We’re sitting inside BB&T Ballpark Thursday afternoon next to the Diamonds Direct Luxury Lounge.
“This club is as energetic, maybe, as I’ve seen it,” says Don Rajkowski, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Charlotte Knights.
He nods outside.
“We have the hardcore fans that are sitting down there watching day baseball,” Rajkowski says. “The people here aren’t even watching the game. But you know, this is a sport you can do that. You’ve got 18 breaks, you hear the crack of the bat if you’re outside, and you can look up.
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“You wouldn’t do that in a football game because you might miss a touchdown. You might miss a 3-point shot in basketball. Here, it’s a base hit, you look up and maybe a couple guys are on base, and you decide to watch.”
The Knights play their final day game of the season Thursday and provide a lot of plays even peripheral fans shouldn’t miss. Down 7-3, they score 5 runs in the eighth and 3 more in the ninth. They hit 5 home runs, and win 11-7.
Day games make me feel as if I’m stealing. Middle of the afternoon, much of Charlotte is going about its business, which consists primarily of building apartments, and 9,781 of us are at the ballpark.
By the time the game ends, at least 50 more fans have stuck their faces into the fence to look in from the outside.
And this is a warm up. On Friday night, the Knights draw 10,731 fans, the largest crowd in BB&T Ballpark’s two seasons. Capacity is 10,200.
Tour the ballpark and it feels like a collection of neighborhoods. In this one, fans surround the bar and drink and eat and talk. In that one, a bald man in a visor and a Baltimore Orioles T-shirt uses a pen and a scorecard to track every at bat.
I stop near right field, listen to fans talk to the usher, whom they have talked to all season, look at the buildings that ring the field and finally at the field itself. The light green and dark green outfield grass doesn’t look as if it’s been stepped on, stomped on and sprinted on since early April.
Can you remember when the Knights didn’t play downtown? Can you remember when you drove to Fort Mill to see a game, not that many of you did. Frivolous lawsuits delayed construction. Some questioned whether a city with major league football, basketball, golf and racing would deign to support Class AAA baseball.
Last season the Knights led the minor leagues with 687,715 fans. Would the newness fade?
This season they attracted 669,398 fans, which probably will again lead the minor leagues. Not included in the number is a sellout exhibition against the Chicago White Sox and a July 4 sellout for USA Baseball versus the Cuban Baseball Federation.
There’s room for minor league sports in Charlotte, as hockey’s Charlotte Checkers likely will prove when they move next season from Time Warner Cable Arena back to Bojangles’ Coliseum.
No major league team can play in a 10,200 seat ballpark. I love this place in part because of its size. There’s no question that its one of Charlotte’s most impressive pieces of architecture. Try to find a bad seat. The most interesting are behind the catcher, and they’re closer to home plate than the pitcher is.
The Knights will find out next season if newness comes with an expiration date. They sold season tickets last season in increments of 2, 3, 4 and 5 years. About one third of their season tickets – about 1,500 out of 5,000 – will be up for renewal when the season ends (they play their final road game Monday night).
Worried whether fans will re-up?
“You always worry about it,” says Rajkowski. “We’re working on it now. We take Labor Day off. We’ll be back at it on Tuesday.”
He says three apartment complexes are being built walking distance from the ballpark, and will house at least 1,500 residents.
So even if Charlotte lives down to its stereotype and looks for something new, the Knights will be new for at least 1,500 potential fans.