Intimidators leave stadium, name for new downtown ballpark

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 1, 2019

By Liz Moomey

KANNAPOLIS — An estimated 5,025 fans came to see the final home game of the Kannapolis Intimidators Thursday night and, as they left, they were the final fans to witness the minor league team play at their longtime stadium.

The stadium, which opened in 1995, is home to plenty of emotions and memories for fans — from Joe Hawkins, who met his late wife while she was selling concessions, to players hitting their first homer in their professional career. The ballpark became a home away from home for some.

“It’s not just a ballpark,” said Blair Jayell, the team’s marketing director. “It’s not just a baseball team.

“We’re sending out 25 years of memories. … There have been so many memories. More than you can even count.”

But change is coming to the minor league team. On April 16, the Kannapolis team is scheduled to host their home opener at the new, state-of-the-art downtown Kannapolis Sports & Entertainment Venue.

“We’re going back home, back where baseball began in Kannapolis on the stomping grounds of Cannon Mills,” said Trevor Wilt, the Intimidators radio broadcaster. “We’re going back literally to where the textile mill was built and that’s where we’re going to be playing baseball, which we think is pretty freakin’ cool.”

Wilt addressed the history of Kannapolis baseball on Thursday night. And in his research, he learned some Cannon Mills employees were on a competitive baseball team.

When a minor league baseball team came to Kannapolis, it became a centerpiece for the community — a place where kids went during the summer for camps, friends and co-workers met and a place for family reunions.

“If you grew up in this area, you always have a tie to the team,” said General Manager Matt Millward.

The first home game for the team, then called the Piedmont Phillies, was on April 8, 1995, with a sellout crowd of 4,257 fans. The Phillies won, 7-3. Only 1,189 people came the next day.

The stadium, which sits near the line of Rowan and Cabarrus counties, struggled financially when it was built. Attendees had to use portable bathrooms. The concession stands, the locker rooms and the staff offices weren’t completed until well into the season.

Despite the Phillies being first in the division, attendance remained low. The final count for the first season was 96,352 attendees. It was expected to draw 160,000.

If the Moose Road stadium was completed in time for the first home pitch, Millward asked, how that would have changed the reception from fans in seasons to follow?

“How much did the excitement outweigh the frustration?” he asked. “Pissed off fans? Is that what did set the tone for some of the lackluster years not getting off on the right foot in the beginning?”

The downtown Kannapolis stadium will be different, and the fan experience will be better, said Scott Brown, operating partner of Temerity Baseball, which owns the Intimidators.

“When it opens and they see that beautiful backdrop in downtown Kannapolis and they smell the food cooking and the sounds of the bats hitting the gloves and the balls, that will be the cementing moment that there are no regrets,” Brown said.

The new stadium will have the majority of its seating in the shade, a 360-degree concourse, a bigger office staff, a museum of baseball that will include photos from the 25 years and memorabilia from the final game, including the final baseball used, a player-signed base and the Kannapolis backdrop.

“We’re thrilled with the progress that has already been made and super excited about what the future brings,” Brown said.

The end of an era at the Moose Road Stadium and a new beginning at the downtown Kannapolis stadium is bittersweet for Wilt, who, like many, grew up at the Intimidators stadium.

“It kind of feels like home,” Wilt said. “I’m sad that it’s going, but I know the best is yet to come for this place, and the best is yet to come for Kannapolis.”

Wilt came to the stadium for family outings, birthday parties, with his Little League team and to camp out. He remembers hanging out with Paul Buchanan, who is known at games as “Uh-huh” and Dub, a former mascot.

“Whenever the opposing pitcher was throwing, he would go ‘give me a dirt ball uh-huh,’” Wilt said “And the fans were yelling it back. A lot of them were like ‘who is this crazy man?’ but everyone had an absolute blast and they were cracking up the entire time.”

Those moments for Jayell are the ones that stick out to the fans.

“The small things to some people mean the most and that’s what they look back on and hold that little piece forever,” she said.

The team hopes the Sports Entertainment Venue in downtown Kannapolis will be no different.

“It’s still the community ballpark,” Jayell said. “Now it truly is in the center of the downtown Kannapolis area, which makes it more community oriented. We still want our ballpark to be the home away from home and that’s not going to change.”

Millward said fans who attended the final game in the stadium are likely to be among the pool of the fans who will come next season, including older couples who have been Kannapolis fans for 25 years, kids coming for the first time, kids who have come often and fans just coming to watch baseball and have some beers.

But a new stadium won’t be the only change coming next year for the team. The Intimidators will shed NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt’s nickname and a new name will be announced Oct. 23 at Gem Theater in downtown Kannapolis. Until then, it remains under wraps.

The name, Millward says, will make everything click.

“If I didn’t have that feeling and really feel passionate that it brings everything together, I would be a little worried,” Millward said. “It’s been well-thought out.”

Jayell said, from the fans to the staff, the Kannapolis baseball community is ready for the next season.

“Everyone is as excited as we are and that’s all that we could ask for,” she said.