FORT MILL, S.C. At the top of the hill behind Knights Stadium, about 200 feet beyond the center field wall, stands a vacant house whose siding has been painted the spring-green color of the infield far below.
It belonged to the late Doyle Jennings, the baseball fan who donated land so this stadium could be opened 23 years ago. Perhaps his ghost looks down through the broken windows at the building that bears a plaque in his honor. If it does, it’ll have company soon: The Charlotte Knights play their last game here on Labor Day at 2:15 p.m., ending their International League season against the Gwinnett (Ga.) Braves.
Players and staff already look ahead to life at BB&T Ballpark in Charlotte’s Third Ward, where the Triple-A minor league team moves in 2014.
Fans can buy inscribed commemorative bricks for $90, $150 and $195 (or replica bricks for about half that price) to attach their names to the new field. Romare Bearden Park, which opened this weekend nearby, already has Charlotteans buzzing about this once-sleepy part of uptown.
But however satisfying the urban vibe will be for most folks, something will be lost.
Perhaps it’ll be the chapel-deep quiet that surrounds the current field before batting practice begins. You can’t see Knights Stadium from Interstate 77: That was one of the drawbacks, because nobody happened to walk or drive by and buy tickets on a whim.
Yet when you arrive at the site, tucked in among pines and evergreens down the aptly named Deerfield Drive, there’s a “Field of Dreams” quality to its solitude. (Well, except for the blocky gray home of Lifepointe Christian Church, beyond the right field foul pole.)
Perhaps it’ll be the funky feel. Will the new stadium have a merry-go-round with prancing, wild-eyed horses for kids to ride? Will it have vertical rows of purple and green and red seats running up through the black ones, like wild highlights in a nest of dark hair?
Color runs riot in the upper deck, which resembles a Hawaiian shirt left too long in a hot wash. As forbidding as the place looks on the outside, it’s playful inside: The seats once complemented multicolored uniforms designed by Chapel Hill native Alexander Julian, though those are long gone.
Some good memories
Certainly, some happy memories will hang over the premises. This is where the Knights won the International League championship in 1993, sparked by Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez. (Both went on to hit more than 500 homers in the major leagues.) Six years later, the Knights won another International League title here.
Charlotte’s professional baseball teams have frequently changed locales. Sometimes, like the legendary phoenix, they’re reborn from the ashes of a flame: The Knights left Charlotte in 1989 because a 1985 fire at Dilworth’s Crockett Park had cut the seating capacity to 3,000.
Sometimes they relocate for simple, pragmatic reasons: The Knights’ attendance had tailed off in recent seasons, and this Chicago White Sox farm club needed to get back into the region’s population center.
Yet the Knights kept their old home in good condition to the last. The infield was mown to the length of a Marine haircut. A sign on the outfield fence counted down the days, among ads for Miller Lite beer and Hebrew National hot dogs.
And now the last day is here.
Alumni from the Charlotte Knights and their predecessors, the Charlotte O’s, have been invited for a reunion and a final parting. Current players and staff and devoted fans and even longtime media representatives will be honored.
David Jennings, Doyle’s son, will throw out the first pitch and remove that plaque with his dad’s picture on it. Then the Jennings family will go back to its home, the Knights will go off to their new one, and ghosts will be left to guard the places both have left behind.