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Official Review by Brian Wilmer, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
Charlotte baseball may not have a very long history -- the program started in 1979 -- but the 49ers have certainly enjoyed their share of success. The school holds seven conference championships (1993, 1994 and 1995 in the Metro Conference; 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2011 in the Atlantic 10) and five NCAA tournament appearances (1993, 1998, 2007, 2008 and 2011). Charlotte baseball provides the perfect complement to the culture of athletic success on the campus.
The 49ers call Robert and Mariam Hayes Stadium home. The first five seasons of Charlotte baseball were played at the now-defunct Crockett Park in Charlotte, the former home of professional baseball in the Queen City. The on-campus facility opened in 1984, with a large renovation taking place (courtesy of the namesakes) in 2006. With over 100 49er victories in the facility since the first fans walked through the gates, Charlotte fans enjoy a relatively modern facility in which to watch their home nine enjoy a home-field advantage.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
As college ballparks go, the choices at Hayes Stadium are quite impressive. A number of first courses (labeled First at Bat) are available, including seasoned fries from local favorite Bojangles' ($3), popcorn ($2.75 for a cup, $4 for a movie theater-sized tub), Cracker Jacks, cotton candy, candy bars ($1.75 for a regular, $2.75 for a king-size), soft pretzels ($2.75), nachos ($3), peanuts ($3), sunflower seeds ($3 for a large bag) and chips..
Bojangles' also provides combo choices (called Double Plays) for purchase. These choices include a cajun chicken filet sandwich and seasoned fries ($6) or an order of chicken supremes (chicken fingers) and fries ($6.25). The combos save you a little money versus buying both items outright, so this may be your preferred choice.
There are a large number of entrees (called All-Star Items) on the menu, offering choices for many different types of palates. Quarter-pound Angus beef hamburgers ($3.25) and cheeseburgers ($3.50) top the menu. For vegetarian diners, there is a black bean burger ($3.50). If you prefer sandwiches, several choices await you, including a turkey and swiss sandwich, Philly cheese steak or chicken cheese steak (all $5.50) or bratwursts ($5). Hot dogs are curiously absent from the menu, but with the numerous choices, you may not miss them. Bojangles' also offers entrees, including chicken supremes ($4.50), cajun filet sandwiches ($4.50) and grilled chicken sandwiches ($5.50).
After enjoying your dining choice, Coca-Cola products are available as the bottling option. A full line of bottled Coca-Cola beverages is served, including Dasani water and Powerade. All bottled beverages are $2.75. Bojangles' famous sweet tea can be purchased for $1.75, with coffee and hot chocolate at $1.50 each.
Once you pass through the entrance gate, the view of the stadium opens up to display the field and many campus buildings beyond the outfield wall. Many of the school's athletic facilities are visible in the distance, including those for softball, basketball and the shared facility for soccer and track and field. These views, along with the accompanying academic buildings in the background, really give the fan a sense of location and an attractive visual interest.
The 49ers occupy the first base dugout, so if you are going to cheer them on, be sure your seats are on this side of the field. There is very little shade to be had in the seating bowl, but what little there is can be found in the bleachers behind the plate, toward the third base side. Therefore, your trip may benefit from packing a bottle of sunscreen. The bleacher seats are, as one would expect, cheaper than the fixed seating in the lower level; however, they feel a bit more removed from the action, due to the concourse separating the reserved seating and the bleachers. The bleacher seats are chairback seating, so they are about as comfortable as bleachers ever get. It is still wise to bring a seat cushion, however.
The scoreboard rests above the wooden fence in right-center field, and provides a decent amount of information. The green scoreboard body offers a small LED screen with the current batter's name, number, position and season statistics. Below this LED screen, the current time (an interesting addition), number of the current batter, ball/strike/out counts and line score are visible, with no appreciable glare from the sun obscuring the data on the board. The wooden fence is covered with only a few advertisements, leaving a nice "older" touch to the park.
The Charlotte fight song is played between innings from time to time, with a regular mix of music played during other normal inning breaks. The Kenny Chesney hit "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy" plays as the grounds crew tends to the field, which seems to be rather common at southeastern ballparks. There are also occasional promotions, such as "Dance For Your Dinner" and the t-shirt toss. The sound is a decent complement to the game action, and never feels intrusive to the on-field festivities.
Much like Halton Arena, Hayes Stadium is nestled in the center of the campus. This is great in terms of allowing you to explore the campus, but not so great if you want to enjoy the surrounding nightlife. University City Boulevard (North Carolina Highway 49) and Harris Boulevard (North Carolina Highway 24) hold the key to most of the nearby dining, shopping and entertainment options, though none of these options are walkable from your seat. A number of suggested options are listed in the Halton Arena review, so we need not repeat them in this space.
One of NASCAR's cathedrals, Charlotte Motor Speedway, can be found just minutes from the campus. Concord Mills, the largest shopping area in the state, is also a short drive away. Charlotte is a large metropolitan city, and all of the perks expected within can be reached within a short drive.
Charlotte baseball has a great group of fans, and that group is extremely loyal to their 49ers. The club regularly approaches sellouts, and the day I attended in the spring of 2013 featured a large contingent in green. The attendance was announced at over 1,100 fans, which would account for a fan in every seat. The fans were firmly behind their home club, with a few fans even making their way down from Richmond, Virginia to support visiting VCU. The crescendo of fan noise continued to increase, until Charlotte won the game with a walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth, capping off a great afternoon for the Niner fans.
No rating of the fans at Hayes Stadium would be complete without a mention of the Uh-Huh Guy. Known outside his persona as Paul Buchanan, he holds up a series of creative signs, leads chants such as "Dirt Ball!" (calling for a wild pitch) and keeps the fans involved from the first pitch to the final out. The home fans love him, while the visiting fans make fun of him. Either way, you can't ignore him, and he -- and those like him -- make going to baseball games that much more fun.
With all the great features about Hayes Stadium, this is the lone disappointment. Parking can be very tight, particularly on busy weekends on campus. There is a lot (Lot 23) near the baseball and football stadiums that is labeled as baseball parking. However, these spaces quickly fill up whenever events are taking place in the athletic complex. This will send you scrambling for what little parking is in the area for which no permit is required.
The preferred option in cases like these may be to park in the West Deck, which is at the top of Phillips Drive. This requires a bit of a walk, though, and the walk to the stadium is easier than the walk back. The return trip includes a somewhat steep climb up a hill and requires the navigation of two crosswalks. Some of the spaces in the West Deck also require a permit, so be very careful in your selection of spaces.
Once inside the park, the bathrooms are located directly off the concourse. The facilities are certainly large and modern enough, but on the day I visited, both trash cans were overflowing with paper towels, to the point that the floor was littered with excess towels. The users of the bathroom also seem to occasionally have a problem with properly flushing toilets and urinals, though this is not the fault of the gameday staff.
The campus is served by Charlotte International Airport (CLT), located about 20 minutes southwest of the campus. North Carolina Highways 24 and 49 are nearby, along with US Highway 29. North Carolina Interstates 85 and 77 are also accessible, but are at least a couple of miles from the campus. Charlotte's bus system, CATS, also features routes that serve the campus.
A Charlotte game is certainly easy on the wallet. Reserved seats are $10, with general admission or standing room only (via grass berms on either side of the field) priced at $5. The bleacher seats may cause the occasional sight line interference, depending on how close you sit to a side railing, but they still provide solid value. Birthday packages are available for $100, which contain 10 game tickets, 10 hot dogs, 10 drinks, 10 cups of popcorn, and 10 ice creams. If you want to give your child a place to celebrate a birthday, this is a nice offering.
There is a suite along the first base line, called the Erik Walker Hospitality Suite & Terrace. The use of the suite for 20 fans is $250, which includes food and drink for the suite. The suite was popular on the day I visited, as was the terrace. The terrace allows fans to partake in the warmth and sun, without missing out on the benefits of the premium seating.
Using our standard test, a 49er contest is quite affordable. A general admission ticket, a hamburger and beverage total $11. Depending on where you park, you may even be able to work off that hamburger after the game.
As you enter the gates, be sure to look to your immediate right. You will find a table with Charlotte baseball posters, pocket schedules and other information. A free "program" is among the offerings on the table. Though there is not much to the program, it does provide a roster sheet for both teams. This will keep you from scrambling to your phone to identify the players.
A souvenir stand can be found just behind the plate along the concourse. The stand offers t-shirts, jerseys, hats and other Charlotte logo gear. Prices are not prominently displayed, so you may need to ask the workers how much your preferred item costs. The fact that logo items can be purchased at a college baseball game is a nice touch, however, and deserves mention.
We mentioned Charlotte baseball's championship history in the beginning of this review, and the 49ers have this history on display along the outfield fence. Signs commemorating Charlotte's conference championships and NCAA appearances line the left field wall. For those unfamiliar with the program and its success, this is a nice introduction to 49er baseball.
There is a life-sized statue of a batter in mid-swing at the top of the steps to the stadium entrance. This status, designed by North Carolina artist Richard Hallier, is one of several on the campus. These statues can be found outside each of the athletic facilities. This statue was erected in 2002, and is a popular destination for post-game photos with the kids.
A dedication plaque for Robert and Mariam Hayes hangs on the stadium facade, just outside the entrance. This plaque honors the family whose donation helped finance the stadium's recent renovations, and outlines their commitment to the university as a whole. Another plaque rests on the side of the sign for the D.L. Phillips Athletic Complex, just past the right field wall. This plaque honors the life of Dwight Ledwell (D.L.) Phillips, who left a tremendous legacy on the campus, along with the entire city.
Parking issues aside, it is very likely that you will find an afternoon at Hayes Stadium extremely well-spent. The product on the field is extremely fun to watch, and while occasional promotions take place, the focus is certainly on that on-field product. The school offers solid food and drink choices to help you enjoy your warm spring afternoon, and there is even plenty of room for the kids to run and play catch, burning off whatever candy they may consume. Whether you root for the Niners or their opponent, Hayes Stadium is a facility with plenty to offer for everyone in your group.
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