By Leah Hughes
On April 11, 2014, the Charlotte Knights held a homecoming. In front of 10,231 fans, the city’s baseball team played its first game on this side of the state line since 1990.
The game didn’t go the Knights’ way, but the hometown crowd was the happiest group of fans on the losing end that you’d ever seen. They spent nearly four hours watching the game inside the shiny new BB&T Ballpark located between Mint, Graham and Fourth streets and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. They had one of the finest views of the Charlotte skyline. And they left, even after getting outscored, thinking that this is a team they can get behind.
And they did. In the first season at BB&T Ballpark, the Knights broke the team’s all-time attendance record on July 5, 2014. The team sold out 31 games and averaged more than 9,600 fans per game. The ballpark also played host to the Gildan Triple-A National Championship game. Counting that game, the ballpark welcomed 696,601 fans in 2014 and finished the year with the highest attendance in all of Minor League Baseball.
“All the things we could hope to do, we did,” says Dan Rajkowski, chief operating officer for the Knights. “When you can exceed expectations in every area, you have to be proud of that.”
In September, Rajkowski was named “executive of the year” for the International League. The announcement was a final high note to conclude a season that marked both a new beginning for the team and the end of a long journey to get there.
A History Lesson
The Charlotte Knights’ story starts in 1901 when the team was founded as the Charlotte Hornets. The team quickly earned success, winning North Carolina League titles in 1902 and 1916. The team then won a South Atlantic League title in 1923. By the mid-1940s, the team joined the Tri-State League and won four championships between 1946 and 1953.
The team left the city in 1973. Then Frances Crockett founded the Charlotte O’s in 1976. The O’s, a Double-A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, played at Crockett Park in Dilworth. The team won the Southern League championship in 1980 with future Baltimore Orioles star Cal Ripken Jr. hitting 25 home runs that season. The team remained an Orioles affiliate until 1989. Other standouts during that stretch included Eddie Murray, Curt Schilling, Steve Finley, Pete Harnisch and Leo Gomez.
In 1985, Crockett Park was destroyed by arson. Then in 1987, George Shinn purchased the team. The name changed to the Charlotte Knights in 1989, and the team became an affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. In 1990, the newly named Knights moved to a stadium in Fort Mill, South Carolina, nicknamed the Castle. The team led the Double-A attendance standings for the 1991 and 1992 seasons.
The Knights switched affiliations again in 1993, becoming a Triple-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians. Future Major League names, such as Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez and Chad Ogea, played in Charlotte that year. After two years, the Knights became an affiliate of the Florida Marlins and finished the 1997 season as league runnersup. Don Beaver then purchased the team from Shinn and transitioned the organization to the Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, an affiliation that remains today.
Although the team had success in Fort Mill, including winning the International League title in 1999, attendance at the field became sluggish. In 2013, the Knights ranked last in the league in fan numbers. Rajkowski joined the staff after the 2005 season. He weathered the transition through operating in Fort Mill while planning and negotiating the Uptown stadium; constructing the park and making the move; and finally witnessing operating day on April 11, 2014.
A Winning Season
Charlotteans living in Uptown and surrounding neighborhoods such as South End flocked to the stadium for the 2014 season. But the team also drew good numbers from Huntersville, Mooresville and the surrounding Lake Norman area, as well as southern areas such as Ballantyne.
“People will drive 20 to 30 minutes for Minor League Baseball,” Rajkowski says.
And when they get to the game, the staff makes sure it’s a good experience from the moment they walk in the gate to the time they leave. Rajkowski says it takes three things to be successful in Minor League Baseball: winning, weather and promotion. He does his best with the final piece, the only thing he can control. Although the 2014 team struggled, finishing with 63 wins and 81 losses, the BB&T Ballpark experience had a winning season. With giveaways and mascot races, local food and craft beer, music and fireworks, the ballpark made a good first impression.
“It’s time to follow the first year with something even better,” Rajkowski says.
In their second season, the Knights will add more than 200 additional seats in the outfield area.
The first home game in Uptown is April 9 when the Knights take on the Norfolk Tides.
Brews at the Ballpark
As part of the upgrades to the Ballpark this season, a new local craft beer areas has been added to the first base side of the stadium featuring brews from The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, NoDa Brewing Company, D9 Brewing Company, The Unknown Brewing Co. and Triple C Brewing Co. OMB also has a beer garden near left field and NoDa Brewing company will continue to sell their special brew A Knight’s Ale created for the Charlotte Knights. Look for other North Carolina and regional craft labels throughout the ballpark.
This article ran in th April 2015 issue of Charlotte Happenings.