Baseball in uptown Charlotte seems to be the idea that just will not die. No matter the strikes against it, what is now an over five-year quest to win public dollars for a stadium for the Charlotte Knights keeps getting one more at-bat.
The latest swing comes in the form of feasibility study which has inexplicably roped in County Manager Harry Jones as a principal, a move that seems to pre-figure the some level of county support for a uptown baseball stadium. Mecklenburg County Commission Chairman Parks Helms keeps citing supposed support for baseball in Charlotte, but perhaps the current level of support is precisely the problem.
Public support for baseball is large enough to keep the matter on the fringes of public debate, but far below what is needed to actually sustain a healthy AAA franchise. Maybe the solution is to let the Knights die a natural death, moving from their current York County digs to points unknown, and start pro baseball over from scratch for the area.
There is precedent for this. There was no baseball in Charlotte from 1973 to 1976 which only led to renaissance of sorts once the AA Charlotte O’s rolled into town. The O’s, Cal Ripken among them, played in Crockett Park on Magnolia Avenue in Dilworth from ’76 until arsonists destroyed the stadium in 1985. Those days seem to be the golden age of baseball in Charlotte that everyone is now trying to recreate.
But for a new great age to occur Charlotte needs to reclaim the leverage in its dealings with sports entities by demonstrating a willingness to do without. Being needy and desperate is no way to win.
And an air of desperation certainly surrounds the stupendously bad idea now under study to destroy the old Memorial Stadium site in order to put a baseball stadium there. With the Third Ward Park site now off-limits to a stadium – to be a park of all things – public-land in uptown is scarce. Except for the old football stadium.
The problem is Memorial, operated by the county parks and recreation department, is still a serviceable multi-function site for the community. High school football games draw a good gate in the thousands several times a year. In fact, local schools are able to actually make money by renting the facility and moving their games to Memorial. In addition Memorial serves as a kind of neutral ground for clashes between football rivals like West Charlotte and Independence. In sum, there is real value to the old building.
There is also little reason to believe that an AAA franchise like the Knights is a good fit for Charlotte at this point in the history of both baseball and the city. Recall that it was George Shinn who bought what was an AA franchise and jumped it to the AAA level in hopes of eventually parlaying that in to a full-blown major league franchise. But now that the perennially ill Montreal Expos have morphed into the Washington Nationals there is no low-hanging major league franchise to pick. The major leagues are leagues away. The AAA level, with its added expenses and overhead, just does not make sense as an end in itself in what is otherwise a major-league city like Charlotte.
Rather than a bad deal to keep a bad fit, why not be content to let the Knights move on if they must, and wait and see if an opportunity develops for some investor to bring in a healthy, sustainable, and cheaper AA or A franchise? What is the hurry? Baseball’s great appeal is its languid timelessness, its willful refusal to acknowledge the passage of time.
Back in 1845 a New York bank teller named Alexander Cartwright and some friends formalized the rules for a kids’ game many called “town ball.” Baseball has been around in some form ever since. It can survive a few years away from Charlotte. Both the city and the sport will come back stronger for the experience.