In My Opinion

Sorensen: Red, white, boom a minor-league baseball tradition on July Fourth

tsorensen@charlotteobserver.comJuly 3, 2014 

Most of us have a July 4 tradition. In Charlotte, one of ours is to go to the ballpark for home runs, hot dogs and fireworks.

Family reunions attracted bigger crowds than the Charlotte Knights did in Fort Mill – except on July 4. The eight biggest crowds in Knights’ history showed up on the Fourth of July.

Capacity at Knights Stadium was 10,000. On July 4, 2008, the Knights attracted a franchise high 15,591 fans. Average attendance that season was 4,526.

If you didn’t have a ticket on July 4, any July 4, you were turned away long before you reached the road that led to the stadium.

“We had a traffic problem,” says Dan Rajkowski, the Knights executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Only on July 4 did the Knights have a traffic problem in Fort Mill.

On Friday the Knights play their first July 4 game at BB&T Ballpark. They’ve sold out 20 games this season. Friday will be the 21st. Capacity is 10,200 and at least 10,200 fans will be there.

Fireworks usually are shot off downtown at Memorial Stadium (and will be Saturday night after the Charlotte Hounds play the Rochester Rattlers in Major League Lacrosse).

Postgame fireworks Friday will be launched from the grassy hill where fans who don’t wear linen pants often sit to watch baseball. The shells in which the fireworks are housed will be half the size they were in rural Fort Mill. In downtown Charlotte there are more potential targets such as buildings, restaurants and people.

What the fireworks lack in power they’ll attempt to compensate for in variety and color.

On July 4, you want to feel like an American. Maybe you go to the beach or the lake; maybe you hold the annual barbecue in the backyard; maybe you go to a movie in an air-conditioned theater; maybe you drive downtown and spread out a blanket. You do what you do the way you always have.

The connection, often, is family and friends. It’s not so much what you see blasting into the night sky. It’s the people with whom you see it.

Baseball and July 4 are such a beautiful fit, and although you can’t buy apple pie at BB&T Ballpark you can buy hot dogs.

Baseball is ours. Soccer is not, although we claimed a piece of it when the U.S. competed in the World Cup. As the Knights and Gwinnett Braves warmed up Tuesday night at BB&T Ballpark, the U.S. and Belgium were televised on the big screen. It felt like a warm-up for July 4, the patriotism palpable.

It was different, being part of the planet’s sport. As Winston Churchill said, one world is enough for all of us. OK, it wasn’t Churchill. It was Sting. And he sang it.

“I don’t care what anybody says,” Rajkowski said Tuesday as the Knights batted, the fans cheered and the P.A. announcer made every at bat feel important. “Baseball is still America’s pastime. It brings people together on a mid-summer night with family and friends and it’s been a tradition in Charlotte for so many years.”

The Knights will pause to salute the military Friday. They’ll also wear camouflage uniforms that will be auctioned online. Proceeds will go to the USO and Knights Charities.

Some days are magic, or at least offer the potential to be. July 4 is one of them. It’s the summer version of Thanksgiving, but with humidity, heat and a different kind of ball.

Rajkowski can’t remember a Fourth of July weekend that his team didn’t host a game. He will run around most of the evening, the way people that lead teams do, trying to make sure that everything works the way it was supposed to and fans are having as much fun as they were supposed to.

And then the fireworks will start, and Rajkowski will stop running. He will find his kids, now 25 and 16, and sit with them.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen

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