Scott Fowler

Charlotte Knights deliver near-perfect housewarming for new stadium

When you hold a housewarming party for 10,231 people, you worry about everything. The Charlotte Knights did that Friday night, opening BB&T BallPark in uptown Charlotte for a sold-out crowd revved up for minor-league baseball’s return after a quarter-century absence from the city limits.

“I want it to be a perfect evening,” Dan Rajkowski, the Knights’ executive vice president, fretted two hours before the game. “I know it’s not going to be. But I told my staff, ‘Let’s try to be perfect.’ ”

It wasn’t perfect.

But it was pretty close.

It was 72 degrees at the time of the call to “play ball” as the blue sky faded into twilight. The weather was as gorgeous as the park itself, with its cozy feel and skyscraper backdrop.

The game went almost four hours before the Norfolk Tides finally beat Charlotte, 8-6, in 12 innings, but the result didn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that baseball was back. And then there were fireworks to cap the night – a little taste of July 4th in April.

The new ballpark proved very hitter-friendly. The wind was blowing out toward center field for much of the game, and there were four home runs – two by each team. Inside the stadium during the game, the concession stand lines were sometimes 25-deep, as vendors sold their $4 pretzels, $7 foot-long hot dogs and $9 domestic beers.

Fans brought blankets to relax on the lawn behind left field. Some watched through the fence for free. By 8:15 p.m., the park was emblazoned not just by its own lights but by those of the skyscrapers that surround it – the literal diamond in the heart of Charlotte.

There were a few hiccups. The glitzy scoreboard is capable of instant replay but wasn’t used in that capacity nearly often enough.

The first real pitch, scheduled for 7:05 p.m., actually came at 7:41 p.m. That delay seemed due to too many congratulatory speeches and 15 ceremonial first pitches. Yes, 15.

And that late start, compounded by the really late finish, meant that only a couple of thousand people actually saw the end of the game.

The first pitch was a strike from Charlotte’s Dylan Axelrod. A moment after that came the first hit – a double laced down the right field line by Tides outfielder Julio Borbon.

In the bottom of the third inning, Knights outfielder Denis Phipps hit the first home run in the ballpark – a shot to left field that landed near the scoreboard.

Charlotte’s diamond

Eventually, everyone settled into the unhurried rhythms of a baseball game – the murmuring between every pitch, the calls from the concessionaires, the father explaining a sacrifice bunt to a son.

There was plenty of time to walk around the ballpark and listen to the fans, who mostly were saying some variant of “Isn’t this beautiful?” and also taking a lot of selfies.

Charlotte has always loved a shiny new bauble. Once BB&T BallPark got built – and for many contentious years that was no sure thing – the challenge for Rajkowski and his staff was always going to be selling out the last 71 home dates for 2014, not the first one. The Knights were last in the International League in attendance in four of their final five years in Fort Mill, where they were forgotten by a large segment of the community.

“We’ve got seven more home games in a row right after this one,” Rajkowski said. “So we’ve got a little bit of work to do. This isn’t like a Super Bowl, where we finish one and don’t play anymore.”

The Knights are a Triple A club, the top farm team of the Chicago White Sox. All of its players are a single step away from the major leagues. Some, such as third baseman Matt Davidson, are a half-step. Davidson is a hot prospect who made the stadium’s first great play – a diving stab of a ground ball, followed by a laser throw to first base to turn a likely double into an out.

“Triple A players are unique,” said Buddy Bell, a former major leaguer and now the White Sox’s vice president of player development. “Most of these guys feel like they should be in the big leagues anyway. So it’s easier to come to a ballpark like this and get your heart started.”

It works that way with fans, too. The ones who came Friday for “Opening Knight,” as the Knights called it, knew the game score was secondary. The primary attraction was the ballpark itself – a number of the fans left when the game was tied at 6 after nine innings. It will be that way all season, really.

You live in Charlotte and want to take someone out to the ballgame now?

It no longer requires crossing the state line. It just requires a few bucks and a few hours. Baseball in Charlotte is finally real again.