It sure takes a lot of work to play ball.
That was made clear once again at the Charlotte Knights’ groundbreaking Friday for their $54 million uptown stadium, which is scheduled to open a couple of blocks from the Carolina Panthers’ stadium in just 19 months.
This project has been on and off for years. Jerry Reinsdorf, who is chairman of both the Chicago Bulls and the Chicago White Sox (the parent club of the Class AAA Knights) came to Charlotte on Friday for the groundbreaking. It was a day Reinsdorf once thought would never come.
“There was clearly a point when I thought that (Knights majority owner Don Beaver) couldn’t pull this off,” Reinsdorf said. “I just didn’t think he would get it done, that the politics were working against him. He had such patience. I know I would have thrown up my arms and started swearing at everybody. I would have told them I had other things to do with my life.”
For more than two decades, the Knights have had a “yes, but” sort of first name – as in “Yes, they are called the Charlotte Knights, but they actually play in Fort Mill, S.C.”
Charlotte hasn’t had minor-league baseball for 24 years, since then-owner George Shinn moved the Knights out of the creaky but beloved Crockett Park and into South Carolina after the 1988 season.
Now opening day in Charlotte is set for April 2014.
I’m not a huge baseball guy, but I can’t wait. I have seen a lot of other cities in America where minor-league baseball has increased the quality of life. BB&T Ballpark will do the same in Charlotte’s Third Ward.
Will the Knights’ attendance actually double, as they predict (from 4,200 to more than 8,000 per game)? Will the economic benefit be as rosy as some projections?
I doubt it. But baseball ultimately will be good for the center city, adding another planet for people and businesses to orbit around and an affordable alternative for families looking for a night out.
The Knights and the city of Charlotte have been trying to make this happen for years, grappling over money, complicated land swaps and various legal challenges.
Dan Rajkowski didn’t have gray hair or reading glasses when he was hired as the Knights’ general manager in 2005 and immediately began working on the stadium issue. Now Rajkowski has both.
“It’s been real and it’s been fun, but I can’t say it’s been real fun,” Rajkowski joked of the stadium’s gestation period.
But finally, there it was Friday. There was a temporary home plate set in the dirt, along with the obligatory shovels and silly pictures of men wearing both suits and hard hats, and most of all the feeling that something great finally was going to happen.
They will start work on the job site Monday.
Waiting in the wings, of course, is some sort of obstacle. Anyone who has built a house – much less a stadium – knows this.
“It just never, ever goes smoothly,” said Reinsdorf, who has been instrumental in building a couple of them himself in Chicago. “Anything that can possibly go wrong will go wrong. But they will get it done.”
Another wild card is Jerry Reese, the Charlotte attorney who dreams of a major-league baseball team in Charlotte. Reese has filed at least five lawsuits trying to block an uptown minor-league stadium. Even though his lawsuits generally get dismissed, they also have had the desired effect – slowing the Knights’ stadium progress to a crawl until the recession did the rest of the work.
Reese came to the groundbreaking Friday, he told an Observer reporter, but he would not comment to her about what his next move might be.
“I can’t control that,” Rajkowski said when I asked if he thought more legal challenges remained from Reese. “I fully suspect we’ll continue to see things, but that’s not something we’re concerned about.”
What Rajkowski worries about now are the fun problems. Making sure the Charlotte skyline can be seen from home plate. Selling sponsorships. And deciding who’s going to throw out that first pitch.
Reinsdorf said what would be built in Charlotte likely would be the finest minor-league baseball stadium in America.
Much like Reinsdorf, I’m still somewhat amazed it’s being built at all.
But baseball is the game with no time limit, and this has been the ballpark with no time limit. Eventually, it will rise, and our city will be better for it.