As far as the International League is concerned, there could be nothing finer than to be in North Carolina for the 2014 season.
The bane of the league’s existence, the outdated Knights Stadium in Fort Mill, S.C., is no more. It’s being replaced by the IL’s new jewel, BB&T Ballpark, a 10,000-seat facility opening in downtown Charlotte that will bring the Charlotte Knights across state borders and into the city they’re named after for the first time.
The Knights’ new home officially opens April 11 and will feature 975 club seats, 22 suites (some at the dugout level), an 82-foot video board that’s the widest in the minors and a year-round frozen yogurt shop. The cost is listed as $54 million.
The Knights have been last in the league in attendance every year since 2008 and averaged just 3,803 per opening last year. That figure should easily more than double this year.
The Knights, a White Sox affiliate managed for the second straight year by former Bisons skipper Joel Skinner, have also unveiled a new logo and new team colors (gold and black) as part of the stadium’s inaugural year.
Elsewhere, the Durham Bulls are spending $19 million in renovations to Durham Bulls Athletic Park as part of a new lease to keep the team there through 2033. The field is being rebuilt with a new drainage system and new scoreboards and video boards are also being installed. Other work on the 18-year-old park includes an expanded club level, picnic areas and new lighting.
Both facilities will host jewel events this year. Durham will host the Triple-A All-Star Game on July 16 and Charlotte will host the Triple-A National Championship Game on Sept. 16.
Buffalo’s Coca-Cola Field remains the oldest ballpark in the IL in terms of original construction, opening in 1988. Pawtucket’s McCoy Stadium dates to 1942 but was heavily renovated in 1998.
Down the Thruway
The Syracuse Chiefs (Nationals) are no longer run by the Simone family ownership, as the team’s community-run board of directors forced out octogenarian president Tex Simone and his son, John, the team’s general manager after last season. In-house attendance was less than 300,000 and the team lost nearly $1 million last year.
Under new GM Jason Smorol, the Chiefs are planning loads of promotions at NBT Bank Stadium, and that’s something they’ve never been known for. Giveaways, fireworks shows, reduced concessions and ticket prices. Things fans of the minors have expected for many years.
The most bizarre promotion? You can get a tattoo of the team’s logo for free on July 1 – and you get free general admission tickets for life. Seriously.
The IL North
Top Red Sox prospect Jackie Bradley Jr. will patrol center field for Pawtucket. The PawSox have a new manager in 38-year-old Kevin Boles. He’s the son of 1985 Bisons manager John Boles and cavorted around War Memorial Stadium as a 9-year-old in ’85, Buffalo’s first year back in Triple-A.
The Rochester Red Wings have put in a new right field video board at Frontier Field, a 24-by-33 foot improvement at the quaint downtown stadium that opened in 1997. They will be trying for two straight playoff berths for the first time since the park opened.
The Lehigh Valley IronPigs are not expected to contend on the field, but they will do big business at merchandise stands with bacon-themed hats and uniforms featuring a wavy strip that will serve as an alternate all season. And there are also plenty of bacon-themed concessions.
With Charlie Montoyo back for his eighth year as manager, defending champion Durham should be a force again. Former Wilson High and University at Buffalo pitcher Steve Geltz is back in the bullpen for Durham. In six spring appearances for Tampa Bay, Geltz was 0-1 with one save, a 3.38 ERA and held opponents to a .214 average.
Said Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, “Durham should be happy. No excuses, Montoyo better eat last. He might have a better chance to eat last than we do.”
Former Bisons slugger Mike Hessman is back in Toledo, where he is as beloved as Jeff Manto is in Buffalo. Hessman needs 15 home runs to break the IL record of 258 set by Bisons legend Ollie Carnegie. Larry Parrish returns as manager in Toledo, where he led the Mud Hens to IL titles in 2005 and 2006.
Indianapolis (Pirates) will have ace pitching prospect Jameson Taillon and outfielder Gregory Polanco, both of whom should contribute in Pittsburgh this year. Taillon is opening on the DL with some minor elbow trouble.
First baseman Ernesto Mejia is back in Gwinnett (Braves), where he set a franchise mark with 28 homers last year and led the IL in RBIs in 2012 with 92.
The Columbus rotation will include Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin, who many pundits think can win 10 games in Cleveland this year after a quick early stop in Triple-A.