CHARLOTTE — The iconic line in the Hollywood movie “Field of Dreams” – “If you built it, they will come” – came true for the Charlotte Knights Friday night, the dawn of a new era for the Triple-A club.
After a quarter-century in Fort Mill, the new $54 million BB&T Ballpark opened Friday with all the festivities one might expect, as a standing-room-only crowd jammed into the intimate confines of the new uptown Charlotte home of the Knights, who lost to Norfolk 8-6 in 12 innings.
Dignitaries from around the city of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, Minor League Baseball and the International League were all on hand. Even Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory showed up.
“Baseball is officially back where it belongs in Charlotte, North Carolina,” said Don Beaver, majority owner of the Knights in a pregame speech on the field.
Former Knights slugger and 22-year Major League veteran Jim Thome threw the first pitch. Thome played one full season with the Knights in 1993 and had a small stop again in 2007, when he played in five games on a rehab stint.
This was Thome’s first time back in the Charlotte area since that last cup of coffee with the Knights. Back then, the Knights called Fort Mill home.
Thome, now working with the Knights’ parent club, the Chicago White Sox, said opening day is something every player looks forward too, and opening day at a new ball park stands out in one’s mind.
“There is no other feeling like it,” he said. “I remember mine like no other day. There is that tunnel vision you get.”
Members of the Tega Cay 8 and under and 9 and above baseball teams were the first Little League-aged teams to join the Knights’ players on the field before the game. Pregame ceremonies pushed the 7:05 p.m. start time back 36 minutes.
The stadium’s seating holds 10,200 fans, but 10,231 crowded into the venue for the first game at BB&T Ballpark. Unlike the old Knights Stadium in Fort Mill, the seating in the new park wraps around the stadium, which isn’t far from where the NFL’s Carolina Panthers play.
The Charlotte skyline dominates the view from center field to right field. Behind left field, four giant trees separate the stadium from the other parts of the city.
Straightaway center field measures 400 feet. The left-field line is 330 and the right-field line is 315, as the ballpark is very friendly to hitters.
Knights Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President Dan Rajkowski started his pregame speech by saying to the fans, “welcome to your house.”
Charlotte resident Mike Crowther agreed with Rajkowski, saying BB&T Ballpark is what minor-league stadiums should be. A season-ticket holder this season, Crowther said he would make the trip to Fort Mill last year about two or three times a year and said the two venues don’t compare.
Knights Stadium “didn’t have a lot of character,” Crowther said. “It was real bland and had a lot of concrete.
“This is a prototype minor-league urban stadium. There isn’t a bad seat in the house. You have great views. They did a great job.”
However, one fan’s opinion captured the sentiment of what the front office and Knights players felt about their new home compared to the one in Fort Mill.
“It is a different feel,” Rajkowski said. “But it’s different for my field staff when they come to work, its different when we come to work. And that isn’t a knock by any means on the building we were in, in Fort Mill. There is just something special about the newness. And we have already sold out the first few nights, and the players are going to be playing in front of full houses every night, which changes the way you play the game.”
Rajkowski has become a pro at opening stadiums. He helped the Double-A Tennessee Smokies build a ballpark around the turn of the century. He said the energy a new ballpark brings to a team helps in many ways.
“I have been fortunate to have done this in Tennessee and remember it very fondly,” he said. “It is very emotional because you know you have spent so much time and energy doing something. It is special for all of us.”
Knights pitcher Charlie Leesman, who spent parts of the past two seasons playing for Charlotte in Fort Mill, didn’t hold back his feelings about leaving the old Fort Mill stadium.
“It was a dump,” he said. “Sorry to say it, but it was a dump. This is immaculate compared to that. So (the players) couldn’t be happier. It doesn’t even feel like we are in the same city anymore. It feels like a completely different place. We are pumped for that.”
Leesman said it’s more than just being in a new stadium, but being in a city that can provide a lot is beneficial as well.
“Even the apartments we will be living in are brand new,” Leesman added.
“They just finished building them, like, a month ago. When you have a great city to live in at home and you have a great city to play in, it makes it easier. Being at home compared to being in a place you didn’t want to be in like in Fort Mill. For one, you live 25 minutes from the stadium and have to drive there every day, and when you get there you don’t want to be there because it’s a dump.”
Accessibility is is a factor as well, said Leesman.
“This is more of a Triple-A atmosphere this year than last year was or the year before. We lived in Ballantyne last year and it was nice, but the drive was quite a distance,” he said.
“It’s nice we live walking-distance from the field. Everything is around here. Uptown is awesome. Restaurants are everywhere. It makes it that much easier for us. When we are at home, the guys don’t mind being at the park because it’s new and it’s nice. It’s a great situation for us to be in.”
The Knights struggled for more than a decade to draw fans to Fort Mill. According to final attendance reports from the International League website from 1993 through 2013, the Knights have finished either second-to-last or last in attendance in the 14-team International League every year since 2002.
Since the Knights joined the International League in 1993, they have always finished in the lower third of attendance.
Despite having nearly the same seating capacity as Knights Stadium did in Fort Mill, BB&T Ballpark has an energy that the venue near Gold Hill Road lacked.
“The key point is the fans,” said Knights Manager Joel Skinner. “We are in the entertainment business, and when you have a venue like this and the fans come out, it creates a great atmosphere for the fans and the players alike. I think they will really like this ballpark.”