As one would expect from a brand-new Triple-A ballpark, the Charlotte Knights' BB&T Ballpark boasts a spacious press box.
At the far right end of the press box is a two-tiered seating area, providing accommodation for the official scorer, local writers and team employees seeking a brief respite from the summer heat. To the far left is a massive (by Minor League Baseball standards) control room, containing the equipment and manpower necessary to run what is proudly referred to as the "widest scoreboard in all of Minor League Baseball" (82 feet, for those keeping score at home).
And, in between, one can find three broadcast booths. One houses veteran Knights broadcasters Matt Swierad and Mike Pacheco and another hosts the radio voice of whatever International League opponent happens to be in town. But behind door No. 3 is where things take a turn for the anomalous.
During each Sunday home game this season, Knights games are broadcast in Spanish on WNOW (1030 on your AM radio dial) and WURL (980). In doing so, broadcasters Tony Ramos and Rafael Batista and producer Ernesto Hurtado are putting the "international" in International League baseball.
Though nearly all 160 Minor League teams have an English-language radio broadcaster, Spanish broadcasts remain a rarity. As far as I could ascertain, the Corpus Christi Hooks are the only team to broadcast all 70 of their home games in Spanish with Eduardo Becerra, a veteran Mexican League announcer, calling the action for KUNO "La Preciosa." Another team with a longtime Spanish-language presence are the Omaha Storm Chasers, with brothers Jose and Juan Munoz currently working Friday and Saturday night games on 1020 AM "La Nueva." Other teams that have hosted Spanish-language broadcasts in recent years include the Tulsa Drillers and San Antonio Missions, among others.
That the Charlotte Knights are now part of this small Minor League club can largely be attributed to the passion of Hurtado and Batista (who have recently incorporated their media efforts under the name of RLM Productions). I visited Charlotte's BB&T Park last month, but the two games I attended were during the week, and, alas, no Spanish-language broadcasts were taking place. Hurtado was in the press box, however, and quite willing to talk about the endeavor.
"Basically, this started about five years ago when we started doing interviews with Latino players, most of them Venezuelans," said Hurtado. "A lot of games we'd stop by to interview, so we started getting close to the Charlotte Knights. … So, last year when they decided to move to the new stadium, it wasn't an awkward situation. We said, 'Maybe we can put together some kind of project to do, like a Spanish broadcast.'"
The Knights were receptive to the idea, with general manager Scott Brown recently remarking that the broadcasts "are a great way to reach Charlotte's Latino community."
"It was a little bit hard to get together with the radio stations, because when we tell them we have an agreement with the Charlotte Knights, they think we have a lot of money," said Hurtado, laughing. "We don't! But the Knights believe in us, and we are trying to make a space here for the Latino population. … Tony Ramos, he's from the Dominican, he does the play-by-play. Rafael, he makes the comments and studies the statistics. And I do the production. I do some interviews, but don't announce. I wish!"
A view from inside the pressbox at Charlotte's BB&T Ballpark. (Benjamin Hill/MiLB.com)
According to the 2010 Census, there are 95,688 Latinos living in Charlotte (approximately 13 percent of the city's population). Though this is a relatively modest figure overall, it represents a 135 percent increase from just 10 years before.
"I moved to Charlotte in 2002, but my first time here was in 1999, and I think I was the only one speaking Spanish. I couldn't find anyone," said Hurtado, a native Venezuelan. "But the [Latino] population is growing and growing. There are a lot of Dominicans coming in from New York, and the Cuban population moving from Florida. And there are a lot of Colombian and Venezuelan people, too.
"We have three Venezuelan players here on the Knights -- Carlos Sanchez, Gorkys Hernandez [since released] and Miguel Gonzalez," he continued. "We get together, we show them around. It means a lot to have a close relationship with them, and not only with the Venezuelans, but also the Dominican guys."
But the most important thing these days are the broadcasts themselves.
"Basically we use the same [terminology] -- home runs, runs, errors, that kind of stuff," said Hurtado. "But strikeout, we call that a ponchado. Like a punchout -- it's fun. There is more emotion and volume. We talk too high and put our soul in it. Most of the baseball in Latin America is played around the Caribbean, and the Caribbean people are happy and like to party. But everything is about baseball. We like baseball."
Motivated by that love of the game, Hurtado and company hope to make beisbol en espanol a regularly-occurring feature of the Charlotte airwaves.
"We're doing 11 games this year, we'd like to double that," he said. "Do 22 or 24 games next year and just keep growing. That's what we are looking for."