Charlotte’s baseball parks have reflected city’s identity

Charlotte’s baseball parks have reflected city’s identity
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Baseball really does mark the time, even in Charlotte.

That was my takeaway from last week’s news that Baseball America named Charlotte’s BB&T Ballpark the best park in the minors. It felt like a culmination, a small milestone, validation that there’s nothing wrong with being a major draw on a minor stage.

Perhaps most importantly, it told me Charlotte has embraced its baseball identity.

I’ve seen the local nine play in four parks in two states during parts of four decades. But those parks have been more than baseball fields. Looking back, each one ushered in a new phase of Charlotte’s baseball evolution that also reflected the city’s greater personality at the time.

From an old, wooden park to a modern, center-city stadium, here’s a look at the city’s recent baseball parks and what they said about Charlotte:

Clark Griffith Park/Crockett Park (original) — 1940-1985

The facts: Built in 1940 in the Dilworth area with a capacity of about 5,000, the wooden Clark Griffith Park was home to the Charlotte Hornets, an affiliate of the Washington Senators and later the Minnesota Twins, until the early 1970s, when pro baseball left the city for a few years. It was renovated and renamed Crockett Park in 1976 after wrestling promoter Jim Crockett Jr. bought the Asheville Orioles, Baltimore’s Double-A affiliate, and moved them to Charlotte. The park housed the team until a March 16, 1985, fire — later ruled arson — destroyed the structure.

Atmosphere: Crockett Park was a gritty, colorful minor-league stadium, with the typical billboard advertisements lining the outfield wall and rickety-looking light towers that stood guard in front of a backdrop of trees. The wood construction was a key personality trait.

“Crockett Park was an amazing place. It felt old and dingy, no question, but when you wandered in there, you could not help but feel like you were wandering into another time. A wood ballpark smells a little bit different. It feels a little bit different. You half expected men in fedoras to walk in.” — Sportswriter Joe Posnanski, writing about Crockett Park for Sports Illustrated.

It reflected Charlotte because … The team’s Double-A status and the park’s cozy, unique feel pointed to a big-ish, charming yet rough-around-the-edges Southern city that harbored grander aspirations. But despite the park’s charm, there were dozens of similar-looking parks around the country — just as Charlotte could’ve easily been lost in a mix of similar-sounding cities: Charleston, Charlottesville, Port Charlotte. Unless you were local, you probably didn’t know much — or care much — about either. We definitely needed the “N.C.” after our name.

Among the big names to play there: Hall-of-famers Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken Jr. 

Memories: I have a vague memory of going to a game at the original Crockett Park as a kid somewhere around 1984-ish. I don’t remember particulars, but I have a mental image of sitting about halfway up the bleachers, just to the third-base side of home plate.

Crockett-Park

Crockett-Park-Charlotte

Crockett Park 1.5/Knights Park — 1985-1988

The facts: After the fire, the team hastily assembled a 3,000-seat makeshift replacement stadium on the site for the 1985 season. The O’s played a few seasons there and eventually were renamed the Knights. The park was also briefly known as Knights Park.

Atmosphere: It was the definition of no frills, consisting mainly of metal bleachers like you’d find at a small college baseball stadium, or perhaps a fancy high school. The set-up was even more intimate than the old Crockett Park.

It reflected Charlotte because … The city was forward-looking, eager to overcome setbacks.

Among the big names to play there: Curt Schilling.

Memories: I had my 12th birthday there in 1988 — the final season before the team left the city limits for more than two decades. Our seats were right beside the Knights’ bullpen down the third-base line. The setting was so intimate that we were able to easily talk to the pitchers, who were maybe five feet away. One pitcher, whose name I can’t remember, was swinging a broken bat to pass time. I thought maybe he’d let me have it because I was a kid. I remember the conversation went like this:

“What are you gonna do with that bat?”

“Swing with it.”

That was it.

He was polite, but the implication was clear: Shut up, kid. You ain’t gettin’ this bat.

Earlier that night, I was the first to correctly answer the park’s nightly trivia question. The prize was a voucher for a free soda. Happy birthday to me.

There are apparently no easily accessible photographs from this incarnation of Crockett Park. I even asked the Knights, but PR man Tommy Viola said he didn’t know of any.

Today, the Olmsted Park development sits where Crockett Park once stood on Magnolia Avenue.

Knights Castle/Stadium — 1989-2013

The facts: Original Charlotte Hornets (the NBA version) owner George Shinn bought the team in 1987 and, after two season at the rebuilt Crockett Park, he moved it just over the state line to Fort Mill, S.C., where the Knights played the 1989 season at a temporary facility while a 10,000-seat stadium was built nearby. That stadium, first called Knights Castle but later renamed Knights Stadium, housed the team from 1990 through 2013. The Knights became a Triple-A team in 1993 and were affiliated through the years with the Cleveland Indians, Florida Marlins and Chicago White Sox.

Atmosphere: The word that most comes to mind when I think of Knights Stadium: boring. Despite being a structural upgrade from Crockett Park, it had zero allure or personality. There was never a “place to be” vibe. Plus, being in rural York County, S.C., you felt like you were in the middle of nowhere. Games, bouncy houses, between-innings activities and fireworks shows offered a little variety for families, but ultimately baseball was the best reason to be there. As an experience, though, it just wasn’t worth a 30-minute or longer drive down Interstate 77. Even when I lived in Fort Mill, less than 10 minutes from the stadium, it wasn’t high on my list of places to go. Many others agreed, as the Knights were often near or at the bottom of the league in attendance, despite having some good seasons on the field.

“It was simply built at the wrong time — just before the ‘retro’ trend came along that dictated ballparks be built downtown and more be intimate. . … There is nothing unique or interesting about this park and there was very little care put into the design of it.” — BallparkReviews.com on Knights Stadium

Knights

It reflected Charlotte because … In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the city was trying hard to build a “world class” status. The arrival of the Hornets gave the city a major-league identity, and the Carolina Panthers would soon give that a major boost. Some hoped Knights Stadium would open the door further. It was designed for expansion should Charlotte land a Major League Baseball franchise. That didn’t happen, but it reflected a city that saw itself on the verge of stardom. But wait, some would say, is Charlotte in North Carolina or South Carolina? There was still confusion among outsiders.

Among the big names to play there: Former MLB stars Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez.

Memories: I probably went to 20 or so games at Knights Stadium. I have three standout memories: 1) When the team hosted the Cleveland Indians in an exhibition game in 1993; 2) The time my friends and I were invited onto the field to play “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on kazoos during the seventh-inning stretch; and 3) Seeing the final game at the stadium. My wife and I took our two boys on Sept. 2, 2013, to see the Knights play the Gwinnett Braves. Here’s the last pitch ever at the stadium.

Last-Pitch

Despite these and other good memories, I have no sentimentality for Knights Stadium. I’m guessing few people do.

BB&T Ballpark — 2014-present

The facts: The 10,200-seat BB&T Ballpark was constructed at a cost of $54 million and opened for the 2014 season, bringing pro baseball to the city for the first time in 26 years. The Knights led the International League in attendance during the park’s first season, averaging nearly 9,700 fans per game.

Atmosphere: It’s the antithesis of Knights Stadium. It’s festive and energetic. Even though the newness has started to wear off, the park remains a big draw. The modern design allows good views of the field from any seat, food options are strong and the skyline backdrop offers the type of major-league view not often found in a minor-league park.

“It is the best minor league facility I have ever visited, and it’s not particularly close.” — A minor-league radio announcer discussing BB&T Ballpark in Baseball America.

It reflects Charlotte because … BB&T Ballpark matches Charlotte in the 21st century: Modern, energetic, fun. The park helps cement Charlotte’s big-city cred because it’s now among the major cities with baseball played in the heart of downtown. The city has long outgrown a Crockett Park or a Knights Stadium, but BB&T’s size accurately measures the city’s likely long-term interest in baseball: We like it, but we don’t love it. Charlotte seems content being in the minors — as far as baseball is concerned. And that’s OK because minor-league ball is plenty fun. The Hornets and the Panthers scratched that big-league itch and made Charlotte a major sports town. Baseball is a bonus. Oh, we can definitely drop the “N.C.” now.

Among the big names to play there: Too soon to tell.

Memories: I’ve just been to one game at BB&T, mostly because my work schedule hasn’t allowed more. But I’d like to make it more of a tradition. My oldest son loves baseball. I love baseball too. What better way to grow that classic father-son bond than in a home ballpark.

BB&T-Ballpark

There are some who believe Charlotte could support an MLB team. I’m not one of them. As cool as a major-league team would be, I don’t think the support would last long. The things that make the Knights a nice draw — affordability, the big-but-not-too-big stadium, decent parking, etc. — would almost certainly go away if the majors came calling. And for most people, those would be deal-breakers.

Besides, a major-league team would probably require a new stadium elsewhere in town. BB&T was not built with an eye on eventually housing an MLB team.

“BB&T Ballpark was designed to be a Minor League ballpark,” Viola told me in an email.

Former Atlanta Braves great Dale Murphy once told me that he loved visiting Charlotte because it’s “just the right size.”

I agree. That extends to baseball, too.

The Knights, BB&T Ballpark and minor-league baseball are just the right size for Charlotte.

And I think we’re OK with that.

Jason Foster is a native Charlottean and a longtime journalist. Contact: jason@charlotteagenda.com or @ByJasonFoster

Crockett Park photos courtesy of DigitalBallParks.com

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