In 1991, a group of my SABR friends and I decided to share a weekend of minor league baseball each year. We named our group the Universal Baseball Association (UBA) after the famous BB Novel by Robert Coover. We have attended games in over 40 minor league cities. This year we decided to meet in Charlotte, home of the Chicago White Sox AAA affiliate the Charlotte Knights.
On Thursday morning May 16 I flew to Charlotte and immediately noticed Charlotte showing a lot of progress, as in construction in progress. During the course of my stay I would be subjected to airport construction, expressway construction, skyscraper construction, downtown street construction and light rail construction. Since 2000 Charlotte has been ranked the nation’s fastest growing metropolitan area with a metro population of almost 2.5 million. Charlotte’s concentration of financial institutions, including the corporate headquarters of Bank of America, has made it the 2nd largest banking center in the US.
The airport traffic jam made my decision to take the Airport Express bus for $1.10 an easy call. I was dropped off at the downtown transportation center in the central business district and made the 4 block trek to our hotel. On the way I was exposed to the rental scooter craze that has invaded many urban areas. Cities such as San Francisco have tried to curtail this popular mode of transportation due to illegal and reckless scooter use on sidewalks. I found myself dodging a few scooters along the way.
Our group stayed at the downtown Residential Inn which is located in between the Bank of America Football Stadium and BB&T Ball Park. We were able to walk across the street and be at the ball park. Our hotel is in the Uptown district just west of the business district. In addition to the 2 sports venues, the area has several residential high rises and some restaurants. After settling in, I decided to walk around Uptown and look for some grub.
I was attracted to the Rhino Market and Deli about 2 blocks from the hotel. The Rhino is a combination small grocery, coffee bar, deli, and beer/wine bar. One side of a semi circular bar has low rise top for coffee drinkers while the other side has high rise top for the wine/beer patrons. I was hungry so I made my way to the far side of the Rhino and placed my order at the deli window for a Reuben Sandwich.
As I made my way back to the bar, the regulars on the bar side introduced themselves as if they were the Charlotte Welcome Wagon. Also very cordial was Mike the barkeep who provided me with beer samples to make my beer selection easier. Mike went out of his way to get my sandwich as I was made conversation with some of the regulars. The sandwich met my needs of good food. Over the course of the weekend, I would find myself in the Rhino (below) several times.
May 16th – Rochester Red Wings (Twins) vs Charlotte Knights (White Sox) at the AAA level
After our group of eight congregated in the hotel lobby, we made our way across the street for some Triple A baseball. The BB&T Park, home of the Charlottes, was built in 2012 in a sea of controversy as the use of land in the trendy Uptown area met with not only disapproval but accusations of a land grab. However, once the cloud of suspicion cleared Charlotte was left with a very functional park that seats 10,000 and has signature views of downtown. In 2015 Baseball America voted BB&T the best minor league park in the country.
The Knights edged the Red Wings 3-2 in 10 innings. White Sox left fielder Elroy Jimenez was on rehab assignment and contributed to the offense with a couple of hits and a run. Veteran 1st basement Matt Skole drove in 2 runs with a single and backup catcher Seby Zavala drove in the other run in the 10th for the walk off victory. By the end of the month, both Jimenez and Zavala would be called up to the White Sox. The Knights bullpen corps of Carson Fulmer, Ian Hamilton, and Thyago Vieira shutout the Red Wings over the last 5 innings. Vieira had the highest velocity topping out a 101 MPH and also was called up in May.
May 17th – Delmarva Shorebirds (Orioles) vs Kannapolis Intimidators (White Sox) at the A level
Before our evening ball game, we went to the James K. Polk State Historic Site in nearby Pinesville, birth place of President Polk. The 22-acre grounds consist of a visitor center with a self guided museum and a 20-minute film on the President’s life. A guided tour of his family home was also provided. After the tour, we went to the adjacent Waldhorn Restaurant that features German cuisine. I was very pleased with my entrée of Wiener Schnitzel that came with Spaetzle and red cabbage.
I was amazed that our 30-mile trek to Kannapolis during rush hour traffic on an expressway with plenty of construction went smoothly. Our destination was Intimidator Stadium, a 24- year-old stadium that seats 4,700 and proved to be a difficult find. The park and its very small contiguous parking lot is nestled in a wooded area that provides a scenic background. Fortunately, we were going to a night game as the park has no roof. Our seats were in the last row behind home plate where we could hear the radio announcers broadcast the game. To no one’s surprise, 2019 is the last year of baseball at this worn-out park as the team will be moving to a new venue in downtown Kannapolis in 2020.
The Shorebirds broke up a scoreless tie with a couple of runs against the Intimidators in the 10th inning. The pitching star of this low scoring game was Drew Rom, O’s southpaw pitching prospect who gave up 4 hits and struck out 7 over 5 innings. For the second night in a row we were subjected to the new extra inning rules that require a runner to be put on 2B to start the inning. This is not a rule that is being tested for possible use at the ML level. The purpose of the rule is to reduce the wear on young pitcher’s developing arms. However, I am traumatized by the arbitrary placement of a runner at 2nd base on my score card.
May 18th – Lehigh Valley IronPigs (Phillies) vs Charlotte Knights (White Sox) at the AAA level
The next morning I got a heavy dose of construction in downtown Charlotte. My mission was to drop off the rental car I used to get to Kannapolis. The rental center was about 4 blocks away. My 1st task was to gas up before the drop off. Charlotte is expanding its Gold Line light rail across most North-South streets in Uptown. I soon learned that I was forced to get gas north of the construction. By adding some one way streets to this road challenge, the rental car return ended up being a 60-minute ordeal.
Prior to the evening game, we had our UBA Banquet at Murphy’s Kitchen & Tap near the ball park. The highlight of the luncheon was my update on players we have seen in the past plus discussion on the possible site for the 2020 UBA gathering. Reno appears to be the most popular choice.
The IronPigs outslugged the Knights 10-8 in a game that featured 8 HR’s. The Lehigh hitting star was Deivy Grullon, 23-year-old catcher, who had 2 HR’s a double, single, and 4 RBI’s. He is currently batting .349 with 10 HR’s. You will not find Deivy on any prospect lists. He is a late blooming star who has never batted over .273 in 6 previous seasons. Daniel Palka, ex White Sox slugger, was the Knights hitting star with 3 BB’s and 2 HR’s in 5 PA’s. Dan started the season with the White Sox but was demoted when he only got a single in 42 PA’s.
Zack Collins, White Sox top catching prospect, was the DH. He has a reputation of being a patient hitter as shown by his high number of walks. However, his lifetime minor league batting average is .234. He needs to become more aggressive at the plate for a promoton to the White Sox. He walked twice and struck out twice in his 4 AB’s.
May 19th – Lehigh Valley IronPigs (Phillies) vs Charlotte Knights (White Sox) at the AAA level
I finally had some time to just walk around the Uptown area, noting the construction of many buildings. I finished the walk with a stop by the Rhino Deli and Market for some coffee and good company. Before the game I had a final beer at the Graham Street Pub and Patio.
The Knights defeated the IronPigs 6-4. Of particular note was the large number of players with substantial ML playing time. Those included Gift Ngoepe, Paulo Orlando, Alicedes Escobar, Ryan Goings, Adam Engel, and Ross Detwiler.
The next morning, I was on my way back to Chicago. Good weather, good baseball, and most of all good company added up to another successful UBA gathering.