As you might suspect, the last day of my North Carolina baseball road trip concluded with a baseball game.
From the time that I left my hotel in Fayetteville until I pulled into the parking lot of Intimidators Stadium in Kannapolis, however, this day was all about stock car racing.
The drive between these two North Carolina cities is only about two and a half hours, so I drafted up an itinerary that would take me to half a dozen NASCAR-related attractions — namely, a museum and a handful of race shops — and still get to Kannapolis before the ballpark gates opened. I was a huge NASCAR fan in my late teens and early 20s, and after a handful of years away from the sport, I’ve been getting back into it over the last couple of years. (You might remember my exciting visit to the NASCAR Hall of Fame when I was in Charlotte in the summer of 2018.) I’m not planning to blog about my visit to each of these attractions on this day, but I can tell you that even if you’re a moderate stock car racing fan, visiting any race shop around Charlotte is something to add to your to-do list if you’re in the area.
My NASCAR-themed day made sense based on where I’d end up. The Kannapolis Intimidators, who played in the South Atlantic League, owe their name to NASCAR hall of famer Dale Earnhardt. He was born in Kannapolis and nicknamed “The Intimidator” — and, for a short amount of time, was a minority owner of the baseball team.
My daylong sightseeing was so extensive that I only got to Intimidators Stadium about 30 minutes before the gates were due to open. That didn’t leave me much time for my usual pre-entry touring, but that was just fine on this occasion. Why? The 2019 season was the team’s last in this ballpark — and the last with the Intimidators nickname, for that matter. Earlier this off season, the team rebranded to the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers and will move into a downtown ballpark for the 2020 campaign. All of that meant that I wasn’t feeling any pressure to meticulously document Intimidators stadium for my website. Instead, this evening was all about visiting a new-to-me ballpark (#76!) and enjoying the experience.
So, instead of spending some time outside of the park, I entered just a couple of minutes after parking my rental car. Normally, I spend a fair bit of time on the main level concourse upon arriving at a park, but I decided to change things up a little during this visit. Immediately after I walked inside, went up to the suite level, where I had this view of batting practice:
Nice looking ballpark, right?
I was immediately impressed at the scene before me. At the time of my visit, the Intimidators would only be using this park for another two months, but virtually everything that I saw was in tip-top condition. I can’t say that I was expecting to see things looking unkempt to some degree … but I suppose that I wouldn’t have been surprised if some part.
As I looked over to my left, I started to take in some of the park’s unique design features. Take a look at the following photo:
You’ll notice a number of noteworthy things — small seating sections, a wide cross-aisle, an enormous concourse and the press box in its own building at concourse level. You’ll also see some picnic areas down the third base side and, on the far left, a tree growing in the concourse. Pretty neat, if you ask me.
Encouraged by what I saw from my high vantage point, I headed down to the concourse to begin taking in the sights.
As it had been during my two previous days in Fayetteville, the temperature was hovering around the 100-degree mark — and I was feeling it for the entirety of my walk around the concourse. Undeterred, the first place that I stopped was the third base side of the press box, where I stood for a few minutes to watch the visiting Rome Braves take BP. I’ve said it before, but there’s something so peaceful and enjoyable about taking in batting practice, especially at the minor league level. It’s something I’ll never tire of watching.
As the gates opened and Intimidators Stadium slowly began to fill, I moved to the other side of the press box to snap this picture of myself:
(You can buy my shirt here.)
Then, it was time to head down the third base concourse to check out the stock car that I’d spotted earlier from the suite level:
It’s an Intimidators/Earnhardt-branded Chevrolet stock car, which was neat to look at — even if it had regretfully seen better days. The body of the car has several rust spots on it, likely a result of dents from foul balls causing the paint to chip off. Nevertheless, I was glad to see the unique sight of a stock car in a ballpark — especially on a day that was centered around racing and baseball.
Before batting practice wrapped up, I took this panorama of the field not far from the stock car …
… and then took a short walk around the concourse area behind the press box. Check out how expansive this area is:
It’s definitely the type of place that you could stand for a few innings and almost certainly snag a foul ball.
After a brief stop in the modest team shop, I made my way down the first base side …
… to check out the carousel — another feature at the park that impressed me:
In the right field corner, I turned back toward home plate and admired this view of the park:
It’s always sad to see ballparks go the way of the dodo, and while I’m certainly excited to check out Kannapolis’ new ballpark, I can’t deny feeling a bit of melancholy at the idea that this would be my first and last visit to Intimidators Stadium.
I took this next shot to give you another view of the ballpark’s unique layout:
You’ll see the press box and picnic areas on the right side of the shot, but take a look at the structure on the left. It’s the ballpark’s lone building, and houses the suites, offices, team shop, ticket office and more.
One of the things that I love best about visiting ballparks at all levels is thoroughly exploring them and finding unusual nooks and crannies. Just past the carousel, I followed this pathway …
… around to the left and found myself in this unique area:
You can catch a glimpse of the field and video board in the distance, but this spot is otherwise completely isolated. It was a neat and random place to visit, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take a couple of minutes to search for errant BP baseballs in the shrubs around the path — to no avail, unfortunately.
After spending a bit of time in the right field corner, I made my way back around the concourse to the left field corner. While there, I peeked through a fence at the end of the grass berm to look at the home bullpen …
… and managed to step in a quicksand-like puddle of mud next to the bullpen fence that almost made me stumble right out of my shoe. No photos of that, unfortunately.
Once I’d aggressively rubbed my muddy shoe through the grass until it was respectable again, I made my way over to the cross-aisle and headed toward home plate:
Batting practice had since ended, and the Intimidators ground crew was getting the field prepared. From where I stood, I snapped this panorama:
When I got back up to the concourse and was contemplating where to go next, a man approached me and introduced himself as Alan Hand — one of my Twitter followers, and a 100+ ballpark visitor. I didn’t realize that he lives in the Kannapolis area, but he made a point of attending this game to say hello. Of course, we snapped a picture:
You might notice that Alan is wearing a Vancouver Canadians shirt, which I’m guessing aren’t too common in North Carolina. You might also notice the unsightly sweat marks on my shirt — an unfortunate byproduct of the mix of a hot day and a lot of walking.
I’m always thrilled to meet fellow baseball fans on my travels, and enjoyed chatting with Alan for several minutes about our various travels, baseball in Kannapolis and, of course, NASCAR. We decided that we’d sit together for some of the game, so after a quick farewell, I continued down the first base line again. There wasn’t any action in the visitors bullpen when I arrived — but I couldn’t help but smile at the following scene:
You’d think that a bunch of guys who get paid to throw strikes would fare a little better at tossing their paper cups in the trash, right?
I decided that I’d grab some food before the game began, so I took a brief lap around the concourse in search of Kannapolis’ famed “Mater Sandwich” — a simple tomato and mayo sandwich served on white bread that was Earnhardt’s favorite. I’d heard about this sandwich a few years ago, and I liked the story behind it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t track it down anywhere, and no one I asked seemed to have a clue what I was talking about. Undaunted, I opted for the next best thing — a sausage on a bun:
As you probably know, I try to focus on unique ballpark fare whenever possible, and a sausage on a bun isn’t exactly unique. But it caught my eye, and nothing else on the Intimidators Stadium menu really jumped out at me. One bite into the sausage made me very happy that I’d chosen it. While very simple, it was perfectly executed — a high-quality sausage cooked perfectly on a fresh bun. There’s something really satisfying about simple food done right, and this was a perfect example.
I wrapped up my meal just before first pitch before going partway down the first base side to watch the top half of the first inning …
… and then moved all the way to the corner before the half-inning was over:
In the second inning, I met up with Alan in the bleachers on the third base line, where we sat with this view as the summer sun slowly began to set, making long shadows over the field:
I sat with Alan for the rest of my visit — which, sadly, wasn’t until the end of the game. I had nearly a 2.5-hour drive to get to where I was staying for the night, and as much as I’d have loved to stay until the final out, I was tired enough that the idea of leaving for a long, solo drive at 10 p.m. wasn’t appealing. I pulled the plug on this game about 8:30 p.m., pausing to take one last look at the stadium’s exterior before I hopped back in my rental car and hit the road again.
The morning after my long, memorable day in Bowling Green to see the Hot Rods host the Fort Wayne TinCaps, I was on the move again. This time, I was driving east toward Lexington, KY, to catch the Lexington Legends host the Kannapolis Intimidators in South Atlantic League action. Whitaker Bank Ballpark, home of the Legends, was the fourth SAL ballpark I’ve visited since 2011, although I’d add another the next day.
The day was pretty open, but because I was driving back into the Eastern Time Zone after being in the Central Time Zone in Bowling Green, I was losing an hour. Still, I got to Lexington in decent time, hung out in my hotel for a bit and then packed up for the short drive to the ballpark.
Once I parked, I grabbed this shot of Whitaker Bank Ballpark from the parking lot …
… and then took a lap around the back of the park, taking shots like this one:
While I was in the parking lot behind the park, a man in a full Kansas City Royals uniform and carrying a pail yelled to me: “Are you picking up balls back here?”
“No,” I replied, because I wasn’t. “Why?”
He responded by, well, not responding and I continued on my merry way. As for the Royals guy? Hmm. The Legends are an affiliate of the Royals, hence the Royals uniform on the guy. MLB teams often send roving instructors through the minors, and I’ve seen guys in MLB uniforms several times in minor league dugouts. But was this Royals employee tasked with picking up errant BP balls? No idea.
I got around to the front of the ballpark without running into any more wayward MLB coaches and took a bunch of shots to make up this panorama:
Next, I photographed this enormous baseball and wondered if the scrawled names are supposed to be there:
If so, there was no sign inviting fans to sign the ball, but it’s sort of a neat idea. If not, someone needs to get scrubbing.
I briefly met the team’s director of broadcasting and media relations, Keith Elkins, who gave me my media pass. Thanks again, Keith! And then, it was into the park for a quick walk through the deserted and somewhat dark concourse:
Things got brighter, literally and figuratively, when I went out to the seating bowl and got my first good look at the field, which I captured in panorama form:
Other than the game of baseball itself, is there anything more perfect looking that a pristine field just waiting for action? I think not.
As you might guess from the above photo, there wasn’t much going on just yet. And because it was still well before game time and there wasn’t any sign of players on the field, I wandered over to the left field corner to check out a large and very impressive kids’ play area, complete with a Legends-themed bouncy castle:
The mustache, by the way, plays a key role in the team’s merchandise and marketing — the team shop, which I’d soon visit, even sold mustache bumper stickers. Since I was beyond the outfield fence, I took the opportunity to head to the outfield bleachers and take the photos to make up this panorama:
Next up was a visit to the aforementioned team shop, which had the best assortment of game-used jerseys I’ve ever seen. The Legends have obviously had a number of special jersey promotions, and this one caught my eye:
From their inception in 2001 up until the end of last season, the Legends were affiliated with the Houston Astros, and I thought these Astros-style Legends throwback jerseys were absolutely awesome looking.
One of the really neat things about this ballpark is the team’s hall of fame outside the team shop. The information about past Legends players was interesting, but I especially liked the home plates signed by all sorts of celebrities, including Hank Williams, Jr.:
When I finished browsing the signed home plates, I went out to the field to catch the warmups, which had just begun. For some reason, the ballpark had a fun, holiday-style vibe. It wasn’t an actual holiday, but maybe that’s just the way things are in Lexington. Outfielder Ethan Chapman and pitcher Daniel Stumpf were having fun with a fan:
Kannapolis pitching coach Jose Bautista was chatting and signing for a couple young fans:
And Intimidators pitcher Zach Isler was meeting fans, too:
After watching the action on the Kannapolis side of the field for a bit, I went over toward the right field corner where I noticed one of the coolest things I’ve seen at a ballpark. Remember the onion dispenser at Nationals Park that I’d love to have at home? Well, I’d love to have this instant refreshment station, too:
Just press the button and you’re hit with several jets of cold mist — a perfect way to cool down on a hot day!
I wanted to get some pictures of the Legends warming up, but made a quick stop in the Pepsi Party Deck, which has awesome Legends-themed seats:
Lexington’s clubhouse is back in this corner of the park, and from the walkway leading to the party deck, I spotted something you don’t often see — a player sitting by himself outside the clubhouse, cleaning his cleats with Scrubbing Bubbles bathroom cleaner:
As more players hit the field and started throwing, I went over to the fence by the Legends bullpen and looked for Bubba Starling. If you follow baseball’s prospects, you’ll likely know his name. A fifth overall draft pick back in 2011 (several spots ahead of Taylor Guerrieri and Joe Ross, who I saw the day before in Bowling Green), he’s the top-ranked prospect in KC’s system and the 24th-ranked prospect in the game, according to MLB. It didn’t take long to spot him:
While I was here, I got another picture of Chapman …
… and then looked for the next guy I wanted to spot: Raul Mondesi, Jr. Being a Jays fan, I watched Mondesi, Sr. play for Toronto for three years, and it made me feel annoyingly old to watch his son getting warmed up:
Well, “warming up” might be a bit of an exaggeration. In the several minutes I stood a few yards away from Mondesi, Jr., “hanging out” more aptly describes his pre-game prep. I have several photos similar to the above, but I won’t post them all. Actually, I shouldn’t say they’re all that similar — in some, he wasn’t standing with his legs crossed. His pre-game prep seemed to work for him, though, as you’ll soon read. And, besides, he was DHing, hence the lack of throwing.
When the game got underway, I grabbed a spot in the front row above the Kannapolis dugout to photograph the action. That action included this bat boy, who may be hoping for a growth spurt so he can fill his uniform:
From my seat, I had a great view of Intimidators starter Brandon Brennan:
And Mondesi, Jr., who showed bunt in the first inning and then drove the ball to right field for a triple:
In his next at-bat he hit a home run. In the following one, a single. And in his fourth at-bat, a double. Yep. The freaking cycle! It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a player do it in person, and it was hugely exciting to witness.
Starling wasn’t so fortunate at the plate. He went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts. Regardless, it was cool to see him up close:
It was hard to leave this perfect spot to watch the game, but I decided to hit the upper deck for panoramic purposes. Here’s the result:
After a bit of time up here, I went down to the concourse to find something to eat. I was looking for something tasty but not over the top, and the idea of boneless BBQ wings sounded good to me. When I got to my designated eating area, a picnic table down the first base line, I opened the box and was less than impressed:
The chicken was dry, had absolutely no flavor and at least half the pieces were badly burnt. You win some and lose some with ballpark food, I guess.
My underwhelming meal didn’t hamper the evening — getting to see Mondesi Jr.’s cycle will definitely go down as a highlight of my summer.
West Virginia tomorrow!