Fans turn out for last Knights game before move from Fort Mill

dworthington@heraldonline.comSeptember 3, 2013 

KNIGHTS_FINALE_11

Charlotte Knights head groundskeeper Eddie Busque and his son, Hunter, 8, remove home plate during a ceremony following the team's last game at Knights Stadium on Monday. The Triple-A team will be moving into BB&T Ballpark in downtown Charlotte in 2014. The Knights defeated the Gwinnett (Ga.) Braves 4-0.

JEFF SINER — jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

  • Firsts and lasts at Knights Stadium

    • First pitch by Kevin Coffman for the Knights; last pitch by Deunte Heath, also of the Knights.

    • First to sing the National Anthem: former Oakland Raiders offensive lineman Henry Lawrence; last to sing it: AnnMarie Taggio, an air traffic controller at Charlotte Douglas International Airport who also has sang the anthem at a New York Mets game.

    • Last two fans to compete in a contest between innings: sisters Giada and Tiana Ehresman, who played “dizzy bats,” spinning around a bat 10 times before running to the finish line between the eighth and ninth innings Monday.

    • Last to throw out the ceremonial first pitches: Daniel Kauffman, a 6-year-old from Fort Mill who has leukemia, and David Jennings, son of Doyle Jennings who donated the land for the stadium.

    • Opening day ticket prices were $2 to $5. Last-day ticket prices were $8 to $15.

    When the Knights moved into the stadium they were a AA farm club of the Chicago Cubs. They moved to AAA two years later for the Cleveland Indians. They have also been associated with the Florida Marlins and now with the Chicago White Sox.

    • Homer the Dragon parachuted into the stadium for the first game in 1990. Homer left the last game by helicopter, bound for Charlotte.

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    Don Worthington

— With a pop-up to first base on a sweltering Labor Day afternoon, 25 years of professional baseball ended in Fort Mill.

The Charlotte Knights finished their run in South Carolina with a 4-0 win over the Gwinnett Braves before 6,894 fans.

The win stood in contrast to the Knights’ beginning here.

They opened their $14 million Knights Stadium on April 14, 1990, with an overflow crowd in the 10,002-seat facility. The stadium replaced a temporary one where the team played its first year here.

That first game was rained out after four innings. When it resumed the next day before 2,465 fans, the Orlando Sun Rays, a Minnesota Twins’ farm team, took a 2-1 victory.

While Monday’s crowd was well above the average season attendance of 3,757, Knights officials had hoped for a strong walk-up crowd wanting to see the final game at the stadium, which had welcomed more than 6.5 million fans before the finale.

The number of empty seats meant that fans such as Chip and Trudie Heemsoth of Rock Hill could walk up and get tickets. The Heemsoths were at the 1990 opener. They said they couldn’t miss the last game.

“We saw the first game, we had to see the last,” said Chip Heemsoth, a Yankees fan who grew up liking Mickey Mantle. He wore a Yankees T-shirt to Monday’s game.

The finale was a bittersweet moment for fans and the Knights.

“I’d have to put this at the top of moments at Knights Stadium,” said Dan Rajkowski, the club’s executive vice president and chief operating officer.

The club capped the final game with a salute to fans and former players. About 1,000 players wore the Knights uniform during 25 years in Fort Mill.

Rajkowski, a Fort Mill resident, estimated about 1,700 home games were played in Knights Stadium, between the regular season and playoffs.

Friends and memories

The Knights were champions of the Triple-A International League in 1993 and 1999 and were runners-up in 2012. This year they finished 65-78, third in the league’s four-team South division.

“This is what it’s all about,” Rajkowski said as he watched fans linger before making the final walk to their cars. “Today’s takeaway is we celebrate with our friends, remember the past and begin a new era.”

The Knights will play next season in a new, $54-million stadium in downtown Charlotte.

The Fort Mill stadium, owned by York County, is scheduled for demolition. Fashion retailer Cato has bought the property and surrounding land, with plans to build a distribution center and a larger commercial-industrial-retail project.

After honoring current and past players, the Knights turned to groundskeeper Eddie Busque and his 8-year-old son, Hunter, to begin the process of moving from Fort Mill to Charlotte.

Busque pried up home plate with a shovel. He and Hunter carried home plate to the pitcher’s mound. There they were joined by others members of the grounds crew, who had removed the three bases.

The crew – escorted by team mascot Homer the Dragon, team officials and 25-year employees Eddie Waddell and Beverly Burnette – then took home plate and the bases to center field where a helicopter was waiting.

As home plate made its way to center field, Homer circa 1990 stood where home plate used to be, saluting.

In center field, Homer circa 2013, carried home plate into the helicopter and took off for the Knights’ new home.

Busque and his son were selected because of all the time Busque has spent at the stadium.

“When I’ve been at the baseball games, I’ve been missing his baseball game, his football games,” he said, referring to his son.

Busque has been the groundskeeper for 15 years. When he first came to the Knights, his family rented the green house just past the center field wall – the one-time home of Doyle Jennings, who donated 32 acres of his cattle farm to York County for the stadium – before moving to York.

Jennings’ son and daughter-in-law, David and Frieda Jennings, accepted a plaque from the Knights before the game, and David Jennings threw out the final first pitch.

“Dad would be sad,” said Jennings, fire chief at the nearby Flint Hill Fire Department. “He always expected there would be baseball here.”

But Jennings said he understood things were changing and that the proposed development of the former family farm would be good for York County.

Busque said the emotions of the event hit him when he saw his son start to cry. He couldn’t hold back his own tears.

“I’ve missed a lot of his life to baseball,” Busque said. “He deserves this.”

At every game

Eddie Waddell and Beverly Burnette have been at every Knights home game since they came to Fort Mill 25 years ago – but they never saw a complete game.

Burnette had a great view of the scoreboard from the guest services window where she assisted fans. She could tell how the team was doing by the sound of the crowd.

Waddell worked in the visitors clubhouse. Sometimes he got a chance to see an inning or two, but most of his time was spent keeping the visiting team happy.

Waddell and Burnette started working for the team, then associated with the Baltimore Orioles, when it played at Crockett Park in Charlotte. They came for one game, were asked to work, and never left.

Waddell knows all the dirty laundry when it comes to the International League. Literally. He has washed the uniforms for every team that has come to the stadium, then hung fresh uniforms in the lockers for the next day’s game.

He helped the Gwinnett Braves pack Monday and then helped load their buses.

He got his start when he went to a game with his high school coach, Jack Sink of Myers Park High School in Charlotte. The coach knew then-team owner Roman Gabriel, the former pro football standout. Gabriel was short of help that day and asked Sink and a young Waddell to help.

When the team moved to Fort Mill, Waddell followed. He remembers the first year in a temporary stadium as a “country fair atmosphere.”

He has worked both the home and visitors locker room, arriving around 7 p.m. for each home game and working until 2 a.m. – all after finishing work at a full-time job in Charlotte.

Sometimes when the team played games on a Saturday night and a Sunday afternoon, Waddell slept on a couch in the locker room.

Over the years, he has seen players come and go and come back again.

He remembers Knights manager Joel Skinner when he was a player. Among his favorite Knights players were Jim Thome, who played for the team that won the league championship in 1993, and Joe Bouchard, who holds the Knights record for home runs.

Burnette started working for the team when she and her sister went to a 1976 game at Crockett Park.

“Go ask those two red-headed school teachers if they would like to sell tickets,” she heard. Burnette and her sister, Charlene Wertz, worked part-time at the old Charlotte Coliseum selling tickets, so they agreed.

The fans – and the fact that she has been a baseball fan since her dad took her to Crockett Park when she was 4 – have kept Burnette coming back. She worked in a trailer at the temporary park before the stadium opened.

“The fans are so loyal,” she said. “It’s just fun.”

Working in guest services has meant listening to fans’ ticket problems, signing certificates for children attending their first baseball game at the stadium and making change when the ATM wasn’t working.

Burnette and Waddell want to keep working for the Knights at their new home next year.

Fly ball, fly bird

John McCallion of Fort Mill and John Weber of Charlotte have not missed many games since coming to Knights Stadium in 1996.

This year they made 68 out of 71 homes games.

For Monday’s finale, they tailgated in the parking lot, trading stories while eating hot dogs and sipping cold ones.

McCallion, a transplant from Long Island, N.Y., said he enjoyed watching Major League players play for their Triple-A clubs to rehabilitate from injuries. He remembers seeing Dwight Gooden pitch at Knights Stadium for Buffalo and Darryl Strawberry play for Columbus.

The game that tops their list, however, was a 1999 Knights game against Scranton-Wilkes Barre.

The details are somewhat hazy, but here’s what they remember:

There was a high fly ball to left field. Before the left fielder could make a play, the ball collided with a bird. Bird and ball fell to the ground. The player stood bewildered, wondering what to do with the bird, they said.

“I’ll miss this,” Weber said of Knights Stadium. “But ... it’s now build and they will come.”

Weber was impressed by the faithful fans that came out Monday.

“It’s 2:15 ... and it’s hot,” he said. “That this many came says something. They wanted a piece of the action, wanted to see the last game.”

Weber and McCallion already have bought season tickets for next season in Charlotte.

Game-day rituals live on

Jim Vincent had a ritual every time he came to Knights Stadium.

First, he would get a scorecard, so he would know who was playing and where. Then he would walk to the first base side – the best angle from which to watch the game, he says – and ease into seat P-19 behind the Knights dugout.

P-19 is one seat off the aisle, almost directly in line with the pitcher’s mound. And then he would watch the game.

Vincent has held season tickets for seat P-19 for 16 years. He has caught at least 60 of the 70 home games. The Harris-Teeter employee said the game relaxes him.

He also just likes baseball, the symmetry of getting a player to first and then, hopefully, seeing him make it home.

Vincent also saw two of the three no-hit games pitched in the stadium.

He watched Tetsu Yofu go nine innings on Aug. 1, 2004, when he struck out 10 Durham Bulls en route to a 5-0 win at “Bring Your Pet” night.

Vincent was there this season when Andre Rienzo threw seven perfect innings in the first game of a doubleheader for a 1-0 win over the Indianapolis Indians.

“It’s sad to see this come, but it’s exciting that there is something new,” said Vincent, who already has his season tickets for the new ball park, in about the same location as where he has sat at Knights Stadium.

It wouldn’t be baseball without peanuts, popcorn and Cracker Jack.

For many years at Knights Stadium, high school bands and other civic groups have worked the concession stands to raise money.

It’s sweaty, cramped work. Fans blow constantly but seldom keep the concession space cool. The area between the counter and the machines is barely wide enough for two people.

But the workers say they wouldn’t trade the experience.

Working the last home stand with the Gwinnett Braves were band members and parents from Fort Mill High School and Rock Hill’s Northwestern High School.

“It’s very hot, very close work, and it’s fun,” said Theresa Parker, who has two daughters in the Fort Mill band’s color guard. A third daughter, now graduated, played trumpet in the band.

Some of those working were not even in the band.

Jacob Haney is a sophomore quarterback for Northwestern. Monday found him lining up rows of hot dog buns, taking dogs off the grill, and then giving them to hungry fans. There were a lot of them to give out, even with the heat, since hot dogs were just $1 for Monday’s finale.

“It’s busy and it’s hot,” Haney said.

He was there to help his brother, Nathan, who is raising money for the Purple Regiment band’s upcoming trip to Hawaii.

Don Worthington •  803-329-4066

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