Best-Kept Secrets

Best-Kept Secrets: For sports fans, North Carolina has it all

When it comes to sports, North Carolina has a little bit of everything: professional football, basketball and hockey teams, NASCAR, famous golf courses and what many people consider the best college rivalry in the nation.

The only thing missing is a Major League Baseball team, but North Carolina makes up for it with a long list of minor league teams that offer fans reasonably priced tickets, cheap beer and an early glimpse at promising players.

The Durham Bulls are well-known in the Triangle and beyond, made famous by the 1988 movie “Bull Durham.” As the AAA affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays, the Bulls are only one step away from The Show. (Charlotte also has a AAA team.)

But there are several lower-level teams, including those in Asheville, Burlington, Greensboro, Hickory, Kannapolis, Winston-Salem and Zebulon.

“We’re a hotbed here in North Carolina,” said Ryan Keur, general manager of the Burlington Royals, the rookie league team for Kansas City.

Hardcore baseball fans might be intrigued by the complicated minor league system that serves as the gateway to professional teams.

Rookie league teams start playing in mid- to late-June, two weeks after the Major League Baseball draft. The Burlington Royals play short-season rookie ball – 68 games that wrap up around Labor Day.

Many of the 30 or so Burlington Royals players are straight out of college, Keur said. “We’re the first stop for guys.”

I’ve been a baseball fan since I was old enough to read a scoreboard, and I rarely pass up an opportunity to check out a Durham Bulls or Carolina Mudcats game in the Triangle. I went to my first Burlington Royals game last month.

The Burlington Athletic Stadium is exactly what you’d expect from a small-town minor league team. Fans can sit close enough to feel like they’re part of the action, the crowd cheers at big plays, and catchy music plays over the sound system.

The 4,000-seat stadium underwent a $500,000 renovation during the offseason, Keur said. Crews installed new grandstand bleachers, protective netting and a children’s area that features a playground and inflatable rides.

Box-seat tickets are $9 each, and general admission is $7. As Keur says: “Cheaper than going to a movie theater.”

I opted for general admission when I went June 26 to see the Royals take on the Bluefield Blue Jays out of West Virginia. It wasn’t crowded, so I had my pick of seating along the first base line.

But first I stopped at the beer tent, where I ordered a large Red Oak for $7 and was thrilled to learn refills were only $5. Traditional baseball food was available – hot dogs, cheeseburgers, pretzels, Cracker Jacks, peanuts and cotton candy.

In the stands, the fans roared when two Royals players scored on a base hit to center field.

Maybe that’s what makes rookie league ball so much fun – the atmosphere in which anything is possible. These young players could do great things in baseball.

Salvador Pérez played in Burlington in 2008 and went on to be named the World Series Most Valuable Player when Kansas City won it all in 2015.

Baseball fans could easily embark on a summer tour of North Carolina’s teams, maybe in Zebulon and heading west to Asheville. It would be a great chance to celebrate the state’s baseball tradition, support small communities and marvel at some of these teams’ interesting mascots.

We have the Greensboro Grasshoppers, the Hickory Crawdads, the Kannapolis Intimidators and the Asheville Tourists. Then there’s the Winston-Salem Dash, which grammar nerds would argue should be called the Winston-Salem Hyphen.

College basketball

UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University both have museums dedicated to their storied men’s basketball programs, which many consider the best rivalry in college athletics. The Carolina Basketball Museum (nando.com/3v9), next to the Dean Smith Center, features photographs and videos, including tributes to coaches Dean Smith and Roy Williams and former players Michael Jordan and Tyler Hansbrough. Presentations also highlight the Tar Heels’ 18 Final Four appearances and 17 ACC tournament championships. The Duke Basketball Museum (nando.com/3va) is next to Cameron Indoor Stadium at the university’s campus in Durham. The museum has plenty of photos, videos and memorabilia to celebrate head coach Mike Krzyzewski and the team’s five national championships. Both museums are free and open to the public. N.C. State University is building a Walk of Fame in Reynolds Coliseum, which is undergoing renovations. The space, which is expected to open in September, will honor the Raleigh school’s sports history. (nando.com/3w6)

The Dale Trail

NASCAR fans can celebrate the life and legacy of Dale Earnhardt Sr. with the Dale Trail in Kannapolis, about 25 miles north of Charlotte. Earnhardt was born in Kannapolis in 1951 and maintained strong roots in the area as he went on to a successful driving career. The self-guided tour begins at the Cabarrus County Convention and Visitors Bureau, where visitors can pick up maps that lead the way to 20 stops. Next up is is Dale Earnhardt Boulevard, which opened in 1992 to much fanfare, and then the grave of Ralph Earnhardt, Dale’s father who was also a NASCAR driver. The tour includes the Car Town neighborhood, where the streets have names such as V-8, Chrysler, Dodge, Plymouth and Cadillac. Dale Sr. grew up in the area, and his mother, Martha, still lives in the family home, according to the visitors bureau. Back on the 600 block of Dale Earnhardt Boulevard, fans can stop at Curb Motorsports and check out the car he drove in the 1980 Winston Cup Championship. The biggest highlight of the tour is the Dale Earnhardt Plaza, which features a 9-foot, 900-pound bronze statue of the driver. Visitors must walk down seven steps to reach the statue – a nod to Earnhardt’s seven Winston Cup wins. Benches are in groups of three to honor his car number. Other stops include Punchy’s Diner, a Concord eatery that serves tomato sandwiches the way Earnhardt liked them, and the Charlotte Motor Speedway. (nando.com/3w8)

Asheboro Municipal Golf Course

Many golf enthusiasts know Donald Ross designed Pinehurst No. 2, the famous course at the Pinehurst Resort. But Ross also designed dozens of other courses in North Carolina, where golfers can play for a fraction of the cost while still enjoying – or loathing – Ross’ signature rolling greens. Ross, who was born in 1872 in Scotland, designed the Asheboro Municipal Golf Course, a nine-hole course built in the 1930s. Workers found the original design plans in town hall years ago, said Andy Nelson, head professional golfer at the course. Ross is credited with overseeing the transition of the putting greens at Pinehurst No. 2 from oiled sand to Bermuda grass for the 1935 PGA championship – a change that resulted in sloped greens that make for tricky shots. He also designed two other courses at Pinehurst, and golfers shell out a lot of money to play them. It can cost about $220 to play the Ross-designed No. 1 and No. 3 courses and about $480 to play No. 2. At the Asheboro Municipal Golf Course, golfers can pay $10 to walk the course all day. (nando.com/3wc)

One-Design Regatta

Sailing might not immediately come to mind when it comes to water sports, but the North Carolina coast offers a scenic atmosphere to navigate the seas yourself, or to just watch from the shore. Regattas are popular here, and the annual One-Design regatta in Manteo is a good opportunity to check out the sailing scene. This year’s 14th annual regatta is set for Saturday, July 30, and will feature Optimists, 420s, Sunfish and Topaz boats. The event draws beginners and advanced sailors, many from the Elizabeth City and New Bern areas, said Barry Wickre, manager of the Roanoke Island Maritime Museum in Dare County, a co-sponsor. Many regattas aren’t spectator-friendly because the boats aren’t visible, Wickre said. But the 20 to 25 boats racing in Shallowbag Bay during the One-Design Regatta can easily be seen from the pier. The family-friendly event concludes with a cookout and awards. Children who check out the regatta might decide they want to learn how to sail. The Roanoke Island Maritime Museum offers weeklong sailing lessons for ages 8 to 16. (nando.com/3wg)

Sports bars

Charlotte is a sports town with plenty of sports bars to check out Panthers and Hornets games. Blackfinn Ameripub is a favorite in uptown Charlotte – that means downtown Charlotte – for fans to watch the NBA’s Hornets, who play in the Time Warner Arena about a block away. When the eatery opened eight years ago, it was one of the first sports bars in uptown and remains a popular spot, with 26 flat-screen TVs and six projectors in the two-story space. (nando.com/3wh) Panthers fans should check out The Doghouse, near Bank of America Stadium, which hosts pre- and post-game parties.

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