Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Night out at the Bulls

Somewhere along in the middle innings, when the Durham Bulls were well on their way to a 16-hit, 11-run hammering of the Charlotte Knights in their final game of the regular season Sunday, I wondered once again why there wasn’t more interest in a downtown baseball park in the Queen City.
True: I like baseball and love going to minor league parks all over the state. I grew up watching games in Greensboro’s old War Memorial Stadium, Winston-Salem’s Earnie Shore Field and Burlington’s Fairchild Park. I never saw a game in Raleigh’s old Devereaux Meadow, now the site of a city maintenance yard, but remember its dark green bleachers and the tall hemlocks beyond the outfield wall.
When we moved to Raleigh in the late 1970s and Miles Wolfe revived the old Durham Bulls franchise at the lovely old Durham Athletic Park, we became regulars. When Raleigh businessman Jim Goodmon bought the Bulls and moved them into a new brick stadium a few blocks away, we continued to go to a few games each year.
Here’s why: It’s a deal. The Bulls, like the Knights, play in the International League. It’s AAA ball, which means you see players who may be in the majors next week, and big leaguers who have been sent down from some rehabilitation after a slump. So it’s good baseball with fast pitching and decent hitters.
And ordinary folks can afford to go, take the kids and have a big time. Parking is $3 a couple of hundred feet away, free if you walk a few blocks. You can get good seats for $8 and a foot-long hotdog for $4. A family of four can have a night out without blowing the monthly rent. It cannot do that at a Panthers game in Charlotte or a Hurricanes game in Raleigh. Those are big league teams with big league prices. They charge what the market allows.
Minor league baseball, even at the AAA level, is still about getting good value for the money. There’s a different promotion every night. The kids love the Bulls mascot, Wool E. Bull, and the team dog, Lucky the Wonder Dog, who stands 2-foot-four and runs the bases to celebrate Bulls victories.
Saturday night the Bulls-Knights game drew more than 10,000 fans. Sunday night – a school night here, mind you – the final game in their series drew more than 8,600 in an 11-6 Bulls victory.
But the Knights don’t draw so well at their stadium in Fort Mill. According to stats on the International League website, Charlotte leads the International League’s South Division in the standings with a 13 1/2 game lead over the second-place Bulls.
But Charlotte has the league’s third-worst attendance, drawing an average of 4,755 fans per home game, while Durham has the league’s seventh best attendance with 7,389. No doubt the Knights are hampered by a stadium that is, after all, a bit of a trek from Charlotte. And consumers in both Durham and Charlotte have a lot of entertainment choices competing for their dollar.
But the Knights surely would be drawing more fans in a Charlotte stadium as the Knights compete for another International League Governor’s Cup Championship. The Knights won it in 1999, and clinched their division and a spot in the playoffs Monday night even as they lost to Columbus 8-4 – and drew just 2,178 fans. That is pretty sad for a team that is, after all, one of the best in AAA ball.


David McKnight said...

Hello, fellow Charlotte baseball fans! Having resided in Charlotte's International League "sister city" of Durham for a number of years, I have always felt a special thrill at the sight of my hometown team, the Charlotte Knights, taking the field in downtown Durham to play my adopted team, the Durham Bulls. No wonder I have been hoping that a Charlotte Observer writer, whether from the business department, the editorial department or the sports department, would come over to Durham to write about the atmosphere of "Downtown Baseball," or "Uptown Baseball" as they view in in Charlotte.

So we "Charlotteans on the Road" are grateful that Jack Betts put in an appearance at the Knights-Bulls game Sunday. Of course, if he had come over on Friday night, he would have seen a 5-0 gem by the division champion Knights.

But as nice as Sundays are at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, weekdays are equally enticing for a trip to the ballpark because there are so many restaurants, taverns and shopping areas within close proximity to the ballpark that you can really enjoy a nice "outing in the city."

And in Durham, the baseball stadium is so close to all the other happenings in the city that the whole thing becomes one of those fun-filled pedestrian shopping districts like the kind Mary Newsom writes about in Charlotte, only if you added uptown baseball, then you'd really have the (Mallard) ducks on the pond.

The great folks in Fort Mill have certainly maintained a fine home for Charlotte Knights baseball in the last couple of decades, and it's up to the team and to the people of Charlotte and the surrounding region as to where you go from here on the baseball front.

But I have to say that traveling along Durham's one-way Gregson and Duke streets before and after Bulls home games brings back great memories of pleasant drives along Charlotte's Kenilworth Avenue and other such convenient connectors before and after games in bygone seasons when the Charlotte O's and the Hornets before them were playing games at the old Griffith or Crockett parks on Magnolia Avenue.

Why, every time I open up a pack of those tasty Lance crackers, I think back on those downtown excursions to the old ballpark because all you had to do is go along South Boulevard past the Lance factory and hang a left.

So fellow Charlotteans, if you're still undecided about what you would like to see in the way of "hometeam atmosphere" for future Charlotte Knights' campaigns, then do like Jack did and come over to Durham next season to see your Knights play some ballgames in the middle of a city in the state of North Carolina, for this is the only time that Charlotte plays baseball in the Tar Heel State.

Not that we don't love crossing the border into the great Palmetto State to see the team at Knights Castle!

And bring along some of those great Knights jerseys and caps just so some of us "Charlotteans on the Road" can celebrate memories of seeing greats like Bobby Allison, Harmon Killebrew, Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray play ball in the heart of Charlotte.

For in the heart of Durham, the hometown fans simply love their baseball team, and that's no bull.

And go out and support the Knights during the upcoming International League playoffs! It's time for the AAA franchise of the Chicago White Sox to let folks in the Windy City know there's a title run shaping up in the Queen City too.

Anonymous said...

My husband and I have had many conversations about how much we miss the DBAP. We live close to uptown now, and have already decided that we're going to be some of the first to buy season tickets for the Knights if they ever move.

Getting down to Fort Mill just isn't worth it to us, and we've never been to a game there.

Brad said...

Baseball needs to be the NEXT BIG THING in UPTOWN. Baseball unlike the other sports downtown really impact the local businesses.

They are played at all times of the day and in the south almost year round.

I recently moved to Memphis where they built AutoZone Park for the Redbirds. There is constantly something going on at park and its really a major boost to their downtown area.

Memphis also built an arena downtown and its dead most of the time like in Charlotte.

I do suggest they built it to suit a major league team just incase one day we do get a team.

Mike said...

Remember the genius who decided to put Knights Stadium in the middle of no where? Obviously, if you build it, they might NOT come.

I'd love to see the Knights play in up/downtown. But I'm also very tired of reading how the basics (e.g., crime, roads, schools) are a disgrace while funding goes for frills (e.g., arenas, choo-choo trains, Halls of Fame).

What’s it going to take to establish real priorities and stick to them? Sure, bring the Knights up/downtown, but after we fix the problems that keep showing up week after week in the pages of the Observer.

Or, in simpler terms, pay the rent first and then, if you can afford it, enjoy a day at Carowinds.

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