On the Road: Keeping It Simple In Kannapolis
The Kannapolis Intimidators play 25 miles northeast of Charlotte, a major metropolitan area that is expanding to the point to where it may just swallow Kannapolis whole. But despite the proximity of Kannapolis to Charlotte, the Minor League Baseball atmosphere to be found in the two cities could not be any more different.
The Charlotte Knights — Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox — play in a beautiful new uptown stadium featuring the bells and whistles one would expect from a top-level Minor League team playing in a top-level Minor League market. (Click HERE for my blog entry on the Knights.) The Kannapolis Intimidators — Class A affiliate of those same Chicago White Sox — are something else entirely. CMC-Northeast Stadium is a wonderful place to take in a game, charmingly intimate and comparatively quiet. You can hear yourself think here. And while the crowds might be relatively small (especially on the rainy Tuesday evening in which I attended), there is an atmosphere of camaraderie and quirkiness that makes it a quintessential Minor League experience.
Simply put, I enjoyed seeing a game in Kannapolis more than I’ve enjoyed seeing a game in any other stadium during this, the 2014 season.
Unlike many Minor League parks, CMC Northeast Stadium is not located on a street which reflects the presence of a ballpark. No “Curveball Court” or “Home Run Avenue” or “Defensive Indifference Boulevard” to be found here. Rather, the 20-year-old facility resides on Moose Road. Once I turned onto Moose Road, I became convinced that I had entered the wrong address into my GPS. It was a most unassuming road, surrounded by trees and devoid of any commercial establishments.
But then — bam — there it was. A huge parking lot, leading to a not-so huge stadium.
The Intimidators franchise relocated to Kannapolis in 1995 from Spartanburg, South Carolina, beginning life as the Piedmont Phillies. They changed their name to the Boll Weevils the following season (Boll Weevils are an insect possessing an insatiable appetite for cotton, once a major problem in textile towns such as Kannapolis). NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, a Kannapolis native, purchased a share of the team in 2000 and this precipitated a name change to the Kannapolis Intimidators.
Dale Earnhardt was known as “The Intimidator,” of course, but he never got to see the Intimidators play. He was killed in a racing accident in February of 2001, but the Intimidators name still lives on.
My first view from inside the stadium:
A penthouse perspective:
The Intimidators have retired three numbers, only one of which is in honor of a baseball player. #50 is retired throughout the South Atlantic League in honor of John Henry Moss, who served as league president for 50 years. #42 is retired throughout the entirety of professional baseball in honor of Jackie Robinson. And #3 is, or course, Dale Earnhardt.
One can obtain booze under a canopy.
The food options are pretty basic, but we’ll get to that later.
At this juncture of the evening it was probably a pretty good idea to be standing under a nearby canopy. For, once again, I was witness to a pre-game rain delay. (In fact, the only game I saw on this trip that wasn’t affected in any way by rain was the Rome Braves.)
This certainly wasn’t the first time that the Intimidators front office pulled tarp this season. So, you want to work in Minor League Baseball?
During the rain delay I hung out in the press box with Intimidators broadcaster Josh Feldman and PA announcer Sean Fox. In Fox’s bio on the team website, it says “Sean has been the primary PA Announcer for Intimidators games since 2010. He wanted to be listed on the website. It was either this, or he’d have fans boo the website the same way he encourages you to boo BINGO numbers on Tuesday nights.”
It was indeed “BINGO Night” on the night I attended, and booing is indeed a tradition. We’ll get to that later. But first, here’s an exclusive look at Sean’s go-to sound effects. Baseball anthropologists should file this picture away, as it captures the Minor League zeitgeist.
And if you’re wondering, the “visitor home run” audio (F8) is Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much.”
I also spent time perusing through the team’s cd collection, which is no longer used. With a few exceptions, the music on this particular mix is just awful.
With not much else to do, I simply gazed upon the wonder that is the Intimidators’ eternal press box. These windows go on forever, each one depicting a small glance into an increasingly out of focus alternate Minor League Baseball reality.
Sean utilized his time in a more productive way. Namely, by initiating an impromptu rain delay BINGO game. The prize was a baseball autographed by the 2012 Charleston RiverDogs, which Feldman happened to have sitting on a nearby shelf.
And here’s Mr. Josh Feldman, the Intimidators announcer. Feldman’s path to his profession is an odd one. After being cut from the USC volleyball team he began calling the team’s games, mostly out of frustration with the fact that no one else seemed to know anything about volleyball. This led to an interest in broadcasting, which led to a stint with an Indy League team which led to his current gig with the Intimidators. You should listen to the dude, he’s erudite.
The rain, like bull riding or sumo wrestling, was intense but brief. While waiting for the game to begin, I did a little wandering.
But my wanderings were cut short, as Feldman tracked me down and said that since I was a ceremonial first pitch throwing professional I should throw out a ceremonial first pitch.
It all happened so fast that I didn’t have time to strap on my recently-acquired GoPro camera.
I threw a strike. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. And while I neglected to take a picture, the Intimidators give all ceremonial first pitch throwers a team-signed baseball. I gave mine away, but how cool is that? I’d never seen such a thing before.
With the game underway, I spent an inning or two with Debby and Marshall Smith. They are members of the Intimidators Booster Club, and very passionate when it comes to supporting the players (who are mostly in their early 20s and in some cases away from home for the first time).
My feature on the Smiths and their work with the Intimidators Booster Club can be found HERE.
The Smiths sit in second-row seats located down the third base line, but those seeking more rustic accommodations can certainly find them.
Walking on the concourse, toward home plate, I stopped and chatted briefly with a couple named Heather and Mike. Mike started following me on Twitter on the spot, which Heather said is an honor because he hardly follows anyone on Twitter. I said that I’d give them a shout-out on the blog, so here you go: Hello, Heather. Hello, Mike.
And hello, Paul Buchanan!
At the ballpark, very few people know this gentleman as Paul Buchanan. He is the “Uh-Huh Guy,” and he is a real character. I wrote a feature on him, which I’d ask that you take the time to read. If not, here’s an introductory excerpt:
The Uh-Huh Guy wears an “Uh-Huh” hat and an “Uh-Huh” T-shirt (both custom made), and punctuates his ear-splitting ballpark cheers and jeers with his signature phrase of — you guessed it — “Uh-huh!” And throughout the ballgame, it’s not just the Uh-Huh Guy’s voice that travels. He always wears a glove and is always on the move, pacing the concourse in a constant pursuit of foul balls.
Kannapolis call and response.
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) June 11, 2014
After interviewing the Uh-Huh Guy (which, let me assure you, is no easy task), I was approached by “Raider Rock.”
Raider Rock wrestles for $5 Wrestling, an organization with the tagline “Wrestling So Bad It’s Good.” You don’t want to mess with Raider Rock.
Raider Rock could generally be found in close proximity to the Uh-Huh Guy, making for one of the most eccentric ballpark duos I’ve ever seen. I heard him yelling his “Dominate, Terminate and Exterminate” tagline throughout the evening, but to me he said “I’ve heard good things about you, Ben, and if I’ve heard good things you know it’s good.”
Thanks, Raider Rock. Keep doing what you’re doing!
Anyway, time to play some BINGO.
I even called a few numbers myself, with the help of promotions director Amber Sersen (who has since moved on to a position with the American Hockey League’s Charlotte Checkers . A lot can happen in a month). My selections were indeed met with a smattering of boos, but the crowd seemed to go pretty easy on me.
The balls I grabbed were white. Here’s a look at the board at the end of the half-inning break.
I really liked BINGO Night, which suited the quiet Tuesday night atmosphere. As opposed to frenetic blasts of activity every half-inning, this was a fun, low-key contest that kept the fans engaged throughout the game. Kannapolis was the seventh city (and ninth ballpark) I’d visited in the last seven days, so I was feeling a little burned out and grateful for the change of pace.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same…
That shadowy figure is Matt Campbell, reprising his role as designated eater (you know, the individual recruited to consume the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits). The previous night in Charlotte, Matt l had enjoyed Queen City Cue and a Carolina Dog. Today, he had the Colossal Dog to contend with.
“It’s a half-pound monster,” said Matt. “The team used to have a stand called Hot Dog Hut, where you could get a wide variety of toppings. But I’d order this again, even if its naked and I have to squeeze the condiments from out of a dispenser.”
Okay! Moving on, we have something a little more unique.
This is a “Dale’s Mater Sandwich” — tomato, mayo and pepper on white bread. It was a childhood favorite of Dale Earnhardt (hence the name), and, as it turns out, it was a childhood favorite of Matt’s as well.
“I was raised on these,” said Matt. “Like on a Sunday afternoon, you’re with your cousins at the pool and you have a tomato sandwich. This one is pretty good. The tomatoes appear to be relatively fresh.”
And, at $2, this is one of the cheapest sandwich options in Minor League Baseball.
As Matt finished up with his Dale’s Mater, I checked in on Feldman and company in the press box.
In fact, I even took a little video of Feldman at work. I recorded it in improper vertical fashion, but nonetheless I think this is worth watching. It gives a nice sense of the Kannapolis atmosphere, in which everybody seems to know everybody.
Speaking of everybody knowing everybody — soon after I left the press box I heard a voice behind me. “Hey, Ben.”
That’s Charlotte Knights general manager Scott Brown. The Knights had played a day game (which I had attended), and Scotty took advantage of his free evening by driving out to Kannapolis.
“I just like to come here, sit down, throw my peanut shells down on the ground, and relax,” he told me. “This is what it’s all about.”
This inspired me. When was the last time that I had actually sat down and watched the game? When had I thrown some peanut shells on the ground?
The time was now.
South Atlantic League baseball, Tuesday night after a rain delay edition.
I watched the final two innings with Matt, his father-in-law, and step-daughter. There was some mild ribbing of this guy’s hair.
And a debate regarding whether anyone could spell this guy’s name correctly on the first attempt.
The game ended in a frustrating fashion, as an Inimidators rally was snuffed out after an extremely delayed third strike call. It was definitely a deer-in-the-headlights “rookie moment” for the umpire, and helped clinch the first-half division championship (it became official the next day).
To add insult to injury, the tarp was then put on the field as a precaution. Feldman tried to convince me to join in the fun, but I bailed due to a lack of proper tarp-pulling clothing. But, next time, this excuse isn’t going to fly. I have since been informed that the Intimidators have a bin full of so-called “tarp shoes,” ready and waiting for reluctant tarp-pullers such as myself.
Next time, guys. Next time.
That’ll do it for posts related to my second road trip of the season, but trip number three starts now! 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
(team is recruiting)
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