopefully things will work out.

“When I first got to Seattle last August, Mike Sweeney was up with the team. He took me in and showed me everything. If it wasn’t for him, I would have been lost up there. He introduced me to everybody and made me feel comfortable. He was the first guy who really influenced me when I signed with the team.”

Just two days after Ackley joined the Rainiers from West Tennessee, Sweeney began a rehab assignment with the team. The five-time MLB All-Star continued what he started in Seattle while rehabbing in Tacoma, helping the rookie feel comfortable and adjust to his surroundings in the Northwest.

“It was great to see him,” admitted Ackley. “He’s good in the clubhouse. He made everybody relax and have fun. It’s always good to have a guy like that.”

While Sweeney’s rehab assignment has expired and he is no longer a member of the Rainiers, his influence can still be seen in the way Ackley treats the fans and his teammates, and the hustle he shows each day on the diamond.

In The Natural, Iris Gaines, a pivotal person in Hobbs’ past, tells Hobbs “I believe we have two lives…the life we learn with and the life we live after that.”

Be it family, college, coaches, or teammates, the people and experiences of Ackley’s past have taught him how the be a great ballplayer—and more importantly a great person. As his first season of professional baseball winds to a close, Ackley appears ready to parlay the lessons he’s learned into a new life in the major leagues.

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Women of the Stanley Cup: Marguerite Norris

I have often spoken about my dream of being one of the handful of women to have her name engraved on the Stanley Cup. Many outside the hockey community don’t realize that the top executives of a Stanley Cup winning team also get their name on the trophy. So far, 12 women have earned this special honor.
 
Over the next few weeks I aim to tell their stories.
 
First up is Marguerite Norris.
Yes, that James Norris.

Marguerite Norris was just about as close as you can get to hockey royalty. Her dad was the legendary James Norris, who in the 1930s purchased the Detroit Falcons franchise—promptly changing the name to the Red Wings.

Despite owning the team, the Norris family didn’t often make it out to games. James had a heart condition, which forced him to stay in Chicago for much of his tenure as team president. Still, he managed to stay plenty informed about the goings on of the team, connecting with coach/GM Jack Adams (yup, that Jack Adams) by phone after each game.

While unable to travel far from his home in Lake Forest, Illinois, James taught his family to love the game of hockey as well. Standing just one inch shy of six feet tall, Marguerite used to play goalie during family hockey games. Although she shared her father’s interest in the game, Marguerite pursued her owns interests as well, earning a degree from Smith College, then working for Dun & Bradstreet in New York and West Farm Management in Chicago.

When James passed away from a heart attack on December 4, 1952, Marguerite took over control as president of the Red Wings per her father’s wishes. Although she had attend many games in Chicago and New York, the game she attended on December 18 of that year was first Red Wings game she had seen at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium in 20 years (in case you were wondering, the Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs tied 1-1).

Not much has been documented about Marguerite’s time with the Red Wings, but the team finished in first place during the three seasons she was at the helm. Marguerite was not shy about her disdain for coach Jack, but Mr. Adams remained the Red Wings head coach and guided the team to two Stanley Cups under Marguerite’s reign (1954, 1955). During the 1955 off-season, Marguerite lost an intrafamily struggle to her brother Bruce, who took over the team until 1982.

After leaving hockey, Marguerite moved to Connecticut and pursued an interest in raising cattle and horses. In her adopted hometown of Southbury, she was introduced to John Riker, the man she would marry in 1960. John was a graduate of the University of Alaska, had a master’s degree from Columbia University, and worked in the television business. While running their farm, the Rikers established themselves as leaders in the American Quarter Horse community. They were instrumental in introducing English events to the circuit and developed a popular breed of horses.

Marguerite died from heart failure in Connecticut on May 12, 1994. Her memory is honored each year with a scholarship to a graduating student at Nonnewaug High School—an agricultural high school not far from where she and John owned their farm. The scholarship goes to a student who excels in math, science and athletics and has financial need.

If you have any more information on Marguerite Norris, please post a comment or get in touch via email.

Goodbye, Mark Stuart!

Before game 6 of the 2008 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals vs. the Montreal Canadiens

Today, Mark Stuart and Blake Wheeler were traded from the Boston Bruins to the Atlanta Thrashers in exchange for Rich Peverley and Boris Valabik.

Although he’s had a rough season, Stuart has been one of my favorite players for the Boston Bruins. Not a flashy guy, but gets the job done and is one of those all-around nice guys. I admit, I may be one of the few hockey fans who has his jersey.

A couple years ago, I had the opportunity to interview him while working in the Boston Bruins media relations department. Here’s the story that resulted from our conversation:

Stuart’s Strong on Boston’s Back Line

Before settling in at the TD Banknorth Garden, the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, or “The Dunk” (as it is affectionately known by Bruins fan of both the Boston and Providence variety), was home to Bruins defenseman Mark Stuart for the majority of his career in Black & Gold.

Although the trips up and down I-95 seem to be a thing of the past, this past Sunday, in his third pro year and first as a full time Boston blue liner, Stuart faced some new opponents in a different dunk—the dunk tank at the 18th Annual Boston Bruins Wives Carnival. Fans who attended the carnival were able to take their shot at submerging Stuart in 450 gallons of water.

While the joke on Causeway Street had been which Bruin would be this year’s Dunk Tank victim, the truth is that the good-natured Stuart actually volunteered for the task.

Stuie in the dunk tank at the 2008 Bruins Wives Carnival

“It’s a role I accepted,” Stuart told BostonBruins.com prior to the carnival, “I’ve never been in a dunk tank. I mean, I’ve participated, but never inside the tank.”

What was his one concern?

“I hope it’s not too cold.”

As if that would be a problem for the defenseman who has been braving the cold since he first toddled onto the ice as a curious three year old that wanted to do everything his big brothers did.

“I was kind of a little copy cat,” he admitted.

Fortunately for Stuart (and Bruins fans), he’s been able to do at least two things like his older brothers. All three brothers played for Colorado College and all three were drafted into the National Hockey League.

Eldest brother Mike was drafted by the Nashville Predators and spent time playing with the St. Louis Blues. Middle brother Colin Stuart scored his first NHL goal this past New Year’s Eve when the Atlanta Thrashers paid a visit to the TD Banknorth Garden.

Don’t worry Bruins fans—Mark, the youngest of the Stuart men, returned the favor by netting his own goal against his brother’s squad the next period.

But playing for different teams seems to be the extent of sibling rivalry for these brothers. When asked about how his brothers have influenced his hockey career, Mark had nothing but glowing praise for both of them.

“Colin [has] been huge for me,” said Mark of his brother, who was just recently called up to Atlanta for his first NHL stint. “It’s pretty cool to see him get rewarded. It’s his fourth year pro. He has really put in his time and developed. He’s worked really hard.”

“I looked up to both of them. My oldest brother Mike is a defenseman, so when I was younger I did exactly what he did on and off the ice…He helped me a lot growing up.”

In fact, Stuart credits his family as “the number one reason I am where I am today.”

Not to be neglected in the very athletic family is the littlest Stuart (in both age and stature), Cristin, a senior at Boston College who serves as captain of the Eagles’ women’s ice hockey team, and who Mark says is “ doing great, with both the hockey thing and the school thing.”

Beyond his “real” family, for Stuart the extended family members that he has acquired as part of the Bruins organization have also served as role models.

“Coming into the league, Jay Leach, who was our captain down in Providence, was a good example. [I admired] how hard he worked and took care of his body. He was a very levelheaded guy. I think I looked up to him and learned a lot from him.”

Stuart’s own levelheadedness, work ethic, and leadership are some of the strongest qualities he brings to ice. During the last two seasons, when he was sent up and down between Providence and Boston, Mark never got down on himself.

Instead, he viewed his assignments as opportunities to become a better player.

“When I was in Providence it was great, because the coaches down there really teach…It really is a development team and [the AHL is] a development league. That’s where I really improved.”

Not that his early stints in Boston weren’t appreciated.

“You get to come up here for a few games and learn what it’s like to play at this level and say ‘I could do this,’ you go back down there and continue to work and hope that you get called back up.”

After two years of ups and downs, it looks as though Mark Stuart is finally able to call Boston his home.

And with his “will do” attitude, he’ll look to do whatever it takes to stay — even if it means braving Boston’s finest fans at the Dunk Tank, which he did with aplomb on January 6th.

“The first session I was freezing,” said Stuart of his tank experience. “But you get used to it. The second session was easier than the first.”

Again, just like his first few games in the NHL and his time AHL, Stuart’s experience showed him the way.

“The second session I got smart,” he said, with a laugh. “I put (moisture wicking athletic gear) and a tight long sleeve shirt and another long sleeve over that.

“So, I was a little warmer the second time around.”

Career Development (the sport pro’s way of justifying fantasy sports)

For the next few months I’ll be doing some…erm….career development.

And by that, I mean I have created my first fantasy football team.

I’ve done fantasy baseball for years, but have never crossed over to the world of football. In hopes of furthering my knowledge and developing a richer appreciation of America’s game, I introduce “Favre Dolla Footlong” (and yes, I’m taking suggestions for a better name).

 

My star player
Favre Dolla Footlong's Franchise Player

 

Starting Lineup:

  • QB Kevin Kolb
  • WR Roddy White
  • WR Anquan Boldin
  • WR Steve Smith
  • RB Chris Johnson
  • RB Shonn Greene
  • TE Brent Celek
  • K Mason Crosby
  • DEF New York Giants

Bench:

  • RB Reggie Bush
  • QB Eli Manning
  • WR Johnny Knox
  • WR Steve Breaston
  • K John Kasay
  • DEF Miami Dolphins

I welcome all feedback and contributions to my career development.

Lunchtime Reads

Twitter is great, isn’t it?

When you follow interesting people, interesting things are bound to come up. And thanks to the people I follow, here are some of my lunchtime reads:

Unlocking Your Inner Edison
I find myself so much more focused a productive when using a “to do” list. It makes multitasking a breeze, because I always know what I need to go back to. I learned today that Thomas Edison had the ultimate “to do” list—perhaps a reason he was able to patent over 1000 ideas in his life time.

Website sponsors gambling on grades at 36 colleges
A website called Ultrinsic is taking wagers on grades from students at 36 colleges nationwide starting this month.

Just as Las Vegas sports books set odds on football games, Ultrinsic will pay you top dollar for A’s, a little less for the more likely outcome of a B average or better, and so on. You can also wager you’ll fail a class by buying what Ultrinsic calls “grade insurance.”

CEO Steven Wolf insists this is not online gambling, which is technically illegal in the United States, because wagers with Ultrinsic involve skill.

I truly cannot decide whether I think this is awesome or a horrible commentary on our culture.

Brown rewarded by Mariners with first win
Given my interactions with the man, I’m obviously happy for Daren Brown and his new role at Mariners interim manager. Plus, it’s always nice to see the local club get a win. As for Don Wakamatsu, Doug Fister summed it up nicely:

Today certainly was an emotional roller coaster. You hate to see anyone go, especially coaches who cared for us. It’s a business and when it comes down to it, we have to perform on the field.

Have you come across any interesting reads today?