FORT MILL — This is part II of a series looking back at Knights Stadium during the final months of the team’s existence in Fort Mill.
Knights players have come and Knights players have gone, and through it all have been Gene Fortner and John Ansell.
Die-hard Charlotte Knights fans, both were season ticket holders before the team arrived in Fort Mill in 1989, back when when the team was still called the Charlotte O’s. Fortner has been a season ticket holder since 1978 and Ansell since 1986.
And nothing will change next year when the Knights move into a new, 10,000-seat, $54 million stadium in uptown Charlotte.
When the Knights, the Triple-A farm club of the Chicago White Sox, move, so will Fortner and Ansell. They have secured seats next to each other, just like they currently have at Knights’ home games in Fort Mill – right along the first base dugout in the front row.
The two are not just fans, they are Knights loyalists. So much so, that by the end of the season, Fortner will have seen his 1,620th Knights game.
“I was in the hospital two weeks (in 1995), my father-in-law died, and I missed one game because it was the last game the Charlotte Checkers played in the old Coliseum,” he said. “Other than that, I have seen every game.”
For Ansell, who has kept a scorecard for every game he’s attended, having Fortner and the Knights around is like having family with him at the game.
“It really is like home,” Ansell said. “He and I will be sitting next to each other in the new ballpark. That is the best part of it.”
Ansell and Fortner didn’t start sitting near each other until the Knights moved to Fort Mill, despite attending the majority of the same games. Ansell actually witnessed Fortner take a foul ball to the face in 1985 during a Southern League playoff game. It was off the bat of Huntsville’s Luis Polonia, and it broke Fortner’s jaw.
Fortner didn’t leave the game until after the final out.
“It was the greatest game ever played in that ballpark,” Fortner said. “It was the playoffs.”
Ansell understood why Fortner couldn’t leave.
“Nine-run rally in the last two innings,” Ansell said. “We were down 9-0 and won 10-9.”
The eventual friends finally met in 1989, while the Knights were playing in Fort Mill at a temporary location, waiting for the construction of Knights Stadium to be completed.
“I had to walk across John to get to my seat,” Fortner said. “So I stop and speak to him and another gentleman, and we all became friends.”
Some of Fortner’s best memories of the Knights in Fort Mill include the team winning the International League championship in 1993 and 1999. There are a couple of players who came through Fort Mill that stand out to him. The first was future Hall of Famer Jim Thome.
“He was just a country kid learning to play ball,” Fortner said. “He went on to make something of himself.”
Another player Fortner got to know pretty well, who might not jump to the front of one’s mind, was Lucas Harrell, who pitched for the Knights from 2009-2011. Harrell also pitched in Kannapolis, the Single-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. Fortner, who also goes to their games, met him there.
“We got to know Lucas pretty well,” he said. “IHe would come up and sit with us when he was at rehab assignments in Kannapolis and we really got to know him.”
Both Ansell and Fortner agree that coming to Knights Stadium for the past 24 years has become a home away from home.Fortner lives in Landis, N.C., 46.2 miles away from Knights Stadium one way. He knows because he has tracked it over the years. Ansell lives a little closer in Charlotte, so it’s only 18.5 miles to Knights Stadium for him. Once the Knights are back in the Queen City, it will cut off about 20 miles for Fortner on his trips to the ballpark and 14.5 miles for Ansell.
Fortner said he has mixed feelings about the team moving back to Charlotte, but understands the business aspect behind it. Fortner said it wasn’t hard to adjust to the team moving from Charlotte to Fort Mill, as it might be with them moving from Fort Mill back to Charlotte.
“I don’t want to leave here,” Fortner said. “It’s a familiar place. It’s been our home for 24 years. We know where everybody is and our little meeting places. It’s easy to get in and out. But I would rather them move downtown Charlotte than lose the team.”
So when April 11, 2014, rolls around, and the first pitch is thrown at the Knights’ BB&T Stadium in uptown Charlotte, you won’t have to look far to see two familiar faces in the crowd.
They will be the two guys who have been sitting together for nearly a quarter of a century.