The Chicago White Sox organization has a stranglehold on the Carolinas, with three of their affiliated teams taking up residence in North or South Carolina. Their advanced-A affiliate, the Winston-Salem Dash, resides in North Carolina's Triad region, while their Class AAA affiliate is – for now – in Fort Mill, South Carolina. The Charlotte Knights will actually call Charlotte home in a new facility in the city's Third Ward in time for the 2014 season.
This leaves the White Sox' Class A affiliate in the South Atlantic League, the Kannapolis Intimidators. Kannapolis is, to many, a tiny northern suburb of Charlotte, but there is much more to this town and its sports history than most realize. The franchise began in 1995 after relocating from Spartanburg, South Carolina, and was named the Piedmont Phillies. The club later became the Piedmont Boll Weevils (a nod to the town's textile history) before the White Sox took over the affiliation in 2001, and the club's name was changed to reflect the nickname of Kannapolis native (and partial team owner) Dale Earnhardt.
The Intimidators have a South Atlantic League title to their credit, taking home the crown in 2005. Despite a brief affiliated baseball history in Kannapolis, several future big leaguers have passed through the former Fieldcrest-Cannon Stadium (now CMC-NorthEast Stadium; the previous name was another nod to Kannapolis' textile history), with Jimmy Rollins, Brett Myers, Clayton Richard, and Gordon Beckham among those having stopped over on their way to the majors. Former Texas and NFL running back Ricky Williams also played in Kannapolis during his brief flirtation with baseball.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
One should not expect five-star dining upon walking through the gates in Kannapolis, but what can be found more than satisfies. All of the ballpark "standards" are available at reasonable prices at multiple points of sale. Popcorn can be purchased in small ($3) or large ($4) sizes, with pizza slices ($3), "loaded" nachos ($5), french fries ($3 plain, $4 with chili and/or cheese), and chicken finger baskets ($7). There are also hot dogs ($3 for the hot dog, $6 for a value meal with chips and a drink) and hamburgers ($4 for the sandwich, $7 for the meal).
For the more adventurous, there are some nice alternatives one would not normally expect from a ballpark. The club offers a grilled chicken sandwich ($5), bratwurst ($4), veggie burger ($4), and what the club bills as its "colossal" half-pound hot dog ($7). There is also a beer garden in the concession "court" (the main points of sale are all in the same area on the concourse behind the press box), which features 16-ounce ($3.50) and 32-ounce ($6.50) drafts, 16-ounce cans ($4), Mike's Hard Lemonade ($4), and Twisted Tea ($5), among other selections.
A lot of beverage sales were made on the night I attended, and there were two reasons for this: first, it was quite hot, as can happen in North Carolina; and second, the beverage prices were quite reasonable. Thirsty Thursdays offer $5 32-ounce drafts or a 24-ounce souvenir cup for $5 with $2 refills, along with 50˘ wings (normally 6 for $5 or 12 for $7). For those with a more non-alcoholic preference, bottled sodas are $2 on Thirsty Thursdays. Two sodas with roots in this part of the country, Sun Drop and Cheerwine, are available in both regular and diet varieties. One word of caution to those purchasing beverages, though: a North Carolina state law limits you to one alcoholic beverage purchase per trip to the stands. There are multiple signs making you aware of this regulation.
Dessert obviously tops off any good dining experience, and there is no shortage of dessert choices here. There are two different types of ice cream (perfect for the aforementioned hot North Carolina days). Dippin' Dots are available in a regular size for $4, or a souvenir helmet for $6. Local chain Bruster's also has ice cream available for purchase. If you prefer a non-frozen dessert, you can choose from cotton candy ($3); funnel cakes (with powdered sugar or cinnamon sugar - either choice is $5); or deep-fried Twinkies, Oreos, or Milky Way bars ($3).
Home plate in Kannapolis is within a half-hour of uptown Charlotte, but it feels light years away. This is by no means a bad thing. This all starts with the park's surroundings. Though the entrance is less than five minutes from Interstate 85, the road to the stadium is lined with trees and feels as though it is set in a city park. This makes for a very relaxing - and unusual - night out at the stadium.
Once inside the park, the Intimidators do a great job at providing a fun experience. The press box is literally within steps of the seating bowl on all sides, so the game announcers and fans have a relationship not seen in most parks. Along with the usual t-shirt toss, pizza scream, mascot race (the team has an alligator mascot named Tim E. Gator who was extremely popular), frozen t-shirt contest, and the like, frisbees are occasionally tossed from the press box to the fans. The team also strongly encourages fan interaction, as they took between-innings song requests via Twitter and Facebook. The public address announcer carried on somewhat of a running conversation with the fans, occasionally asking questions and gently teasing fans who did not respond to statements or questions.
If your night out includes going clubbing or having a fancy meal, CMC-NorthEast Stadium will likely not make your list of top destinations. Kannapolis is a small town of just over 40,000 residents and the only thing of note surrounding the park is a hospital. If you travel one exit south on Interstate 85, however, there are a number of choices available. Logan's Roadhouse offers a good option for a steak and beverage before or after the game, and Carino's is also in the vicinity.
Another popular spot in Kannapolis is What-A-Burger, which is a standard old-style drive-in restaurant. Locals swear by the food and service, and this is an interesting possibility for non-ballpark dining.
The crowds in Kannapolis will never rival those of bigger cities, but they certainly make up for that in passion and volume. The Intimidator fans are true fans of their hometown nine, and the just over 1,800 fans that showed up on the night I attended sounded like a crowd several times its size. Though the game went into extra innings, very few fans left early. The fans also seemed to know each other in a lot of cases, as often happens in smaller markets. I saw several fans shaking hands and talking throughout the game. There is not a lot of surfing the internet or reading in the stands in Kannapolis, as most of those in attendance seem to be there for the baseball.
I also saw a first (in my travels, anyway) for this level. The team has its own "fan club" called the Rowdy Tailgators. The group is seated in one of the suites (though they later moved down to field level), and they dress in sombreros, fake facial hair, and other unusual gear, making a lot of noise and heckling the opposing team and umpires. They also are not above heckling the team employees for missing their area with a launched t-shirt. The group is respectful, despite their noise level, and they are really fun to watch.
As previously mentioned, CMC-NorthEast Stadium is just off Interstate 85 north of Charlotte. The road into the park is somewhat winding, with the entrance to the parking lot on the left at the end of the road. This helps prevent backups entering or leaving the park. Parking is a reasonable $2 and there is no concern whatsoever with finding a space in the large paved lot.
Restrooms are on the concourse level just behind the main seating bowl, and they are large and clean.
South Atlantic League baseball is, on the whole, a great night out at a reasonable price. Kannapolis certainly lives up to this expectation. This White Sox affiliate features a quality on-field product while charging $10 ($9 for seniors and kids) for reserved seats and $8 ($7 for seniors and kids) for general admission. The general admission seats are a great value if you need to save the extra couple of dollars, as none of the seats are all that far from the action.
There is also a $12 VIP section at field level between the Intimidators' dugout and the plate. The seats in the VIP section feature special wait service from the time the gates open until the final pitch. This is an interesting added perk to those who want to enjoy the game without having to get up to get concessions throughout the game.
Since we just finished discussing the VIP section, it should be mentioned here as an extra. As more minor league facilities are looking for value-added items to draw and keep fans, the notion of having a seat that close to the action - with wait service - sets this park aside from many in its classification.
You may also recall my earlier mention of the heat in North Carolina. There is not a lot of shade at CMC-NorthEast Stadium, and with the first base side in sunlight for most of the game - even for night games - it is important to find creative ways to stay cool. The Intimidators help in this pursuit, with a misting station on the concourse at the top of the first base seating bowl. This is a tremendous help with temperatures pushing triple digits, and it is also a big favorite of the kids.
The club offers Major League Baseball scoreboard updates at various intervals over the public address system. This is a nice way to stay in touch with what is going on with your favorite team without having to fumble with your phone to get the score.
One of the hallmarks of the southeastern United States is its hospitality, and the staff in Kannapolis is no exception. Every team employee seems to truly love their job and is thankful for the fans who walk through the turnstiles each day. Being greeted with a smile and a simple "welcome" is something that costs a team nothing, but is a touch forgotten by so many teams. This is not the case in Kannapolis.
It is also tough to mention the extras at CMC-NorthEast without mentioning the "Uh-Huh Guy". He is a well-known Kannapolis superfan (and former high school principal) who wanders the stands leading cheers, punctuated with "Uh-Huh!". He also wears a t-shirt with his catchphrase emblazoned across it, while occasionally holding up a sign saying the same. The crowd loves him and he is a perfect example of what makes Minor League Baseball so great. He even made an appearance at 2012's ACC Baseball Tournament in Greensboro.
Baseball means many different things to different people, and to me, Minor League Baseball means a fun, inexpensive and comfortable experience. Kannapolis ticks all of these boxes and then some. Whether the facility is hosting the Intimidators or the newly-minted Carolina Diamonds professional fast-pitch softball team, the game day staff truly does it right. Come out to CMC-NorthEast Stadium for a game, and bring a friend - or make a friend!
It is also important to note that the ball carries quite well once the weather gets warm in Kannapolis. If you are a home run addict, this may be another thing that adds to your enjoyment. Whether you get to see a 12-11 slugfest or a 1-0 pitchers duel, CMC-NorthEast Stadium will leave you smiling.
It's a nice enough park, and a great value.... but it definitely lacks shade, I still think it needs a signature menu item.
I don't think it measures up all that well against the other A ball parks in NC... Durham, Greensboro, Winston-Salem are all a significant experience upgrade. It's better than Charlotte, and on par with Hickory, and maybe Asheville, but Asheville has more history.
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