FORT MILL — The Charlotte Knights or Indianapolis Indians could have easily given a lackluster performance in Fridays International League playoff game at Knights Stadium in Fort Mill.
Each had made the long drive between Indianapolis and Fort Mill by bus. It took the Knights 10 hours, arriving about eight hours before the first pitch. The Indians took longer, getting stuck in traffic and arriving with just six hours to spare.
The long drive didnt affect their energy. There were diving catches and stolen bases. For five innings, the starting pitchers Scott Carroll for the Knights and Phil Irwin for the Indians dueled, combining to strike out 14.
In the sixth inning the Indians exploded for five runs, chasing Carroll from the mound. Irwin tossed 95 pitches over seven innings, striking out a career high 11 batters for the win keeping the Indians alive in the best-of-five playoffs. Before Saturdays game the Knights led the series two games to one. Early Sunday morning they finished a rain-delayed game, defeating Indianapolis to advance to the International League championship against Pawtucket.
The energy in the stands was a different story.
Knights Stadium can seat 10,002. Some people believed half that many would show up for the chance to see Charlotte sweep the first round of the playoffs and advance to the International League AAA championship.
Team officials had more modest expectations. They told workers to expect about 2,500. Official attendance was 1,703.
The turnout was not unexpected. This season, the Knights averaged 4,030 fans a game, 13th in the 14-team International League. The Indians, a Pittsburgh Pirate affiliate, averaged 8,501 for the season and drew 4,674 and 5,858 to the playoff games they hosted with the Knights.
It was also a high-school football night and there was fatigue from the recently completed Democratic National Convention. It also must have been walk-the-dog, take-out-the trash and do-the-laundry night
Failing attendance, however, is nothing new. The Knights, an affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, have played in Fort Mill for 24 years and have never been enthusiastically embraced by South Carolina or North Carolina fans. No one has found a cure for the schizophrenia of a Charlotte team played in Fort Mill.
Knights officials hope the move to an uptown Charlotte ballpark will change that. The team is breaking ground on its new stadium Friday. The 2013 season is expected to be the Knights last in Fort Mill.
Team officials predict a move to Charlotte will double the Knights attendance, making them one of the leaders in the International League, and possibly triple the teams revenues from about $4 million to $12 million.
The higher revenues likely will be driven by more fans, higher ticket prices, more advertising and the stadium naming rights, which have been purchased by BB&T, said general manager Dan Rajkowski. Overall tickets prices may increase by about $3.
John Ansell of Charlotte already has his seat picked out in the new stadium. Hes been a Knight season ticket holder for more than 20 years and a baseball fan dating back to his youth when he attended games at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C.
Ansells dad taught him how to score baseball games, which he continues to do to this day. I always keep score. Its a way to keep in the game, he said, scorecard in hand before heading to his seat behind the Knights dugout.
The diehard fans know about the Knights, Ansell said. Others dont know we exist.
Ansell said overall, the team attendance suffers from the quality of baseball this years Knights are an exception. The Knights are fueled by youthful optimism combined with a handful of players who shuttled between AAA and the majors.
Robert and Barbara Benson of Fort Mill have been coming to Knights game for the last five years. This year Robert took a part-time job at the stadium. He likes his job when he is an usher, helping people find their seats. He likes it less when he runs the elevator, or as he calls it: the isolation cage.
Robert Bensons passion for baseball is about as old an Ansells. Ansell rooted for the Washington Senators, Benson for the Boston Red Sox.
The Bensons like coming to Knights games because they are proud of the team, see people they know, its easy to get to, and theres usually fireworks after Saturday games. They are unsure of whether they will follow the team to Charlotte, worried about convenience and parking.
Neither convenience or parking was on Cindy Phillipss mind as she made the trip to Fridays game. Phillips and her son traveled four hours from Statesboro, Ga., to see the game. When she arrived at Knights Stadium she initially thought something was wrong. She expected to see it full, expecting more than 5,000 to attend the game.
What is wrong with these people? she asked.
Long after the game was over and the parking lot emptied, Phillips was standing outside Knights Stadium holding a notebook filled with baseball cards of International League baseball players, seeking autographs. Her son was at a different exit, also seeking autographs.
This was a perfect night, she said. Cool air, no pro football, no college football, no reason this place shouldnt be packed.
To succeed off the field the Knights need more people like Phillips. If she can drive four hours, others can drive 20 to 40 minutes to attend.
The Knights need to continue to draw the Ansells and the Bensons, their bread-and-butter fans who appreciate every bunt, ball, balk or 6-4-3 double play.
And they need to continue to win on the field. Charlotte, in its quest to become a major-league city, has already proven itself to be fickle. Win and they might come. Lose and, well, you know the answer. This years playoff Knights deserve better.
Don Worthington 803 email@example.com