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Charlotte Knights: Time to come home

Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for 20 years and has been at the paper for 25, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.

FORT MILL A Charlotte ball player walked through the dugout early Monday afternoon before the Knights played their final game at Knights Stadium.

How happy are you to get out of here?

“You have no idea,” he said.

That’s not true. I have an idea.

Knights Stadium never worked. In 1990 George Shinn built a ballpark, and a practice gym for his basketball team, the Charlotte Hornets, in a field in suburban Fort Mill. The idea was for the ballpark to be the centerpiece of a vast neighborhood close enough to Charlotte but far enough away.

It was not a good idea.

There never was a neighborhood. The practice gym is a church. And nobody drove to Knights Stadium because they happened to be nearby. The stadium isn’t part of anything. It’s tough for a team, especially a minor-league team, to attract fans when it’s isolated and out of the way.

That said, baseball attracts diehards, and I wonder how many of the Knights Stadium regulars will make the trip next season to watch their team in the stunning new BB&T Ballpark.

Many of those fans were in Fort Mill on Monday, in the bleachers and the heat, an hour before the first pitch. I salute them. I salute fans who find a place and, popular or not, make it theirs. They were near home plate, in the upper deck and upstairs in the Budweiser Brewhouse, scorecards sometimes on their laps.

Obviously there are highlights from the 24 seasons the Knights played here. They won the International League championship in 1993 and ’99. Future Major League Baseball stars Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome passed through.

Homer the Dragon was consistently funny. Fans packed the ballpark on the Fourth of July. The stadium accommodates 10,002 and more than 15,000 showed up for the fireworks and tradition.

I met Dale Torborg, the Chicago White Sox conditioning coordinator. In a past life, he was Demon, a feared professional grappler who learned the craft under several mentors, among them the even more feared Warlord. Players would approach him, pretending to seek workout advice and then ask about a suplex or flying dropkick.

The wedding reception for a friend was held at the ballpark in what is now the Budweiser Brewhouse. This was 1995. I called him Monday. They’re still married.

I once questioned the athletic ability of then-Hornets star Dell Curry in a column. Curry also played baseball at Virginia Tech. In a Hornets-media game of slo-pitch softball after the column ran, I pitched and Curry hit. I tried to brush him back with a slurve but left too much of the ball over the plate and Curry hit a line drive that could have ripped a hole in my glove – if I’d fielded it cleanly.

Stephen Curry wouldn’t do that.

The Knights have been part of the organizations of the Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Indians, Miami Marlins and White Sox.

Five hundred players who competed at this ballpark have advanced to the Major Leagues.

The Knights played more than 1,700 games in front of more than 6.5 million fans.

And the Knights won their last game at the stadium, destroying Gwinnett 4-0. Almost everybody in the crowd of 6,894 stood for the final pitch.

After the game, former Charlotte O’s (the team that preceeded the Knights) and Knights walked onto the field.

Fans stayed to cheer for the players and to say goodbye to the ballpark. Among them were kids with baseball gloves, a woman wearing a Great Catch T-shirt and dozens of folks with cellphones, taking one last picture.

One more highlight: The grounds crew has been consistently excellent. The Knights’ game against Gwinnett, the only team in the International League South with a record worse than theirs, was their 72nd home game of the season.

Yet the grass still looks healthy, neatly clipped and fairway green. And I don’t know why this is cool, but it is. Wedged into the grass behind home plate is a single sunflower seed.

Let’s play two.

But let’s play them downtown. Let’s play them in a place fans can drive and walk. Let’s play them where, even before you find your seat, you feel as if you’re part of something.

Sorensen: tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; 704-358-5119
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