Walked into BB&T Ballpark for the Charlotte Knights’ exhibition against the Chicago White Sox. I don’t care how many times I’ve seen a ballpark. The first look of the season is breathtaking. On Monday, I saw blue sky, green grass, white uniforms and Black Jack McDowell.
McDowell remembers walking into the ballpark when he was young to see the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“All that green,” he says Monday afternoon as the White Sox take batting practice in the cage in front of him. “And the whitest white. The uniforms have to be white.”
As he talks about the uniforms, he pretends he’s dusting off a white jersey.
Tall and lean at 52, McDowell started the baseball program last year at Queens. Before Queens, he was a lot of things, including a member of two bands. He pitched a little, too. He went 127-87 for four teams, among them the White Sox, He was three times an all-star, and in 1993 won the American League Cy Young Award with the White Sox when he went 22-10.
The Charlotte-Chicago connection runs deep. This is Class AAA Charlotte’s 20th season with the White Sox. Last season, 22 players were promoted from the Knights to the big leagues.
No matter your sport, your first look of the season at a basketball court, football field, hockey rink, race track or boxing ring can be breathtaking. Baseball has one advantage. It’s outside (most of the time). When baseball comes, so does spring.
It might not feel like spring. But the Knights open the regular season April 5 in Durham, and play their first seven games on the road. Their home opener is April 12 against the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, the New York Yankees’ club. By April 12, it will be spring because there are rules and it has to be.
Even if the weather is not ready, BB&T Ballpark is. The grass is so green and pristine I felt guilty stepping on it. It’s like when you’re a kid and go to your grandma’s house and the good furniture is covered with plastic. OK, my grandmother didn’t have good furniture. But if she had, she would have covered it.
When I see fresh footprints in the warning track dirt, I want to summon the groundskeeper. That’s how good the ballpark looks.
Among the players taking turns in the batting cage are former Knights Avisail Garcia and Matt Davidson. Davidson led the Cactus League this spring in RBI and tied for fourth in hits. Garcia tied for the lead in doubles is fifth in batting average.
Behind the cage is Jeff Schaefer, the former infielder who played for the White Sox, the Seattle Mariners, the Oakland A’s, the Charlotte Knights and their predecessor, the Charlotte O’s. Schaefer, 57, runs the Carolinas Baseball Center in Charlotte.
Everybody behind the batting cage is smiling. Hibbs is, Schaefer is and Hibbs is. When the players gather outside the cage to talk, they smile, too. On Monday, this is their office, and they get to be part of something the rest of us can only imagine.
What’s it like to be good enough to do this for a living?
“I just started to play baseball,” McDowell says with a smile. “And they kept on letting me.”
McDowell threw the ceremonial first pitch. It looked like a strike.