Durham Bulls quiet Knights in the Charlotte night: A road trip | Sports

Durham Bulls quiet Knights in the Charlotte night: A road trip

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Knights Stadium, Fort Mill, S.C.
  • www.ballparkreviews.com
  • Knights Stadium, Fort Mill, S.C.
KNIGHTS STADIUM/ FORT MILL, S.C.—Yes, the dateline is correct. This morning Heather and I were feeling a need to get out of town, and it wasn't long before the Triangle Offense beat writer in me came up with the idea to see what the Durham Bulls look like in their away uniforms. Informed of this motivating desire, Bulls utilityman Elliot Johnson quipped, "Only reason we can get a road reporter." Yo, E. J., it's either that or money, and there ain't no money.

So I'm coming to you from a Rock Hill motel tonight, Heather already half-asleep behind me, with a report not only on the Bulls' 2-1 victory over Charlotte at Knights Stadium, but a little bit about Knights Stadium itself. I know what you're thinking, and in reply, let me just say: Hey, you're welcome. Somebody had to do it.

The basics of last night's Bulls victory are, well, basic, for those that would like to stop there: Two good starting pitchers kept two good-hitting lineups in check. (Elliot Johnson and Chris Richard both weighed in later with the old axiom that "good pitching will always beat good hitting.") The Bulls' Heath Phillips, who Charlie Montoyo thought was throwing a bit harder than he had been lately, perhaps emerging from a dead-arm period, allowed only a solo homer to Stefan Gartrell (Gartrell's 17th), an opposite-field salvo that barely cleared the very, very near right-field wall—it's only 347 to the alley at Knights Stadium. Phillips had one of his better starts in recent memory, using his breaking pitches very effectively. I think he throws a cut fastball (it could be a slider), but he was leaving the park as I went down to conduct interviews and so I couldn't ask him any questions. I'll try to get to him Sunday.

The Knights' Matt Zaleski was almost as good as Phillips; in some ways he was better; but a walk and a pair of hit batters cost him two runs, and the ballgame. Neither team scored after the fourth inning, despite some chances, especially for Durham, which stranded eight runners in scoring position. The Bulls still don't look good at the plate since the All-Star break ended, and although it probably made the team feel good to win a game in which they had just six hits—three by Chris Richard, who said afterward that he likes hitting here—there are really no excuses at this point. Plenty of other teams are hitting. Perhaps coming away with a quiet win will get the bats out of their cave.

More on the game, and notes on the Knights' roundtable diamond, after the jump.

After the game, Charlie Montoyo's tune about his team's recent struggles had changed a bit. "We're struggling right now; we got two runs and that's it... It's one of those games, as a manager, you know you're not gonna score any more runs. We're gonna have to play to protect a one-run lead." To that end, Montoyo took much tighter control of his personnel last night than he usually does, making two mid-inning pitching changes in order to set up favorable left-right matchups and a defensive replacement in the late going (Justin Ruggiano in left field for Dan Johnson; Ruggiano, by the way, had to leave for a pinch-hitter in the ninth with mild forearm tightness but said he's fine and expects to play today). Normally, Montoyo lets his guys do their thing for full innings or games, as the case may be. "It was kind of fun," Montoyo allowed, as if just discovering that this action figure he's had lying around comes with movable parts. "They're all rested," he said of his relievers; "they need to pitch anyway." Thus R. J. Swindle spelled Joe Bateman after Bateman's two thirds of an inning, and Abreu replaced Swindle with two outs and a man on in the eighth. (Abreu stayed in to record his 12th save. He hasn't blown one this year.)

After complimenting Knights' starters Lucas Harrell and Jeff Marquez after their effective Thursday and Friday starts, Montoyo wasn't quite so ready to laud Charlotte's Matt Zaleski on Saturday. "We're making everybody look like Cy Young right now," he said. "Tonight was more us" rather than Zaleski. Four times, Bulls' hitters were ahead in the count with runners in scoring position; four times they hit into weak outs. They'd tagged Zaleski for seven hits and five runs in six innings back on April 21. And for the second straight night, they helped bail out a young pitcher just called up to Triple-A. On Friday it was Chris Sale—who, to be fair, was the Chicago White Sox' No. 1 draft pick—who issued a leadoff walk that the Bulls failed to exploit. On Saturday it was the man with the mismatched names, Miguel Socolovich, a 23-year-old Venezuelan who threw reasonably hard but allowed a single, two walks and three stolen bases before escaping a bases-loaded jam by getting Joe Dillon to fly out to right field.

And on Sunday afternoon, they get to take their hacks against yet another newbie, Brandon Hynick, a 24-year-old right-hander who made his first Class AAA start against Gwinnett on the last day before the All-Star break. Can the Bulls, who have scored just eight runs in three games since play resumed, break out? Or will they wait until the Columbus Clippers meet them back at the DBAP on Monday night? I'll be back at Knights Stadium tomorrow afternoon—game time is at 2:15 PM—to report back.

***

And speaking again of Knights Stadium, a few first impressions of the place. First of all, the dimensions of the playing field itself are frightfully small. Not to take anything away from the Charlotte sluggers, the three best of whom have balanced home/road splits, but their home park is a great place to hit long balls. Those short power alleys are homer-friendly (Gartrell benefited last night), and even friendlier when you learn that the two upper tiers of the outfield wall, which is three levels tall, are actually a few feet behind the lower wall. If you hit one over the eight-foot first level, it's a homer. The Knights are, apparently, planning to move the lower wall back next season, flush with the upper walls, resulting in a much harder place to hit home runs; the resulting 24-foot wall, pole to pole, will, however, probably make for a lot more doubles. So the solution is imperfect, but perhaps unavoidable; the word is that the whole thing can't be moved back any further because of substrate issues that would require untenable blasting or drilling. The Knights will be trying to add height in order to make up for a lack of available depth. It'll be interesting to keep an eye on run production there in 2011.

(Quick aside: due to problems with the grass, which are apparently not entirely the groundskeeper's fault—he used to work in the big leagues—the field is in poor condition, full of what one Bull called "potholes" after the game. There are dozens of bald patches, none of which managed to affect balls in play last night, thankfully.)

Knights Stadium is, as you may know, not in Charlotte at all, but a few exits down I-77 in Fort Mill, South Carolina. the park sits in a rather lonely clearing, with the Charlotte Bobcats' practice facility—basically a big tin can—off beyond the right-field stands, and a solitary house up on a hill a few hundred yards past the center field wall. It is a radical change in feel from the DBAP and other downtown ballparks. The only way to get here is by car, and so it was not entirely a surprise to see plenty of folks doing something I had never seen at a baseball game a couple of hours before game time: tailgating. Some of these cookouts were sophisticated operations, with huge meat smokers pulled on trailers, and Gamecocks tents erected at the edge of the vast parking lot, which seems like it's probably too big for the ballpark: capacity is about 10,000, same as the DBAP, although both places look like they could easily cram in more—the DBAP attendance record is more than 11,500. The big parking lot adds to the feeling that the stadium has been dropped down into the middle of nowhere.

The stadium was built in 1989, just five years before the DBAP, but it feels like it's from an entirely different era. That's because Knights Stadium was designed and constructed just before the sweeping advent of "retro" ballparks that began with Baltimore's Camden Yards and within a few years took over dozens of cities, including Durham (the same architects designed the latter two parks). The brick-and-green motif, regardless of your feelings about kitsch nostalgia, ages well. Knights Stadium is mostly gray concrete, which doesn't—it only gets grayer—and the grandstand, which is ringed by a upper deck, also features a hugely bulging Press Box, plus lots of other booths, that sticks out into the bowl a bit. The overall feel of the place is sort of aesthetically in-between. The designers certainly did not make the mistakes that marred the soulless, cookie-cutter multi-use stadiums like Shea and Veterans that ruled the 1970s; but they also didn't seem to have quite decided what they were intending instead, a reminder that retro-park vogue seemed to come out of nowhere in the early 1990s, part of the urban renaissance phenomenon that took hold of the country in the Clinton years but was more or less still undreamt of in the late 1980s. The place is quite pleasant to walk around in, and a fine place to watch a game, if a little slack in getting you to focus your eyes on the field itself (the seats rake back more than up, creating immediate distance); but it has some sight-line problems if you're near the left-field Party Deck, and it doesn't have any real character—which is partially the result of the park's nowheresville location. It just kind of is, which is actually rather nice.

There's also a strange proportionality gap. The field is small and homely and the technology is, compared to the DBAP's, primitive: the video and scoreboard looms way above the center field wall, perhaps 40 feet up in the air, but it isn't big enough. You barely notice it most of the time because of the size and distance from the fans, and it isn't used for much more than between-innings ads, which you can easily ignore, largely because the PA volume is much quieter than it is at the eardrum-punishing DBAP, and also because the sound and video don't seem to be coming from the same place. (Also, the video screen needs repairs.)

The administrative and managerial part of Knights Stadium has big-league aspirations. There are quiet, empty offices and booths all over the place, long corridors that seem to lead nowhere in particular, and the general sense of a place that aims to house major sports operations. There is much, much more corporate and business space here than at the DBAP—the Press Box is easily quadruple the size of Durham's, and there is a separate "Press Club" room just for eating and gabbing. If you didn't see the minor-league stands and field out the window, you might guess that you were in a much bigger venue, one that hosted, say, a "mid-major" Division I football team or something like that. The clubhouse corridors are cavernous, and the Visitor's Clubhouse itself is huge; the Bulls' players were scattered all over the place, among three or four different rooms; Charlie Montoyo's office was yards away down the corridor.

Noted, though: The Press Box was empty of press, except for me, last night, and the corridors were generally unroamed, partially because there's so much room to wander—there are all kinds of places for staff to be. Still, the staff are all over, and very friendly. There's even one guy who just operates the elevator. The feel, counter to the building, is decidedly un-corporate, refreshingly so. Everything was well-run, but without a sense of an organization's need to control the fan experience. People seemed to be having a relaxed good time. The PA announcer had a homey, MC-like personality, genially but unpressuringly encouraging fans to get behind their players when, say, a Knight came to bat with the tying run on base. The atmosphere was convivial, easygoing, and made up in home-team happiness what it lacked in competitive intensity. One of the Knights' starters, who wouldn't be playing last night, sat in the stands and was joined by his girlfriend midway through the game.

The careworn relaxation was partially due to the low-intensity showiness of the between-inning contests and sideshows. The volume, as I said, is generally lowish on the PA system (please don't raise it, Knights!), and with all that sky and green space around the park, it's easy to tune out distractions by simply staring up and out somewhere. (You have to snap to attention when the next inning starts.)

All in all, it was a refreshing place to watch a game, especially on a cool-ish night after a day of very heavy rain and thunderstorms, and also after the season-long relentlessness of the DBAP experience, which seems to be conceived, almost militaristically, as a way to make sure fans don't pay too much attention to the game because, presumably, the Bulls think that the fans are a) not there to watch the game, really, b) unable to cope with even ten seconds of silence or stillness, and c) incapable of devising their own diversions, should they desire them. At Knights Stadium last night, the Wave began when a couple of fans started running the concourse of their own unprodded volition, arms and voices raised, exhorting fans off their feet. Soon enough, dozens of kids were running with them in big arcs from bleacher to bleacher, a general mayhem of fun, and the Wave became more like a surfing tide. I'm no great fan of the Wave (OK: I hate it), but it was fun to see it transmute into something raggedly enthused, a fan-led, fan-fed entertainment in the late innings. And it was fun to hear the Knights' faithful try to egg their team on when they threatened in the bottom of the eighth inning, even if the threat was quelled and the fans had to go back to mere recreation.

Speaking of late innings, the din of the motel and fast-food strip is starting to abate here off of I-77. That can only mean, this being Saturday night in a small college town, that it's getting very late. I've got a ballgame to get to in just about 12 hours, and Heather has probably been deep in R.E.M. for a good while now. I'm looking forward to getting back to the ballpark on Sunday afternoon, and seeing what else Knights Stadium has in store. Till then, regards from the Palmetto State.

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