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Former Charlotte Knight Jeff Schaefer still drawn to grass, dirt, ‘little scrappy dudes’

Former Charlotte Knights and major league infielder Jeff Schaefer was a member of both the Charlotte Knights Southern League Champions team in 1984 and the Governors' Cup Champions team in 1993.
Former Charlotte Knights and major league infielder Jeff Schaefer was a member of both the Charlotte Knights Southern League Champions team in 1984 and the Governors' Cup Champions team in 1993. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Jeff Schaefer brought his sons, aged 12 and 10, to Pisgah National Forest and Brevard, and they did what you do there. They went down the slide into the cold mountain water. They also did what Schaefers do regardless of where they go. They found a baseball field and played Wiffle Ball.

I sit with Schaefer, 54, in the home dugout at BB&T Ballpark. On Thursday, it’s just us. On Friday evening the Charlotte Knights and Chicago White Sox will fill the dugouts and fans will fill the stadium for the exhibition between Class AAA Charlotte and its major league affiliate. Only a few tickets remain.

Schaefer played infield for the Class AA Charlotte O’s from 1982-85 and the White Sox in 1989. Primarily a shortstop, he played for the Seattle Mariners from 1990-92, the Knights in 1993 and the Oakland Athletics in 1994.

He founded the Carolinas Baseball Center in Charlotte, is the Mid-Atlantic Regional Director for USA Baseball and managing partner of the eight-field Virginia Sports Complex in Ruther Glen, Va.

Despite his five seasons in the Major Leagues, he feels as if he’s Charlotte’s. Schaefer is the only player to win championships with the O’s and the Knights.

“If you want to know how much Charlotte has changed, when I came here I asked everybody where I should eat and they said Athens,” Schaefer says.

No longer in business, Athens was a working-class, late-night restaurant where, no matter who you were, you ate.

“And I played at Crockett Park with wooden seats and chicken wire,” he says about the ballpark, which was destroyed in a fire. “Look at this.”

BB&T Ballpark’s grass is so crisp, so firm, so neat and so green you could shoot pool on it. As much as we love the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, there’s something freeing about sitting outside, feeling spring and watching baseball.

Charlotte’s restaurant options and ballpark have changed. What hasn’t is the goal of every minor leaguer. If a player can parlay his ability into a place on a Class AAA roster, he believes he can earn one in the big leagues.

On Friday night, the Knights will attempt to prove it.

Can one game make a difference? Could a Knight do something against Chicago that will help him get promoted?

“Absolutely,” says Schaefer. “You’re not on their radar. And then you are. Make that one play, have that good game. It can change everything.”

Is that what you did?

“I was not going to work out and blow you away with line drives off the wall,” says Schaefer. “I was a 12th round draft choice (out of Maryland, where he was all-ACC). I could play defense and throw and run. I wasn’t seen as an every-day guy. I felt like I deserved to be.”

Fans will cheer the Knights who will be White Sox, among them former N.C. State star Carlos Rodon, 22. who will soon be Chicago’s rotation. If his trajectory so far is indicative, he’ll be a star.

“Fans will be excited about Rodon,” says Schafer. “I identify with the little scrappy dudes. I don’t even know who they are yet. They grind it out every day hoping that one day they get on that plane.”

Schafer was 28 and in Chicago’s spring training camp in Sarasota, Fla. If you’re 5-10 and 170 pounds and aren’t equipped to go deep, grinding is how you get noticed. Make the right play and make it repeatedly.

The White Sox had a new manager, Jeff Torborg. He pulled Schafer aside and said, “You’re going north.”

“That was the phrase,” Schafer says, still excited after 26 years. “That’s when you knew you’d go to the big leagues.”

Torborg told him not to tell anybody. How could he not tell anybody? This was the reason he played, the reason they all played. He told a buddy who had been called up the previous year and they celebrated in the one place that offered privacy, the bathroom. They jumped and hugged. The hitting coach walked in, saw them, and walked out.

“It was surreal,” says Schafer. “I hadn’t even touched the (infield) dirt. I went into the Chicago locker room. There’s (Carleton) Fisk, (Harold) Baines and (Ozzie) Guillen. There’s my uniform hanging in front of my locker. I had a real number, not a spring training number like 76. I was (No.) 15.”

When Oakland released Schaefer in 1994, he took a year off from his sport. A hiatus, he calls it. After the hiatus he played in a Charlotte adult league. He hasn’t left baseball since.

As we talk, he looks at the ballpark as if he’s never seen one, as if he could sit in the dugout until the Knights show up and ask him to leave.

“I’ve always been drawn to it,” Schaefer says. “The dirt and grass, that’s my home.”

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

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