It took 25 years, but the Charlotte Knights have made it right back to where they started.
The franchise now known as the Knights began in 1976 as the Charlotte O's, operating out of Crockett Park in Uptown Charlotte. The team changed its name to the Knights in 1988, moved across the state line to Fort Mill, South Carolina in 1989 (playing in a temporary facility) and played the first of what would be 24 seasons at Fort Mill's Knights Ballpark in 1990. Now, in 2014, they have returned to uptown Charlotte in the form of brand-new BB&T Ballpark.
Boasting a stunning panoramic view of the Charlotte skyline, 360-degree concourse, and what the team proudly hails as "the widest videoboard in Minor League Baseball," BB&T Ballpark is a totally different animal than any of the Charlotte ballparks that have preceded it. But through all of the changes that the franchise has gone through, one man has been a constant: Eddie Waddell, visiting clubhouse manager.
I met Waddell during the later stages of June 9's game between the Knights and Columbus Clippers (just after taking a tour of the ballpark and just before suiting up as Queen Charlotte in the Knights' nightly Royalty Race.) Clad in black athletic shorts, a gray t-shirt and a Knights cap, Waddell was in the process of unloading clothes from an industrial-sized dryer. He has performed this task 20,000 or so times in his career -- give or take a few thousand -- but was nonetheless doing it with a smile on his face. Even after 26 years on the job and who knows how many bottles of detergent, the ballpark is still where he wants to be.
It all started innocently enough. At some point during the 1988 season, Waddell got a call from his high school baseball coach.
"[My coach] said he needed some help [with his job] over at Crockett Park," recalled Waddell in a baritone drawl, his answer starting slowly and gaining speed as he gathered his thoughts. "The Columbus Astros were playing Charlotte that weekend. So I went in there, helped, and my coach had to go on and do whatever he was doing later. But [team president] Roman Gabriel came up and asked me, 'How'd you like to work here?' I said 'I'd be honored -- that'd be great.' I've been here ever since."
Roman Gabriel had a bit more name recognition than the average Minor League team president, of course. One of the premier NFL quarterbacks of the late '60s and early '70s, Gabriel returned to his home state of North Carolina after retiring from football and in 1987 transitioned to the far different sporting environment of Minor League Baseball. Charlotte had aspirations to be a Major League city -- Knights Ballpark was built so that it could be converted to meet MLB specifications -- but Crockett Park in its final seasons was a literal shell of its former self. An arsonist burned it to the ground in 1985, and in its place the team built a makeshift facsimile.
"Yeah, the original stadium had burned down -- that's where Cal Ripken and all those guys had played," said Waddell. "[Crockett Park] was a neat atmosphere, more like a county fair type of deal."
The O's became the Knights in 1988, one year before their move from Crockett Park to nearby Fort Mill, South Carolina. Knights Ballpark -- widely known as "The Castle" in its early days -- debuted in 1990 and served as the team's home until the move to BB&T Ballpark this past April. The team switched from the Double-A Southern League to the Triple-A International League in 1993 and have been affiliated with the White Sox since 1999.
It's a lot to take in. I got a little confused when writing the above paragraph, and despite my best efforts, you likely got confused while reading it. But to Waddell, it's second nature. He's been through it all.
"I've seen a lot of players making their way through the ladder, from Double-A up," he said. "I remember when we had the Indians [affiliation], seeing Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Sam Horn and those guys, and from there we progressed to the Marlins. Those guys went on to win a World Series, guys like Cliff Floyd."
For almost the entirety of his time with the Knights, Waddell has watched them from the visitor's side of the clubhouse.
"Whatever they're wanting, just be ready," said Waddell of the visiting players. "Take care of 'em, and they'll tip you along the way."
There are some things, however, that you just can't be properly compensated for.
"We've had some food fights in past years. They get mad after a game that they've lost and it's a getaway night and something they didn't like ends up on the ceiling," he said. "We'll get it cleaned up and everything, though it makes you mad there for a moment."
But not mad enough to quit, even if this is just a summer job. These days, Waddell works as a delivery driver for an automotive paint company from 9-5 and then transitions to the ballpark from about 6 until 2. He says that the schedule doesn't bother him much, as once "baseball gets going, I get my body clock going."
So Waddell will keep on working for the Knights for as long as he is able, because what's another couple thousand loads of laundry in the grand scheme of things?
"We've moved into this brand-new ballpark here, and its great compared to what we had down there [in Fort Mill]," he said. "We're back uptown, about three or four blocks from where we started, full circle coming back 'round again."