Ken Martin/The Wolfpacker
To say this weekend will be special for Elliott Avent and his Wolfpack baseball team would be a mild understatement, and that is true on multiple fronts.
For one, NC State’s student-athletes will get to live every baseball player’s fantasy: playing a game at Boston’s venerable Fenway Park. The Pack has experienced playing in somewhat prominent venues like two of the best minor league parks in America: Durham Bulls Athletic Park, with its lore rooted from its former venue feature in the movie “Bull Durham,” and the Charlotte Knights’ BB&T Park, with its picturesque uptown skyline view.
“You can imagine how excited they are,” Avent confirmed. “That’s their dream. To play in those venues is pretty special.”
Yet there is also a deeper meaning for why NC State is playing in Fenway. Former Boston College baseball captain Pete Frates was diagnosed with ALS in 2012. In his efforts to raise money for research to defeat the disease, he created a national sensation with the Ice Bucket Challenge. The premise: someone challenged would agree to let ice water be poured over their head and make a donation to ALS-related foundations.
The result: $41.8 million was raised in the summer of 2014.
Last May, former NC State baseball star Chris Combs, who currently works as the associate director of the Wolfpack Club, received his own ALS diagnosis. The player who remains tied for fifth all time at NC State in home runs has a special place in Avent’s heart. On Thursday alone, Avent met with Combs twice.
“I knew who he was as a player and coach when I coached him, but to see who he became after college and what he’s done for NC State and the Wolfpack Club and then to see how he’s handle this situation is beyond imagination; the courage he’s showed and the resiliency he has showed,” Avent noted.
Saturday’s game at Fenway is about two teams impacted by ALS coming together and raising awareness and money for the cause to defeat it. Helping to spread the platform was ESPN president John Skipper, whom Avent happened to get a chance to talk to at a Carolina Panthers football game last fall.
Avent was standing on the sideline with NC State Hall of Fame basketball player David Thompson. Skipper is a native of Lexington, N.C., who went to college at North Carolina.
“Like everybody else in the world, [Skipper] wanted to be close to David Thompson for a while and talk about his heroics going back to high school,” Avent recalled.
Seizing the moment, Avent pitched to Skipper the chance to increase the publicity for the game by broadcasting it on one of the ESPN networks. It will be televised by ESPNU at 4 p.m.
“John Skipper being who he is made it happen,” Avent said.
The Wolfpack will wear special hats that can be purchased at www.teamchriscombs.org for the game. By the time first pitch is thrown at Fenway, Avent is hoping that another storyline for this weekend is out of the way. He enters the series one win away from 1,000 for his career.
Avent has not given it much though, stressing that during the season his mind is on how well his team is playing, who they are playing next and how well that team has been performing.
“That’s all you ever think about,” Avent said. “You don’t have time or room to think about anything else.”
Yet when told about it, Avent admits it brings him pride because of his love of NC State.
“To get 1,000 at NC State is special,” he acknowledged. “You think about everybody from [former] Coach [Sam] Esposito, who is the Godfather of NC State athletics in my opinion and a lot of people’s opinions; [former coach] Ray Tanner who gave me my first job here and the success he’s had. You think about [assistant coach] Chris Hart whose been doing this for 13 years, how hard he’s worked and loyal he’s been.”
Then Avent shifted to all his former players, recalling one story in particular that brings him back to Fenway. Former NC State first baseman Aaron Bates was set to play his first game for the Red Sox. The morning of his debut, Bates called Avent asking his former coach to make it up for the game if possible.
Avent had to jump through some hurdles. For one, his car was getting an oil change. He also had to catch a plane to Boston. Avent was en route to the park in a cab when Bates stepped up for his first at bat, and Avent asked the cab to pull over at a bar so that he could watch Bates’ appearance on television.
“You think about so many people that did things for you and people who did things for you with you here,” Avent added.
There is also the task at hand. NC State is battling to make it into the NCAA postseason. The Pack, 20-17 overall and 8-10 in the ACC, is a bubble team that both D1Baseball.com and Baseball America have currently in the field of 64, but barely.
Avent said that he has modernized some things around his life, such as texting and Twitter, but he does not have rabbit ears when it comes to such projections.
Instead, he is focused on his team, hoping that the recent surge in good starting pitching can be coupled with a return to form from his bullpen.
“[The players] go through a lot,” he said. “Our guys are pretty resilient. They are as good a group of guys as you want to be around, and they can get after it pretty good.”
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