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Charlotte hits a homerun

If you’re new to Charlotte, and like baseball and football and being outside, your timing is impeccable.

The Charlotte Knights, the Class AAA affiliate, will play next season in a stunning new stadium in downtown Charlotte. A lot of people, incidentally, refer to downtown Charlotte as “uptown.” They also refer to bowling alleys as bowling centers. The best way to deal with these people? Don’t.

The Knights have played the past 24 seasons in Fort Mill. Fort Mill is in South Carolina. Many fans were reluctant to cross the border to watch a minor league baseball game.

The new ballpark will accommodate 10,000 fans. Two blocks west is Bank of America Stadium, where the Carolina Panthers play. Less than a mile away is Time Warner Cable Arena, where the Charlotte Bobcats play.

You’ll hear that nobody in Charlotte cares about the NBA Bobcats. It’s a refrain that won’t go away. It won’t go away even though it has no credibility.

With the fourth pick in June’s NBA draft the Bobcats selected Indiana’s Cody Zeller. The Zeller debate went on for weeks. Fans don’t debate issues they don’t care about.

Zeller is 7-feet-tall and athletic, a power forward. The Bobcats also made the biggest free-agent move in franchise history when they signed center Al Jefferson, a large and deft low-post scorer. The Bobcats were the worst team in the league two seasons ago and the next to worst last season. They won’t suddenly contend. But, because they play in the user-friendly East, they at least are in position to win half their games. If you’re an NBA fan, your timing is good there, too.

The NFL is the most popular sport in almost every major league market in the country, and the Panthers are by far the most popular team in Charlotte.

Fans are loyal to North Carolina, N.C. State, Duke, Wake Forest, South Carolina, Clemson, East Carolina, Davidson and Charlotte among other schools during football and basketball seasons. Many also are loyal to the NFL teams with which they grew up, as the preponderance of visiting teams’ jerseys attest on Sunday afternoons.

But the Panthers are Charlotte’s team. When they lose, you can see it in the body language on the street and in restaurants and coffee houses Monday morning. When they lose you can often pick up a ticket for the next home game at face value outside the stadium.

When they win, however – well, it’s been a long time since they won. If they win, home games will become a celebration, and tickets will be at a premium.

Charlotte is not really NASCAR country. But N.C. is. Many team shops, however, are an easy drive north of town.

Charlotte Motor Speedway hosts three major NASCAR races every year. Even if the sport is not your sport, you ought to see a race at least once. It’s a spectacle of noise and color, and there’s nothing like it.

The Wells Fargo Classic at Quail Hollow Club is astoundingly popular. Players love the way they’re treated and fans show up early and stay late. It, too, is a spectacle, as are some of the outfits.

The Charlotte 49ers play their first varsity football game this season. The 49ers have long been typecast as a commuter school. Some of the state’s established programs all but told Charlotte to know its role as it campaigned for the sport.

But to the school’s credit, it refused to allow outsiders to define it. The result is a football team that – the school hopes – will entice curious Charlotteans to visit campus and give alumni a reason to return.

Richardson Field is as beautiful in its way as the new downtown ballpark is in its. Sight lines are tremendous and players are tantamount to ambassadors: This is who we are and we hope you’ll come and watch.

Maybe see you there.

Tom is a sports columnist for the Observer.
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