CHARLOTTE, N.C.—The first cheers of the night came a good two hours before the Charlotte Knights took the field for Opening Day on Friday evening. It erupted from the line of fans who roared when the gates swung open to BB&T Ballpark and a new era of baseball for the Triple-A club.
After 23 years of playing in Fort Mill, S.C., at a ballpark to which few Charlotte residents felt was worth making the 12-mile drive down I-85, the Knights finally arrived at their new $54 million downtown—city officials prefer you call it Uptown—Charlotte home.
The view alone was worth the wait.
The Knights lost their homecoming to the Norfolk Tides 8-6 in a 12-inning, four home run game that hinted the new stadium may favor hitters. But it's unlikely that many in the sold-out crowd of 10,231 went home disappointed. Because the true story of the evening was the ballpark.
And that view.
It is the view that stood out and is what separates this ballpark from most any other minor league venue. It is what Yankee Stadium could look like it were set in the middle of Manhattan—skyscrapers appear to rise from just beyond the outfield fence of BB&T Ballpark.
The setting was the talk of the fans. "This is my field of dreams," said Irv Schwebel, a native of Long Island, N.Y., who has been a season-ticket holder for 12 years. "For me, it doesn't get any better than this."
The players noticed it, too. Charlotte third baseman Matt Davidson, who arrived to the parent club White Sox in the offseason from the Diamondbacks and spent last season at Triple-A Reno's Aces Stadium (a fine ballpark in its own right), said he hadn't seen anything like BB&T Ballpark in his five years in the minors. "It's the best stadium I've ever played at," he said. "It's beautiful. The skyline is going to be the main attraction."
And even longtime International League president Randy Mobley, who spent the middle innings of the game chatting in the press box, felt the view stood out from other downtown ballparks in the IL.
"This skyline is special," Mobley said.
So is what the Knights have to offer within the brick-façade ballpark—for players and fans.
Knights hitting coach Andy Tomberlin raved about the two hitting tunnels under the ballpark (that come equipped with iPod jacks for players to blast their music) and the five camera angles of home plate that they can use to study hitters' swings.
"To me, this is a major league facility. It may be a minor league ballpark, but it's a major league facility," Tomberlin said. "(The camera angles) really help us see, so long as you don't take it too far. If you think too much, you won't know what you're doing wrong until the ball is past you."
Whether playing in such a modern ballpark (and in front of large crowds) will be a boon to player development is up for debate, White Sox vice president of player development Buddy Bell said, but it certainly should be a morale-booster.
"At Triple-A, you need something else to get your heart started, because most of these guys think they should be in the majors," Bell said. "This will get it started."
Long Time Coming
It should also be the start of a period of growth for the Knights, who rarely topped 400,000 fans in their 23 years at Knights Stadium and spent much of the past decade near the bottom of the International League in attendance. But at their new ballpark, the Knights have already sold out this weekend's games at the ballpark and were down to standing-room only tickets for much of next week.
"This puts them in the top echelons of (minor league) ballparks," Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner said. "And the market is going to respond. This place is going to jump."
Getting to this point was a long time coming. Knights owner Don Beaver and president Dan Rajkowski endured 10 years of false starts, broken promises and setbacks in their quest to get local officials to partner on a ballpark that would bring the team to the city. Two years ago, both sides settled on a public-private agreement, lauded by O'Conner as a model for other markets, in which the city of Charlotte and Mecklenberg County each contributed $8 million, with the Knights raising the remaining $38 million through a naming-rights agreement and other sponsorships and investments.
Beaver, while chatting with White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf behind home plate before the start of the game, humbly described the opening as a great day for the city. Reinsdorf was a little more effusive about his friend of more than two decades.
"What this guy went through," Reinsdorf said, "nobody should have to go through. I'm so happy for Don and Dan. "This park is beautiful. It's classy. It doesn't have the feel of a minor league park in terms of what has gone into it."
Even North Carolina governor Pat McCrory acknowledged it may taken too long for this to happen. "Thanks to Don Beaver," McCrory said during a pregame ceremony that delayed first pitch by 30 minutes, "for waiting us out and making this happen."
The wait was certainly worthy of a party, and that's what the Knights threw for their fans on Friday night. Among the highlights was a visit from Jim Thome, who spent a season with the Knights in 1993 and was on hand to throw out the first pitch. A designated hitter for the last several years of his career, Thome spoke with apprehension of his ceremonial duties, telling reporters before the game that he'd rather have "somebody throw it in and let me hit it."
His words proved prophetic, as two hours later Thome sailed his pitch and wide of Tomberlin crouching behind the plate, and sheepishly waived to the crowd while jogging off the field.
By then, fans that had spent hours wandering the ballpark and seeing what it had to offer had mostly settled into their seats, which include a variety of vantage points to take in a game. There are more high-end areas, like the home run porch above the right-field wall and an all-you-can-eat party tent in left field. And then there is the dugout suite—a field level destination directly behind home plate that comes with a full bar and buffet, and provides the best view of the game besides the dugouts themselves.
For fans coming in with a standard ticket, there is plenty to see and do. Like most modern minor league ballparks, an intimate seating bowl gets you up close to the action—and this one appears even closer since it is fitted into a city block. Drink rails line the wrap-around concourse, allowing spectators plenty of spots to eat, drink and watch the game.
Speaking of eating and drinking, the ballpark offers a food court's worth of options. A walk along the first-base side of the concourse brings you past Whiskey River (a local chain co-owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr.), Queen City Que and Dave & Frans Taste of the South. A trail of people drinking out of mason jars brings you to a craft brew stand behind home plate—which had arguably the longest lines of the night and a selection of microbrews that included Sweetwater 420, Shock Top and Copper Amber Ale. Keep strolling along the concourse and you'll come upon a Beers of the World stand (with six fridges full of bottle beers), Hot Dog Nation (where one can by brats, footlongs and specialty dogs) and the Sweet Swing soft-serve ice cream stand.
Fans don't even need to enter the ballpark to enjoy the game. The grass berm beyond center field rests outside of the stadium, and fans picnicked, played catch and rolled down the hill free of charge. Others peered through the gates along the first-base side a la Ebbets Field, while some sat in a park across the street where they could see the action on the jumbotron.
A face painter and balloon artist set up shop on the concourse, the final touches of a pregame celebration that included autograph sessions and carnival-style games at the park across the street. The team even brought out renaissance-themed characters to help fans get in the spirit.
One of those characters, who would only refer to himself as Lord Mayor Sir John Bullfrog, said he had taken in a game or two at the old ballpark, and while he favored a good cricket match, he was fond of the new venue.
"The old one was showing its age," Bullfrog said, "and coming from another age, I know what that is like."
For Mobley, who has taken in many a ballpark christening during his 24 years as International League president, the vibe in Charlotte was of a place that never had a team before. Perhaps it was just that fans never had anything quite like this.
"You always have a special type of situation when you bring a team to a city hasn't had baseball," he said. "This has a lot of those elements. It was almost like it hadn't had baseball even though it was only 10 or 12 miles away."