In My Opinion

Fowler: Charlotte Knights deliver near-perfect housewarming for new stadium

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comApril 11, 2014 

When you hold a housewarming party for 10,000 people, you worry about everything. The Charlotte Knights did that Friday night, opening BB&T BallPark in uptown Charlotte for a sold-out crowd revved up for minor-league baseball’s return after a quarter-century absence from the city limits.

“I want it to be a perfect evening,” Dan Rajkowski, the Knights’ executive vice president, fretted two hours before the game. “I know it’s not going to be. But I told my staff, ‘Let’s try to be perfect.’ 

It wasn’t perfect.

But it was pretty close.

It was 72 degrees at the call to “play ball,” with the blue sky fading into twilight. The weather was as pleasant as the park itself, with its cozy feel and skyscraper backdrop. There is no such thing as a nosebleed section at this ballpark.

Inside the stadium, the concession stand lines were sometimes 25-deep, with vendors selling their $4 pretzels, $7 foot-long hot dogs and $9 domestic beers as fast as they could stock them.

Fans brought blankets to relax on the lawn behind left field. Some watched through the fence for free. By 8:15 p.m., the park was emblazoned not just by its own lights but by those of the skyscrapers that surround it – a literal diamond in the heart of Charlotte.

The first real pitch, scheduled for 7:05 p.m., actually came at 7:41 p.m. The delay was caused by numerous congratulatory speeches and 15 ceremonial first pitches. Yes, 15.

The worst first pitch came from Jim Thome, who starred for the Charlotte Knights in 1993 and then hit 612 homers in the major leagues. He air-mailed his pitch so high and wide that the catcher had no chance to grab it.

“Hey, this is my first ‘first pitch’ ever,” Thome said before the game. “I wish they’d let me swing at one instead. I haven’t thrown a baseball for awhile, so I don’t know how I’m going to do with this.”

“Not well” turned out to be the answer.

The first real pitch was a strike from Charlotte’s Dylan Axelrod. A moment after that came the first hit – a double laced down the right field line by Norfolk Tides outfielder Julio Borbon.

In the bottom of the third inning, Knights outfielder Denis Phipps hit the first home run in the ballpark – a shot to left field that landed near the scoreboard.

Charlotte’s diamond

Eventually, everyone settled into the unhurried rhythms of a baseball game – the murmuring between every pitch, the calls from the concessionaires, the father explaining a sacrifice bunt to a son.

There was plenty of time to walk around the ballpark and listen to the fans, who mostly were saying some variant of “Isn’t this beautiful?” and also taking a lot of selfies. There were a few glitches – a small scoreboard malfunction among them – but fans seemed happy to overlook them.

Charlotte has always loved a shiny new bauble. Once BB&T BallPark got built – and for many contentious years that was no sure thing – the challenge for Rajkowski and his staff was always going to be selling out the next 71 home dates for 2014, not the first one. The Knights were last in the International League in attendance in four of their final five years in Fort Mill, where they were forgotten by a large segment of the community.

“We’ve got seven more home games in a row right after this one,” Rajkowski said. “So we’ve got a little bit of work to do. This isn’t like a Super Bowl, where we finish one and don’t play anymore.”

The Knights are a Triple A club, the top farm team of the Chicago White Sox. All of its players are a single step away from the major leagues. Some, such as third baseman Matt Davidson, are a half-step. Davidson is a hot prospect who made the stadium’s first great play – a diving stab of a ground ball, followed by a laser throw to first base to turn a likely double into an out.

“Triple A players are unique,” said Buddy Bell, a former major leaguer and now the White Sox’s vice president of player development. “Most of these guys feel like they should be in the big leagues anyway. So it’s easier to come to a ballpark like this and get your heart started.”

It works that way with fans, too. The ones who came Friday for “Opening Knight,” as the Knights kept dubbing it, knew the game score was secondary. The primary attraction was the ballpark itself. It will be that way all season, really.

You live in Charlotte and want to take someone out to the ballgame now? It no longer requires crossing the state line. It just requires a few bucks and a few hours. Baseball in Charlotte is finally real again.

Fowler:; Twitter: @scott_fowler

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