Wineka column: The night the lights went out in Kannapolis

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 1, 2019

KANNAPOLIS — A fly ball to left ended it. It had to be something, of course — a grounder to short, a called third strike or maybe a lineout to first.

But it was an easy fly to the Kannapolis left fielder that turned out to be the last out and the final play of minor league baseball at Intimidators Stadium.

I thought I would be more sentimental about the end Thursday night, yet I didn’t stay for the post-game ceremonies. I denied myself the chance to run around the bases like kids with other fans. I even left before the fireworks.

I reasoned this place was just a bunch of steel and concrete, wire and netting, dirt and grass — and only 25 years old at that. It wasn’t exactly a treasured landmark for the city of Kannapolis or Rowan County.

The lights went out, and I went home.

My kids were 9 and 7 when this ballpark opened in 1995. I was working in sports back then and covered many of that first season’s home games from the pressbox.

But separately, as a family, we also must have attended about 10 other games that first year, when the team was known as the Piedmont Phillies. The Phillies played well, and my kids knew all the players’ names.

I think my oldest son might have participated in the first or one of the first “dizzy bat” contests between innings.

And in anticipation of minor league baseball coming to Kannapolis and Rowan County, my family had donated money toward the stadium, which meant our names were etched onto a metal tag on one of the reserved seats below the pressbox.

When the stadium opened in a rush, with still many things to finish, portable toilets served as the bathrooms. A real concession stand had yet to be built. A grander entrance remained on the drawing board, and the parking lot still wasn’t paved, but it didn’t matter.

For baseball fans and many families, it was just great to have professional baseball — even low Class A — this close to home. I covered a Piedmont Phillies playoff game that season in Asheville and, if memory serves, they pulled out a well-played, 3-2 victory.

The next year, the team name changed to the Boll Weevils. The major league affiliation eventually changed from the Philadelphia Phillies to the Chicago White Sox, and for the past 19 years, the team was known as the Intimidators — the nickname for the late, great NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, who bought a piece of the team just months before his death at Daytona in 2001.

Through the years, we kept going to the stadium as a family and with friends, and we saw many future major leaguers play, though we didn’t know it at the time.

But support for the team was as fickle as our own attendance, which kept dwindling as the kids grew up and moved away. As I got older, the evening trip to Kannapolis seemed like a much longer drive.

Thursday night’s last game drew many people like me, I suspect. They attended as their own personal gesture of thanks for family memories. They also came for the $1 beer and the post-game fireworks.

Thanks to the generosity of Walt and Joann Shoaf, a friend and I sat in comfortable seats not far from the pressbox. Joann even reeled in a foul ball.

The game was a good one, with the Intimidators holding on for a 5-4 win. After one call, the Intimidators manager, Ryan Newman, offered the crowd a good and well-justified tirade before the umpires tossed him.

Half of the big outfield scoreboard didn’t work, and we couldn’t make out anything on the public address system, so we missed a lot of what was happening on the field between innings.

All this will be better, of course, when the team opens up next year in the new Kannapolis Sports and Entertainment Venue in the downtown, not in this isolated outpost near Interstate 85.

After the game, I took a quick look at some of the empty seats near the pressbox, but I couldn’t find the tag recognizing our family’s donation. I think someone was still sitting in “our” seat, waiting for the fireworks.

So I headed for the parking lot.

As I left the stadium for the last time, a woman handed me a ticket-shaped reminder for “The Big Reveal” Oct. 23. That night at the Gem Theatre in Kannapolis, the ticket said, “Hear the new name, meet the new mascot and be thrilled with the future of Kannapolis baseball!”

No, I wasn’t sentimental about the last game at Intimidators Stadium. Not at all. I walked out of the ballpark holding a metal Boll Weevils lunchbox I had purchased at the stadium “yard sale” for $2.

Well, OK, maybe a little sentimental.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or