Goodbye to a ballpark

Knights Stadium still stands in a South Carolina suburban town called Fort Mill (though, as far as I know, it has neither a fort nor a mill anymore) off an Interstate highway by water tower painted like a baseball. In a way, that stadium helped launch my career as a sportswriter. Well, it launched my career and almost ended it at the same time. I’ve loved the place deeply for a quarter century, and I probably have not even been inside it for 20 of those years. It’s complicated.

What isn’t complicated is that now I’ll never get to go inside it again. The stadium had been home for the Charlotte Knights minor league baseball team since 1990. And it just closed. Next year the team moves to a new stadium in downtown Charlotte. It will probably be better for the team and for the fans and for just about everybody. But it breaks my heart just a little.

When I was still in college, I got my first full-time sportswriting job. It was technically for the Charlotte Observer, but really I was working in the bureau in Rock Hill, S.C. My job was to write about every sports story that moved in what we called the YLC -- the York, Lancaster and Chester counties in upper South Carolina. And by “everything” I do mean EVERYTHING. I wrote a weekly cycling column where I would write about people who, you know, bicycled. I wrote a weekly softball column about people who played softball. Little league? Yep. Pick-up basketball? Why not? If you made a hole in one, you were big news. If you came close to a 300-game in bowling, I was on the scene.

There were some decent sports stories every now and again. Jeff Burris played for a high school team in Rock Hill, and he was one of the nation’s best prospects. Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz tried to secretly fly into town to talk with him (there were no secrets in the YLC). In Lancaster, Earl Cunningham was a high school baseball phenomenon who hit home runs that flew over shopping centers -- I’ve had a couple of scouts tell me that to this day he’s the most talented young hitter they ever saw. He was a first-round pick of the Chicago Cubs, and he flamed out, but not before I had written dozens of stories about him. Melvin Stewart, my good friend, lived in Fort Mill on the PTL grounds -- that would be Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s ministry, a very long story -- and he went to the 1988 Olympic swimming trials in Austin. I went with him to write about it. Big news. I wrote multiple stories every day about him. Melvin eventually won two Olympic gold medals, a bronze medal and set the world record in the 200-meter butterfly -- he now runs the excellent swimming site SwimSwam.

So there were some cool things. And there was drudgery. Lots and lots of drudgery.*

*A sample opening paragraph from one of my stories, picked at random: “For a while, Bet’s Beauty Shop, one of the highly touted recreation softball teams in the area, was quite. But, of late, they’re playing well and making sounds like a contender for the Class D State Championship.” Kids, don’t try this at home.

So when they started building Knights Stadium in Fort Mill in the last 1980s and planned to move real, live minor league baseball into the YLC, well, let’s just say that it quickly became an obsession of mine. Baseball! I was 21 years old, thoroughly overmatched in every aspect of my life. I just wanted to write baseball. I would beg and plead for any opportunity. And so they had this ribbon-cutting ceremony where they semi-officially opened Knights Stadium, and I drew the assignment.

I’ve written this before, though it’s been a while. In the years since that Knights Stadium day, I’ve been to many ribbon cutting ceremonies. They’re all about the same. The mayor or governor or congressperson or someone will give a speech about how this new field or park or stadium or museum or residential district will do wonders for the community. Sometimes, they will shovel a little dirt for the cameras. Sometimes they will throw a first pitch. I like these ceremonies. They’re hopeful.

The Knights Stadium ceremony might have been the first of its kind I’d ever covered, so I was not really sure what to expect. Sure enough, there were some politicians there. And there was Knights (and then Charlotte Hornets) owner George Shinn, who I had gotten to know a little bit because I covered his efforts to bring Major League Baseball to Charlotte. Anyway, they were all wearing hard-hats (actually, if I remember right, I was wearing a hard hat too) and instead of throwing out a first pitch or doing some kind of baseball ceremony, they decided to have the VIPs do actual construction work and install seats into the stadium.

What I wrote in all my earnestness was this: “George Shinn and other dignitaries ceremoniously screwed in the first two seats.”

You caught that, right? It’s possible you missed it -- I obviously did and so did my poor editor. But you probably won’t miss it if you see how it appeared in the newspaper the next day:

George Shinn and other dignitaries ceremoniously

screwed in the first two seats.

Um, yeah. Like that. When I got to the office the next day, I was called in to see the managing editor -- a tough old journalist named Doug Clifton. I cannot remember now if I was aware of how my choice of words had read in the newspaper. But it did not take long to figure it out once I got in there. Clifton had blown up that particular sentence so that the words were billboard big, and he had it hanging on his wall. He said, “Um, let’s go over and look at this, shall we?” There was absolutely no reason whatsoever for Doug Clifton to know who I was before that sentence appeared. He knew me afterward.

In the end, I don’t think anyone canceled their newspaper over the rather awkward word choice, and anyway Doug Clifton thought it was just about the funniest thing he’d ever seen. He kept it on his wall for a long time. I do remember him offering a bit of practical advice like: “You might want to avoid using the word ‘screwed’ in the newspaper.” But he didn’t fire me. In fact, he became something of a mentor for me after that. Not that this has anything to do with the story, but later he became editor of the Miami Herald and he introduced me to my idol Dave Barry. That’s a story for another day.

The “ceremoniously screwed” story kind of made me the unofficial Knights Stadium writer -- seriously, who was going to top that? Not long after that, I was charged with calling internationally famous designer Alexander Julian, who is a Charlotte native. He was friends with Shinn and so he designed the color of the seats (he had some other sports connections -- he would design the University of North Carolina basketball uniforms). I’m not exactly sure how I got Julian’s home number, and neither was he -- I distinctly remember he was not especially happy when I called him. But then he loosened up and talked at some length about his inspiration for designing a stadium. I seem to remember that he wanted to make the stadium look like a sweater.

An aside: I just went to the Charlotte Observer archives and typed in my name and Alexander Julian. FOURTEEN stories came up. Man, I really did write a lot about that team. Most of the stories were not about the stadium but instead these unique black uniforms (with 13 color stripes!) that Julian had designed for the team when they first moved into Knights Stadium. A lot of people hated those uniforms. I mean, seriously. Sports Illustrated called them “Knightmarish.” Larry Schmittou -- a wonderful character who owns a huge chain of bowling centers now but was then president of the Nashville Sounds -- said Charlotte could not become a Class AAA team until they got rid of those “goofy uniforms.” Eventually the Chicago Cubs -- the Knights parent team then -- kiboshed the Julian duds and put the team in uniforms that looked similar to the Cubs.

As for baseball, I did get to write some about the Knights in between softball notebooks. The names come back to me pretty quickly. Jim Bullinger. Alex Arias. Rick Wilkins. Bob Bafia. I remember the closer was a guy named Zarranz -- I always loved that because it was a name that started and ended with Z. Heathclife Slocumb was another closer in those days. The guy I remember most clearly is probably Ty Griffin. He was a college superstar at Georgia Tech. He was a star -- maybe even THE star -- on the 1988 Olympic Team, which won the gold medal. He was one of the few players who was taken high in the first round TWICE. He was the 12th pick in the 1985 draft out of high school, and then the Cubs drafted him with the ninth overall pick in 1988 out of a college. He was just a few months younger than me, and we hit it off a bit. It seemed like he was just about a sure thing. I even wrote a piece about him for the Chicago Cubs program.

And then -- it went horribly wrong. Griffin was drafted as a second baseman, that was the position he had played throughout college, but you might know the Cubs already had a pretty decent second baseman named Ryne Sandberg. So, in an effort to move Griffin through the system quickly, they moved him to third base. It was a disastrous decision. Griffin was utterly petrified at third base. The position psyched him out. Griffin had speed, he had a bit of power, he had tremendous plate discipline (he posted a career .379 minor league on-base percentage despite a .257 batting average) and he was a terrific guy. But he told me that he would hope the ball wasn’t hit to him as he stood at third base. That cannot be good. Then he went to the outfield. The batting averages never came around. He struck out too much. He never got a single at-bat in the big leagues.

I did love those Knights games. I was a kid reporter living the dream. I wanted to experience everything. I liked talking with the team’s manager Tommy Helms -- win or lose (usually lose) he would do his interview while shaving and he would always say the same thing: “Turn the page.” The team had a mascot -- a dragon named Homer -- and on Father’s Day once I dressed up as Papa Homer for a story. I missed my cue and I still remember how bad it smelled in there. The team’s president was NFL great Roman Gabriel -- I got him to tell me great NFL stories and, more, what it was like to play on Gilligan’s Island. He even reprised his single line on the show (it was “Mongo Mongo!). I would go on the radio sometimes, and once after a game played pop-a-shot with the one of the announcers, an old college guard named Terry Gannon. He never missed. All of it was such a blast.

And then, in 1992, I left Charlotte. I had gotten a columnist job in Augusta, Ga. At my last Knights game, the team tricked me into singing “Take Me Out To the Ballgame” -- my rendition was so bad I’m pretty sure I was banned from returning to York County for three years. Augusta was life-changing for me, but I will say that my timing for leaving was a bit off. The very next year, the Charlotte Knights became the Class AAA team for my hometown Cleveland Indians. And that team was amazing. It had Sandy Alomar, Paul Byrd, the great Sam Horn (who banged 38 homers), a bunch of future and past Major Leaguers and one guy named Manny Ramirez and another named JIm Thome. I think I would have loved covering that team. But I was in Augusta sweating and writing Masters previews eight months before the Masters began.

So, it goes. I never went back to Knights Stadium. I guess the team changed affiliations. I guess people called it “The Castle” for a while, then stopped. I guess attendance fluctuated pretty wildly and the stadium slowly decayed. Life took me in a different direction. When we moved back to Charlotte a couple of years ago, we kept talking about taking the kids to Knights Stadium for a game. We never did though, and I feel sad about that. This past Monday, they played the last baseball game ever at Knights Stadium. My understanding is they will demolish the ballpark now and put a fashion retail distribution center in its place.

Ah well. I doubt there will be songs written about old Knights Stadium. It was just a minor league park off an interstate and under a water tour painted like a baseball. In the final game, the Knights beat Gwinnett 4-0. I guess when it ended, knights from the Carolina Renaissance Festival rode around on horseback. Then Homer the Dragon picked up the bases, stepped into a helicopter and flew away.