When the Charlotte Knights open their gates at 10:30 a.m. Monday only a few dozen fans wait. As they enter, Homer the dragon appears to greet them all.
At noon, five minutes before the scheduled first pitch at BB&T BallPark, the rush begins. Thousands of fans show up and keep showing up. Some arrive as late as the fourth inning, and others leave as early as the third.
That’s the nature of day baseball and the beauty of a ballpark to which fans can walk. Eat a dog, drink a drink and get back to work before anybody notices you’re gone.
Or, don’t go back. Attendance is 8,568. This means either unemployment in Charlotte is high or thousands of fans have enough pull to skip work.
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It also means that some fans called in sick, likely the ones lurking in the shadows. They’re entitled. Several rare illnesses and ailments can be cured only by fastballs and fresh air.
Walk up the grassy hill to the top of the ballpark and look across S. Mint Street or W. 4th Street. Commerce is conducted out there and business transacted, t’s crossed and i’s dotted.
Transactions at the ballpark typically involve line drives, ground balls, water and beer.
Some fans seek the shadows and some sit in the sun. There’s a lot of flesh on an afternoon the temperature reaches 88 degrees. There are a lot of tattoos. One guy wears a shirt and tie. Dads and moms push strollers and older fans carry scorebooks and pens. Perhaps the latter are more comfortable driving during the day than at night.
At least 20 fans stand outside the ballpark and watch through the gaps between black metal bars, gaps wide enough to stick a fist through. Several wear ties. The view is sufficient for one fan to criticize a Buffalo outfielder for not calling off the second baseman on a fly ball.
“You see the Wrigley mindset,” says Knights executive vice president and chief operating officer Dan Rajkowski. “There’s just something about it, on a Monday or Tuesday, skipping out of work, heading downtown and watching day baseball.”
If you include Sunday 5:05 p.m. starts, the Knights have 10 more day games this season.
Before Charlotte bats in the first inning, the scoreboard plays a scene from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” the 1986 film in which three high school students skip school and head downtown. (It’s a movie that, to my discredit, I have somehow never seen.)
The Knights players not only couldn’t skip work; they had to report to the ballpark by 9 a.m. They leave for Durham, and a four-game series with the Bulls, Tuesday. So they had Monday night free to cram for the Bulls or go outside and find something interesting.
The Buffalo third baseman, Jared Goedert, who is from Kansas, draws cheers as he steps into the batter’s box. If there are 8,568 fans at a Charlotte baseball game, you know at least 10 percent of them moved south from Buffalo.
The Buffalo player to applaud is 34-year-old Dan Johnson. Johnson is a former Knight who played in the American League for Oakland, Tampa Bay, Chicago and Baltimore. He drives a second-inning pitch over the Home Run Porch in right field, over the entire house, out of the ballpark and at least as far as Mint Street.
It’s no surprise the Bisons lead 6-5 going into the bottom of the ninth. They’re 20-14 coming in, the Knights 13-23.
Worse, the Knights appear to have a team batting average of .180.
Charlotte’s Matt Davidson, batting .152, leads off the ninth with a single. Dan Black, hitting .234, follows.
Alex Liddi, hitting .167, is next. He twice bunts foul and fouls off four more pitches before striking out. Jared Mitchell, hitting .188, strikes out less dramatically.
Blake Tekotte, who has a gaudy .216 average, is next, and he singles to right.
So bases loaded, two outs, and a fan in a yellow tank top stands and lifts his arms to get others to join him. Sorry, man. It’s not even 3 p.m. and it’s only Monday. Fans sit, but they cheer.
They have a reason. At the plate is Carlos Sanchez, who not only bats .270 but already has a single, double and triple.
Sanchez takes a cut and – pops an easy fly to right.
Some fans walk out grumbling.
Most don’t. They extended their weekend and put off their Monday. Knights lose, fans win.