Labor Day is considered the unofficial end to summer so maybe it was fitting that the Charlotte Knights 2013 baseball season also came to an end Monday afternoon. Their season, much like that of their parent Chicago White Sox, did not go as expected finishing 65-78 with the third worst record in the league despite knocking off the Gwinnett Braves 4-0.
Few will remember the record or the final score. Who will know that Zack Stewart got the win with eight shutout innings and Deunte Heath threw the final pitch of the year? How about Blake Tekotte driving in a first inning run with a groundout that proved to be the winning run? That’s all part of the history books now.
Oh yes, there was something else that ended, the Charlotte Knights run in Fort Mill, South Carolina after 25 years and more than 1,700 games.
There will be a funeral some day when a wrecking ball begins the process of tearing down what is known as The Castle. No one is expected to attend so 6,894 fans came out for a holiday matinee to pay their last respects.
The Knights could have lost 20-0 and the atmosphere would not have changed. This is the day the team looked forward to because they now get to return to the city they were named after following a quarter-century in exile. This was also the day some locals dreaded because they were losing “their” team.
Fans began arriving as early as 10:00 a.m. for a 2:15 p.m. start just to tailgate and watch the parking lot fill up, which it did. James Fortner has been a season ticket holder for 36 years following the Knights from Charlotte to Fort Mill and now back to the Queen City.
“I’ll be in Section 107, Row E, Seat 14,” he said about where he will be at the opening of BB&T Ballpark. “I’ll miss the people here though. This has been home for 25 years.”
Fortner has been around long enough to remember the Knights played in a temporary stadium one year before The Castle officially opened. Part of the experience was seeing the first South Carolina game called off.
“It was put up in a hurry, just a leveled-off field with sod put on it,” he said. “The concourse was paved asphalt and everything was in a trailer. We had 17 rainouts including the first one because it had no drainage.” So what was the name of the now infamous one-year stadium? “They called it the Knights Castle and it stuck for the new one.”
If you don’t think some fans will go to extreme lengths just to see baseball in these parts, consider this. Fortner has been driving 46 miles – each way – to see the Knights. He will still have a 28 mile run to BB&T Ballpark. He is closer to the Kannapolis Intimidators than he is to the new park.
John McCallion moved to the area from Long Island, New York after retiring and has been a Knights season ticket holder since 1996.
“I just love baseball, I used to live at Shea Stadium,” he said. “It brought back memories here. Going to Shea we saw Doc Gooden and we saw him here with Buffalo on rehab. We saw Darryl Strawberry with Columbus (Yankees) on rehab. I live right here in Fort Mill, but I got my ticket for next year. I got two seats right on the dugout, first base side.”
Bill Sinclair is also a former New Yorker who lives just five minutes from Knights Stadium and he has no plans on missing anything at the new stadium. 2014 will mark his eighth year as a season ticket holder.
“I hate to see them leave, they’re so close,” he said. “But it’s the people who work here, they’re all aces. They take good care of me. That’s why I enjoyed coming here, they’re like family. I’ve been a baseball fan all my life and you get to meet all these people.”
Sinclair was a conductor on the Long Island Railroad so meeting people has always been a part of his life, but Fort Mill and Charlotte is very different from the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple, but to his liking nonetheless.
One person, who would only identify herself as Faye from Charlotte, has not yet made plans for 2014 at BB&T Ballpark.
“I will probably go a few times,” she said. "I do not have a season ticket yet. It’s a little inconvenient to go uptown. I actually live seven miles from this ballpark and I’ve been here since 1995 as a season ticket holder and love it.”
Faye said that one of the reasons she hesitated on staying as a season ticket holder was being offered first choice, but the team did not offer any discounts for those who stayed with the team all these years. In fact, she said the same seats at BB&T Ballpark went up noticeably.
In the end the crowd offered a standing ovation as the final pitch was delivered and watched home plate dug up and brought out to a waiting helicopter in the outfield. Homer the Dragon would climb aboard to bring it and the Knights back home.
In the meantime, preparations are underway for a proposed distribution center on the Knights Stadium site and surrounding land once the lease on the stadium runs out at the end of the calendar year. No one knows if anyone will deliver a eulogy before the first brick falls, but maybe a simple sendoff with a song written by Joe Raposo and sung by Frank Sinatra playing in the background.
And there used to be a ballpark
Where the field was warm and green
And the people played their crazy game
With a joy I'd never seen.
And the air was such a wonder
From the hot dogs and the beer
Yes, there used a ballpark, right here.