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Official Review by Brian Wilmer, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
Rock Hill, South Carolina, is known to many as a “bedroom community” of Charlotte. This modest town ten miles from the North Carolina line is the home of Big South Conference member Winthrop University, but was also home to former big-league manager Sparky Anderson, as he won a pennant with the 1965 Rock Hill Cardinals of the now-defunct Western Carolinas League. Basketball is also somewhat of a tradition at Winthrop, with multiple NCAA tournament appearances in the school's history now accompanying their new slogan, “Rock the Hill”.
The historic facilities in Rock Hill, Legion Park and Municipal Stadium, are no more, having been replaced by Winthrop Ballpark. This on-campus facility seats just shy of 2,000 (1,989 is the official capacity) and is one of the cornerstones of Winthrop's athletics complex.
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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".
Most of the offerings at Winthrop Ballpark are on par with other similarly-sized collegiate parks. There was a somewhat unusual offering in a bratwurst ($4) on the concession menu, along with boiled peanuts, a southern staple. Any change from the so-called "norm" is welcome, though the peanuts are a bit higher-priced at $3.50.
Many of the other items (coffee, hot chocolate, chips, candy, and the like) are standards. The pricing and portion sizes are hit-and-miss, with the popcorn ($2.50) providing the normal small popcorn box, while the nachos ($3.50) provided a decent portion size. The sodas are relatively expensive considering what you get, so consider a bottled drink or drink a bunch of fluids before entering the gates.
The night on which I attended was labeled as "Jimmy Buffett Night", where fans dressed in "island gear" (whatever that is) were supposed to gain free admission. The promotion, however, seemed to be a bit of a flop. The only real nod to Jimmy Buffett the entire night was the playing of his songs between innings (including "Why Don't We Get Drunk", which seemed a bit inappropriate for a setting with kids around). They also announced free leis for the first 250 fans, which also ended badly (more on that in a minute).
The park itself is pretty comfortable and laid back, as a lot of parks in the Palmetto State tend to be. There is not a lot of between-innings intrusion, aside from the Baseball Bingo scorecard game that takes place throughout. This game does require the purchase of a program, which is a dollar. They did, unfortunately, use a lot of goofy "minor league" sound effects, including the tried-and-true breaking glass sound effect on foul balls. Considering the closest cars are hundreds of feet away, this seems silly.
Winthrop is in kind of an unusual location in Rock Hill, as it rests between Interstate 77 and downtown. The neighborhood surrounding the ballpark is growing a bit, especially near the interstate. Cherry Park is just up the road, and is a decent place to picnic during the day. If your idea is to catch a bite after the game, go back toward the interstate, as there is a nice mixture of local restaurants and fast food in that area.
There are more Rock Hill-based eateries and attractions one exit south on Dave Lyle Boulevard. Charlotte is just shy of a half-hour north via I-77, though there are plentiful choices within a few minutes of the ballpark. There is really no need to leave Rock Hill, unless you feel like seeing the sights a bit.
The lei idea mentioned earlier seemed like a good one, but it ended on a much worse note. The first 250 fans were to receive a lei, but only 223 fans went through the turnstiles on the evening. The park was only filled to a little more than 10% of its capacity, which is a disappointing showing for a Friday night.
A lot of the fans who did show up seemed to be either quiet or otherwise occupied. I saw several fans surfing Facebook on iPads and reading books on their Kindles. It made for a very quiet and uninspired experience, for the most part. This is a shame, because the program and park deserved a lot better than the mostly-apathetic fans.
The campus is accessible via I-77 (as previously mentioned) and U.S. Route 21. The park and athletic complex are somewhat separated from the rest of the campus, just one block off Cherry Road. Cherry Road is one of the "main drags" in Rock Hill.
The parking lot for the ballpark is also the parking for the rest of the complex, including tennis courts, the softball stadium, and Winthrop Coliseum, among other facilities. The lot is on the left when entering the parking lot, and the parking is free. The ballpark is across the lot, with a tree-lined path leading to the entry area. Ingress and egress are particularly easy, and your two-minute walk to the car will not be made much longer leaving the lot.
Like most of the collegiate parks in the area, general admission seats are only $5 at Winthrop Ballpark, and they provide a great value. You will find a vast seating area before you when you reach the top of the stairs, and the only thing keeping every seat in the park from being a great one is the netting surrounding the seating bowl. Concessions are reasonable, and you will see a good brand of baseball. Winthrop is in the Big South Conference, which is known as being one of the top mid-major conferences in America.
There are two nice extras that deserve mention at Winthrop Ballpark. The free parking is a nice touch. The walk from the lot to the stadium is not that long, and the tree-lined scenery is a welcome addition. Even on a night where there is a lot going on at the athletic complex, parking is never much of a concern. Also, with the athletic complex being a separate entity, there is no concern with parking in a restricted area.
The other item of note was the super-nice man scanning tickets at the entry gate on the day I visited. He was very welcoming and set a good first impression. No matter the level, ballparks are still a customer service business, and this gentleman definitely kept that in mind.
There is so much to really like about this park. With a few tweaks here and there, this could easily be a preferred destination for baseball fans of any stripe. The Winthrop athletic department seems rather engaged (@WUEagles on Twitter), and it's a real shame that the fan base seemed to fall short of that same level of engagement.
If you are planning to attend a game at Winthrop, keep in mind that you will need to buy tickets at the gate or call ahead. There is no online ticketing capability for Winthrop baseball. A school at this level should have this component available.
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