Charlotte Knights open final season in York County tonight

Business EditorApril 10, 2013 

  • Want to go?

    The Charlotte Knights play their 2013 home opener at 7 tonight against the Gwinnett Braves. For tickets, call 803-548-8050 ext. 2106, or 704-357-8071, ext. 2106 or go online at charlotteknights.com

— Sometime after the last fan leaves, and before the outfield lights are turned off tonight at Knights Stadium, Dan Rajkowski will begin a ritual he’s kept for 28 years in baseball.

Rajkowski, executive vice president and chief operating officer for the Charlotte Knights, will pick a random seat at the Fort Mill ballpark, sit down and reflect on the season’s home opener.

Rajkowski won’t dwell on the score, although he wants his Knights to win. They are 1-6 so far this season.

He will reflect on the fans’ experience. Did the fans, especially the children, leave the stadium happy?

At the end of the season, Rajkowski will repeat the ritual, reflecting on the 70 or so home regular-season games and maybe the playoffs.

When he sits down then, one of the goals he will consider is: Was the final year in Knights Stadium memorable? Was it great baseball? Were the fans happy? Did we honor the 24-year run here in the proper fashion?

In 2014, the Knights, the AAA affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, will open the season in a new $54 million stadium in downtown Charlotte. Baseball will return to the Queen City where it got its start in 1901.

Home this year, however, is still in the Fort Mill area.

“The show is here,” he said.

While the team is celebrating 24 years of baseball at Knights Stadium this year, the Charlotte team has played 25 years south of the border. There was a temporary stadium the first year.

Permanent facilities made their debut on April 14, 1990, with the first Knights Stadium home game.

Bill Lavelle, Knights general manager at the time, proclaimed, “It’s the beginning of a dream.”

The $14 million, 10,002-seat stadium was built with expansion in mind. The Knights, were then a AA affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. Owner George Shin had bigger aspirations, a AAA team, possibly a Major League Baseball team, or an NFL team. Knights Stadium was designed with the idea it could be expanded to 70,000 seats for pro football.

Homer, the Knights’ mascot, arrived at the stadium by parachute. Henry Lawrence, a former Oakland Raider lineman, sang the national anthem.

Kevin Coffman, who would go on to a 4-11 record over three seasons in the big leagues, was on the mound for the Knights. More than 10,000 people were in the stands, with ticket prices ranging from $2 to $5. Filling the visiting team dugout were the Orlando SunRays, a farm team of the Minnesota Twins.

Then it rained.

With Orlando leading 2-0 in the fourth, the game was called.

It resumed Sunday with most of the seats empty. Just 2,465 came to see the Knights lose their first game in the stadium, 2-1.

The dramatic drop in attendance has plagued the Knights ever since. The best year was 1993, the first year in AAA, when 412,029 fans saw the team grab the Governor’s Cup title, the league’s equivalent to the World Series.

Last year, Charlotte lost to Pawtucket for the Governor’s Cup. From the baseball perspective it was a tremendous year. The Knights made so many moves last season that players didn’t know who would be using the locker next to them. Manager Joel Skinner somehow kept his players focused, winning 83 games.

Attendance at Knights Stadium, however, was 282,117 – 13th out of 14 teams in the International League.

Rajkowski, who is starting his eighth season with the Knights, said there are between 20 to 25 nights – mostly on weekends – when the fans pack the stadium. The other nights – mostly during the week – the club struggles.

“From the business perspective, we’re not financially successful,” he said.

The move to Charlotte is expected to help with attendance and with sponsorships.

To boost attendance this year and give the stadium a proper sendoff, the team is remembering its Fort Mill history

There are Flashback Fridays where the team will wear the jerseys of the 1990 Knights. Those jerseys were designed by Alexander Julian, who also designed color scheme for the ballpark which has 13 different colors.

The 1990 home jerseys are black with pinstripes. Julian chose that combination because traditionally baseball jerseys were once dark in color. The pinstripes reflect the influence of the Yankees. Julian said he envisioned Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio when designing the jerseys.

Tonight, the Knights will announce the All Stadium team, voted on by the fans over the winter. Fans were asked to pick a player at each position, as well as a team manager.

Some of the names on the ballot, such as first baseman Jim Thome, outfielder Manny Ramirez and manager Charles Manuel, had highly successful major-league careers. Other, such as Joe Bouchard and Jordan Danks, who is on the current roster, have been fan favorites with limited major-league experience.

Other promotions and guests are planned over the course of the season. Fireworks return to the schedule, including the July 4 extravaganza.

Rajkowski understands there will be some fans who will say, “I’ll wait till next year when the Knights move to a brand-new stadium.”

But he is equally confident the lure of the game will continue to bring fans to Fort Mill.

His belief comes from the stories he hears, as well as his love of the game.

When he came to the Knights, he heard people tell him stories of their dads taking them to Crockett Memorial Park in Charlotte. The park was the hub of Charlotte’s minor-league baseball from 1940 until 1985 when it was destroyed by fire.

Now, Rajkowski said he hears stories from people who say their dads took them to baseball games at Knights Stadium.

People come, with their children, for the popcorn, peanuts and Cracker Jacks. You know the kids enjoyed the game when they were high-fived by Homer, maybe got a foul ball or ate all the ballpark food they could eat, Rajkowski said.

That experience is what keeps people coming back, he said.

“Baseball is patient. It creates memories.”

Don Worthington •  803-329-4066 dworthington@heraldonline.com

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