Charlotte is at the highest level of minor league baseball, although my ballpark visit there turned out to be highly consistent with the phrase “bush leagues.”
Dubbed the Queen City (it was named in 1765 after Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III of Britain), Charlotte isn’t actually the home for the AAA Knights, and the team doesn’t even play in North Carolina. The city isn’t far from the South Carolina state line, and that’s what I passed over en route to Fort Mill, 15 miles south of downtown, and Knights Stadium, which opened in 1990.
The relatively non-descript ballpark is located directly off of Interstate 77 and sits adjacent to the now useless Charlotte Hornets practice facility. The first thing you notice is the towering height of the light towers and the ample parking, which is free.
Knights Stadium became the 26th minor league park I had visited since the beginning of 2001, but it was the first one I’ve been to that had an upper deck, which was the home of the $5 general admission seats. For some odd reason, the team uses different colors to mark the end seats on each row in the lower deck, and the upper deck’s seats are painted an unattractive rainbow of pastel colors.
The ballpark feels much older than its age and more spacious due to its lack of surroundings, which consist of a forest that runs to within 50 feet of the outfield walls. The seating bowl doesn’t extend very far past either dugout, and the remaining vast expanse consists of a grassy berm that is only used for overflow crowds on Fireworks nights.
The stadium also has a merry-go-round and putt-putt golf course, which went relatively unused on my night of attendance. Among other amenities were a bar and restaurant atop the press box, and Subway and Wendy’s are a part of the concession fare. Perhaps the nicest gesture by the team is the stacks of complimentary programs, Joust, that await fans just inside the main gate.
When I first walked into the stadium, I headed for the bathroom and found it odd that the lights were not yet turned on. Since I was an early arrival I figured that the team was trying to save money by waiting until closer to game time to turn them on. As I read my program in my seat, I didn’t pay much attention to the lack of music, announcements, or even players on the field. But as the 7:15 game time approached it became increasingly apparent that the team wasn’t trying to be cheap; a power outage that occurred around 5:30 was threatening the viability of the game between the Knights and Pawtucket Red Sox.
As 7:00 neared players remained in their warm-ups and a few Pawtucket players were tossing a football near the visitors dugout. Suddenly at 6:59 power was restored and the game would go on, with a new starting time of 7:30.
Unfortunately for the home fans, of which there were few, the Knights were getting pummeled by the time the eighth inning rolled around, when things turned interesting.
With Pawtucket leading 5-1, the Knights brought in Brooks Kieschnick and the Red Sox lit him up for four runs in two-thirds of an inning. But as Kieschnick was walking back to the dugout after getting the hook the power suddenly went out again, with the exception of one bank of lights in left field.
So I found myself sitting in the suburban South Carolina wilderness in near darkness waiting out another power delay in a 9-1 blowout while the PA system played Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” and other relevant tunes. I found it amusing that the “Stadium Lights Are Always On” is the official motto for the team’s website.
Figuring that they were going to call the game, the few remaining fans headed for the exits, until an announcement was made that anyone staying until the game’s conclusion would receive a free pass to any future Knights game.
The attendance was generously announced at 2,918, but it was the sparsest gathering of its size that I had ever witnessed. Not that no-shows at the 10,002-seat stadium are uncommon. Although the Knights led all of AA baseball in attendance in 1991 and 1992 when they were in the Southern League, attendance has dwindled since the Knights became a AAA franchise when the International League expanded in 1993.
With the exception of the IL’s one Canadian team in Ottawa, the Knights have the worst attendance in the league, even though home attendance was up more than 50 percent when slugger Jose Canseco played for the team in May of 2002. He decided to officially retire after hitting only .172 with 5 home runs and 9 RBIs in 18 games. His performance wasn’t enough to return him to the big leagues, and fans began to disappear after he left. Ironically, Canseco’s biggest complaint while a Knight was that the lighting made him unable to see the spin of the ball.
After 17 minutes power was back, the game resumed, and Pawtucket continued its onslaught with a pair of solo homers in the ninth inning in an 11-2 whipping of the Knights. With a pass for a free ticket in hand, I left a long night at Knights (Out) Stadium behind, which the team hopes to do before too long.
Charlotte has discussed building a new downtown ballpark, but talks stalled after the city turned its efforts to luring an NBA team back to town after the Hornets bolted for New Orleans, and a new downtown basketball arena will replace the 14-year “old” Charlotte Coliseum before the Knights return to North Carolina.