Usually, when I go on one of these road trips, there is a “hook” that motivates me to visit the region in question. My first trip of 2014, which took place in late April and early May, brought me to the Southwest (and, later, Texas) because it seemed imperative to visit the El Paso Chihuahuas in this, their inaugural season. 2014’s second trip, which you are reading about now, was motivated by the desire to see the Huntsville Stars’ final season and the Charlotte Knights in their new ballpark.
This post will be devoted to the latter attraction. Welcome to Charlotte.
The above photo was taken from just outside of the Knights’ new home of BB&T Ballpark (No, I don’t like these generic corporate names either, but money talks. Sometimes I have fantasies about being super-rich and buying ballpark naming rights, which I’d then let the fans christen via an online “Name the Stadium” contest.)
BB&T Ballpark has all the bells and whistles one would expect from a gleaming new downtown (or, in this case, uptown) facility, but its most memorable feature isn’t part of the ballpark. It’s simply the fact that the Knights are once again in Charlotte, surrounded by what is almost certainly the best urban ballpark view in all of Minor League Baseball. After a quarter century in which the Knights competed across the state line (in Fort Mill, South Carolina), they are once again Charlotte’s team.
I walked to BB&T Ballpark from a nearby hotel, and my first view of the facility was this.
But I did not utilize this left field line entryway. My media pass was to be found closer to home plate, so further on I trekked. Along the way, I took note of these murals depicting Charlotte’s ballpark history.
A brief history of Charlotte’s Minor League ballparks. https://t.co/7z3zOIIo6w
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) June 9, 2014
During my long journey to another entrance, I made note of the fact that the NFL’s Carolina Panthers play just across the way. Surely, this photo will earn me some sort of award.
And, what do you know? Most of the Carolina Panthers were right there on the field, taking batting practice.
Some guys were more into it than others.
Hitting stances varied…
Carolina Panthers taking BP Charlotte Knights https://t.co/mGc2YDRnMn
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) June 9, 2014
But the undisputed star of the show was long snapper J.J. Jansen. He handily won the “home run derby” that was taking place (my notes are a little unclear, but the only other guy who I saw hit one was quarterback Joe Webb).
Jansen in action. I don’t know who this is, but my notes say “worst hitter, yellow shirt.” Some views from the playing field. Meanwhile, Jensen was reaping the spoils of victory. I felt happy for the guy, as his “day job” is one that gets no recognition whatsoever. The only time people give a second thought to the long snapper is when he messes up, kind of like driving a pace car or being an umpire. I flirted with the idea of interviewing some Carolina Panthers, but writing an article with the topic of “football players take batting practice” didn’t seem very appealing. Instead, I just soaked in the atmosphere. By the time I emerged on the concourse, there were already a lot of people roaming the concourse. When it comes to this ballpark, Charlotte fans are definitely still in the honeymoon period. (In fact, the Knights have already established a new attendance record.) I’ll write about some of the food offerings a bit later, but for now I’d just like to note that Dave & Frans (a popular Charlotte restaurant) sold pork rinds, boiled peanuts and sweet tea. These are three of my favorite things in the world. Moving on to the outfield — more vantage points! I had never seen a NEOS Wall at a ballpark before. In fact, I had never seen a NEOS Wall, period. But it was really cool, kind of like a Nintendo Power Pad for a new generation. Video games combined with exercise. But enough about NEOS. Pourin’ it was out there and, like soothing ointment on a flesh wound, the front office was putting the tarp on the field. This marked the fourth time on this trip in which I witnessed a rain delay. The weather, it was just not on my side.
BB&T Ballpark is equipped to handle many things, but it’s not quite equipped to comfortably accommodate a near-capacity crowd on the concourse. I’m not sure if many (or any) ballparks are.
The hoi polloi were packed in like sardines, but those with access to the upper club level (suite holders and such) had plenty of room to move.
A brief detour to the press box resulted in an impromptu meeting with Ernesto Hurtado, who produces the Knights’ Spanish language radio broadcasts. I wrote a story about that HERE.
After a brief rain delay, that evening’s scheduled contest between the Knights and Rochester Red Wings was ready to begin. What a beautiful ballpark atmosphere.
With the game underway, Knights media relations director Tommy Viola (one of the hardest working men in Minor League Baseball) took me on a little tour of the facility.
We started in the outfield.
On the whole, the Knights have taken a “fresh and local” approach to their concessions. One notable exception is that the team chose Buffalo-based Sahlen’s as the official hot dog provider. Tommy said that the front office taste-tested dozens of varieties, and simply decided that Sahlen’s was the superior product.
Some fans get their hot dog fix before the game, however, as 88-year-old Green’s Lunch is located across the street from the stadium. This iconic establishment has extended its hours in conjunction with the Knights’ home schedule.
In perusing Green’s menu, I noticed that they serve “livermush” as one of their breakfast side dishes. I had never heard of livermush, but it’s the scrapple of the south! Pig liver, head parts and cornmeal never looked so good. I would eat it, so long as it’s gluten free, and it just might be!
There’s no way to properly segue from livermush, so I won’t even bother. Moving on…
This is the “Home Run Porch,” a $10 standing room only area that has proven to be very popular in the early going (especially with the younger, Thirsty Thursday kind of crowd).
The Home Run Porch is a great place to watch the Charlotte sunset.
Turning in the other direction, one finds Romare Bearden Park. Named after the celebrated artist, this picturesque public space opened last year.
One can also see new apartment complexes, such as The Vue.
While on the Home Run Porch, I spoke for a few minutes with Knights vice-president Dan Rajkowski. He said that buildings such as The Vue are becoming commonplace in uptown Charlotte, and he expect to see another 1500 units built within the next year. The Knights plan to capitalize on their existence within this booming part of town by staging outside sporting events, festivals and concerts. There are also plans to develop a portion of what is now a massive berm seating area, adding a hotel and office buildings.
From the Home Run Porch, we made our way back to the press box. I can’t remember why we went to the press box, but while there I poked my head into the Knights’ control room. It takes a lot of manpower to run the widest scoreboard in Minor League Baseball!
Tommy and I then made a cameo at the Dugout Suites, a group area that is closer to home plate than the pitcher is.
Creeping up on Homer in the dugout suites Charlotte Knights https://t.co/zCTvUcURjG
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) June 10, 2014
Homer quickly became a good friend of mine.
— Homer the Dragon (@CLTKnightsHomer) June 10, 2014
The Dugout Suites offer remarkable access to the dugouts themselves.
This picture, I just like it.
I had to leave the Dugout Suites, as an indistinct yet unavoidable destiny awaited.
We had some downtime before the race was to begin, and I wanted to delay my entry into that MRI-like costume for as long as possible. Tommy and I wandered down the hall, so that I could interview veteran visiting clubhouse manager Eddie Waddell. He’s been with the Knights since the 1980s, and my story on him is HERE.
After wrapping things up with Eddie, I maneuvered my way into the Queen outfit and triumphantly ran to victory. (Is there any other way to run to victory?) However, the photos from this riveting competition are momentarily unavailable. We’ll just have to move on without them. Again, just know that I won.
Next thing I knew, I was staring at a plate of Queen City Cue pulled pork and mac and cheese. Queen City Cue is a Charlotte-based BBQ restaurant, one of several local eateries who have partnered with the Knights. Eric Hassey, general manager of Ovations concessions. told me bringing in the locals was “what we tried to do, and what we’re most proud of.”
Meet Matt Campbell, the evening’s designated eater (you know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark food that my gluten-free diet prohibits). Matt’s been a loyal reader of this blog for many years, which I greatly appreciate.
If Matt looks familiar, it’s because he’s been on this blog before (or maybe because you’re married to him). In 2011 he and his family visited me when I was in Winston-Salem to see the Dash.
But at this juncture of this particular evening, Matt was solo. He was enthusiastic about the Queen City Cue, saying that it was legit Carolinas-style BBQ and his meal of choice prior to attending Charlotte Checkers games.
“You can watch shows on who has the best BBQ, but we have the best,” he said. “We do it better than anyone in the country.”
(I know that there are a several regional variants within the Carolinas, and if anyone wants to provide their opinions on this matter then leave a comment or get in touch via your preferred forum.)
While Matt was pontificating about BBQ supremacy, Tommy and I ducked into the on-site Fuzzy Peach (frozen yogurt) store. There is an entrance from the street, and this place is open whether the Knights are playing or not.
No matter what flavor of frozen yogurt you go for, make sure to top it with a Gummi frog.
Don’t forget, there was a game going on through all of this.
Not just any dog, but the Carolina Dog. It was topped with chili and cole slaw.
Go ahead, Matt.
Matt, ever the Carolina loyalist, said that the slaw was not a traditional Carolina variety because “it’s not mayo-based at all.”
“But this is good, it’s tasty,” he continued. “I’ve had too many beers to now be eating a hot dog, but even though this is not your typical slaw it has a crisp, fresh flavor.”
And that’s all I’ve got from Matt. Tommy and I continued on to the team store, were one can buy a foam helmet if one so desires. These are popular with the Thirsty Thursday crowd.
We then stepped outside to check out the commemorative bricks, which are still available for purchase. (For $90 or $150, depending on the size).
“There are so many stories in these bricks,” said Tommy.
And who can ever forget this guy?
Hey, look! The Knights won! I saw about two and a half minutes of the ballgame, at three-to-five second intervals throughout the evening.
I actually attended the next afternoon’s game as well, and also made a pit stop at the team’s old home of Knights Stadium. But I might not have time to get to that, at least not in the immediate future. Just remind me that I owe you guys and gals (women read this, right?) another post from Charlotte.
Meanwhile, my next trip is fast approaching. Contact me with suggestions of any kind regarding each of the following ballparks. And if you want to be a “Designated Eater” at a park where that honor is available, then get in touch!
July 18: Akron RubberDucks
Designated Eater: Adam Ray, Joe Meadows
July 19: West Virginia Power
July 20: Columbus Clippers
July 21: Indianapolis Indians
Designated Eater: Greg Hotopp
July 22: Louisville Bats
July 23: Lexington Legends
July 24: Dayton Dragons
Designated Eater: George Coleman, Richie Devotie