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Long lasting
Crackers reach 1,000 game milestone

NORCROSS - As much as any other sport, baseball is a game that values its milestones, and the Gwinnett-based Atlanta Crackers of the Stan Musial League of Georgia recently reached a major one.

With their 6-3 win over the Chattanooga Cyclones last Saturday in Chattanooga, Tenn., the Crackers played in their 1,000th all-time game.

It's not the longest continuous streak in the state's Stan Musial League, nor is it unprecedented for a member of the 10-team league to have been in operation so long.

"We have a guy in Valdosta named Ralph Starling who has a team that has played in over 1,700 games over 45 years," Crackers owner and manager Kevin Meistickle pointed out. "And the Rockdale A's have been around - I'll bet its 35 years now."

Still, the milestone by the Crackers in their 41st year of existence is an impressive one in terms of longevity for a semi-professional team.

Meistickle - a Suwanee resident, former New York Mets draft pick and journeyman pro player - has been around for 26 of those years, and admits Saturday's milestone is special to him.

"Not many clubs stay together that long," said Meistickle, who bounced around the Mets', Pittsburgh Pirates', Montreal Expos' and Atlanta Braves' organizations - including a 14-day stay in the major leagues - before retiring to start his own landscaping business in 1983. "Some are in for a year or two, and the realize it's too much (to run a team) and get out of it. ... But I love the game, and I like putting something back into it."

Over the course of his tenure as owner and manager, Meistickle has seen his team - and the Stan Musial League in general - go through a lot of changes.

The biggest change has been in the makeup of the rosters.

"Back in the '80s and '90s, it was mainly former pro players or guys trying to get back into pro ball, and we'd play as many as 50-something games over the course of a summer," Meistickle said. "Now, it's basically all college players. Most of the older guys are playing independent (minor league ball). A lot of these kids are coming out of junior college programs and we try to get them into four-year programs.

"And the season used to start earlier in the year. Now, the season is so much shorter because the colleges are going to a season that ends later. If we can get in 30 games over the summer, that's good."

Of course, Meistickle and the Crackers have also seen a lot of success during the past 41 years.

The team has won 11 state Stan Musial League championships and has advanced to the regional championship tournament five times in Meistickle's tenure and qualified for the Stan Musial League World Series three times, including a third-place finish in 1995.

In addition, the Crackers have also had some noteworthy names dot their roster over the years. Among those are former Boston Red Sox outfielder Bernie Carbo and Marc Pisciotta, who made a name for himself by leading East Marietta to the Little League World Series title in 1983 before going on to a college career at Georgia Tech and a pro career that included stints in the major league with the Chicago Cubs and Kansas City Royals.

Those numbers are awe-inspiring to Steve Autry, a Loganville resident who has been involved with the Crackers for 21 years - first as a pitcher for nine years and later as Meistickle's pitching coach and first-base coach.

"The fact I've been a part of this team for 21 years is unbelievable," said Autry, a Grayson native and 1987 graduate of South Gwinnett High, who played collegiately and became a non-roster invitee to the Houston Astros training camp before joining the Crackers and winning 60 games as a pitcher for them in his career. "It's a little bit of a legacy for all the things we've been through. ... These days, we just try to mentor kids where we can."

Meistickle, Autry and other longtime league veterans have seen the mission of mentoring and teaching mainly college players evolve over the past few years, and it seems to be living up to that mission.

The biggest service in provides current college players is that with hitters using only wood bats as opposed to aluminum, it helps players get a better feel for what is needed to reach the professional ranks.

"We just give them an opportunity to play," Meistickle said. "Scouts like to see wood bats in their hands and see how good of hitters they are and what they have to work on."

And some players like former North Gwinnett second baseman Justin Rahm agree the league is a way to improve their games on their current level in hopes of perhaps one day getting a chance to play at the next level.

"I was just looking for a place to play this summer," said Rahm, who recently completed his first season at North Carolina Wesleyan in Rocky Mount, N.C. "The wood bat leagues like the Cape Cod League and Coastal Plains League are usually the best. But I wanted to stay in Georgia, and I'd always drive by (the field at North Gwinnett) during the summer and I'd see (the Crackers) playing and wonder who that team was.

"The fact they've played in 1,000 games - that shows you the league is well-known and that there are always guys willing to play."

Rahm isn't the only former Gwinnett high school players for the current edition of the Crackers, who are 9-5 this season after an 8-7 loss to the Atlanta Astros on Wednesday.

Mickey Ferguson (Dacula), Josh Blum (North Gwinnett), Matt Hill (Grayson) and Marc Nillist (Grayson) are also playing for the Crackers this year.