When it comes to Major League Baseball in Charlotte, if you build it will they come?
Edward Rose has lived in Charlotte for 12 years, and he still misses watching his hometown Major League Baseball team, the Baltimore Orioles. At first, the WFAE listener missed going to games so much that he’d walk around town broadcasting a reminder of his favorite sport and it helped him learn a little history.
"After I moved here and I just kept on wearing my Baltimore Orioles hat around Charlotte and I had some people that just identified with it and I was like, 'What gives?'" he said. He learned why: "Charlotte used to have a Double-A ballclub called the O's, they were the Orioles."
His old team in his new city. He had no idea. Since learning that, he’s been to some Charlotte Knights games, the Triple-A minor league team in town, and sees how much the city has embraced baseball with the enthusiastic crowds there. He thinks there’s an opportunity for more.
"I just feel like there's a lot of potential with the city," Rose said. "And I feel like there's enough interest in the Knights to substantiate having an MLB team."
But Charlotte is one of just three cities in the U.S. that has an NFL team and an NBA team but no MLB team. (The other two are Indianapolis and New Orleans.)
In recent years, Charlotte is often mentioned whenever there are rumors of a team relocating or MLB expanding — like when baseball commissioner Rob Manfred did in a 2018 TV interview where he rattled off a short list.
"In terms of cities, I want to be careful here, because anytime you single one out, other cities feel slighted," Manfred said then. "But we have a real list of cities that I think are not only interested in having baseball but are viable in terms of having baseball. Places like Portland, Las Vegas, Charlotte, Nashville in the United States.”
So, what would it take to bring an MLB team here? Rose says maybe we just need to take a cue from a classic movie.
"Maybe if we built the field out somewhere in Iowa with a bunch of corn and get some old league baseball players, there'd be some interest here in Charlotte," he said. "But I think it all comes down to money, that's my two cents."
If you build it, they will come?
That’s a reference, of course, to the movie “Field of Dreams,” where Kevin Costner’s character builds a baseball field in a cornfield in Iowa after a ghost whispers to him to do it.
Is that all it would take for Major League Baseball to come to Charlotte — a baseball field and someone with some deep pockets to support it?
Turns out, it’s a lot more complicated than that.
But before looking into that saga, let’s take a step back. Charlotte has a long history with baseball — of the minor league variety, at least. Professional teams date back to the late 1800s. There were teams from nearby textile mills and Negro League teams. In 1941, there was a minor league team with a familiar-sounding name, the Charlotte Hornets.
They left about 30 years later, and three years after that, the Baltimore Orioles — yes, that’s Rose’s team — brought its Double-A team to Charlotte. The Charlotte Orioles played at a ballpark in Dilworth and Cal Ripken Jr. famously played for them for a short time.
They changed their nickname to the Knights in 1987, and began playing in Fort Mill, South Carolina.
Then, just a few years later, came the first attempt to lure a Major League Baseball team to Charlotte.
Millionaire businessman George Shinn had just brought the NBA to town in 1988 with the Hornets, and sportswriter Joe Posnanski says Shinn thought he was on a roll with a reason to set his sights on baseball next.
"His first love was baseball," Posnanski said.
Posnanski recently wrote the book “The Baseball 100” about the top players in the sport’s history. He was working for The Charlotte Observer in 1990 and accompanied Shinn on a flight to New York City when Shinn pitched to baseball executives the idea of Major League Baseball expanding to Charlotte.
"I mean, I didn't get to actually see the presentation itself, but I flew up with him to New York and he presented, he had this whole long presentation of how Charlotte was growing and how huge the market is," Posnanski said.
Back then, Charlotte had the Hornets, but the Panthers hadn't even been awarded to the city yet (that happened in 1993).
"The thing I remember most about it was that was back in sort of the days when George Shinn was sort of like, ‘Oh, you know, Charlotte can do anything,’" Posnanski said. "Because the Hornets were such an upset that I think he thought, ‘Hey, we could get all of the teams here.’
"And I remember afterward, he was so excited after the proposal, he felt like they had totally nailed it and that baseball was definitely coming to Charlotte and he wanted to go celebrate it in New York. And it was like this big, huge deal with him. And of course, you know, Charlotte, I don't think, really even came particularly close to getting a team.”
MLB ended up expanding to Denver and Miami, instead.
Charlotte was much smaller then — about half its population now — and Posnanski says there were concerns over whether there were enough people to come to 81 home games a year in stadiums that seat 30,000 people or more.
"To me, it seems like the questions for Charlotte in Major League Baseball have always been built around: Are there enough people in the area to support an everyday thing?" Posnanski said. "I mean, I think that that was the question.”
But this wasn’t Charlotte’s only attempt at being a Major League city in the last few decades. One man actually fought to keep minor league baseball away in the hopes that Major League Baseball would come, instead.
Let’s fast-forward to 2007. Remember how the minor league team the Charlotte Knights moved to Fort Mill in the '70s? Well, Charlotte decided it wanted them back.
So the Knights worked out a deal to relocate their now-Triple-A team from Fort Mill to uptown with support from the city, the county and private funding.
But Jerry Reese wasn’t sold on the idea. Reese is a real estate attorney who has long had a passion for baseball. His theory was that building a small stadium, like the 10,000-seat Truist Field that could not support an MLB team, would prevent big-time baseball from ever coming to Charlotte.
How’d he try to stop it? Reese filed eight different lawsuits. He was trying to prevent Knights owner Don Beaver from building the stadium and moving the team uptown. But he finally accepted defeat when the new stadium opened in 2014.
"I mean, they just took the course of least resistance, gave Don Beaver a bunch of money and they got what they've got and they're basically going to have to live with that, in my opinion, into a long, long period," Reese said. "They have a minor league team in a major league market. That’s what happened in Charlotte."
Reese is actually right — at least the part about minor league and major league teams co-existing. That’s according to Dan Rajkowski, the Knights’ chief operating officer.
"Well, I don't think it could support both, not in the same direct area," Rajkowski said. "Now, if you're putting a major league team outside the suburbs or if you put it here, then the minor league team might need to move. But traditionally, those don't survive together.”
But Rajkowski says it wasn’t fair to deprive Charlotte of any baseball at all in the hopes of one day landing a major league franchise. The last time a city gained an MLB team was in 2005 when the Montreal Expos relocated to Washington. It wasn’t on the horizon when the Knights began their plans of relocating uptown.
"The reality is that Major League Baseball one day will come to Charlotte," Rajkowski said. "Was it ready back in 2014? No. Otherwise, they would have had it. We're here in 2021. We don't have Major League Baseball. It's not ready yet.
"People have their opinions and that's fine. I've been in the business 37 years. Jerry Reese has been in it 37 minutes. I mean, you know, it's not something with no background to it. We understand the market. We understand our business.”
Nearly eight years later, Reese has come to terms with his Charlotte baseball dream dying. Actually, he calls it a blessing in disguise because of what happened next.
"What most people in Charlotte do not know, they thought once I settled my last case in Charlotte I basically left the scene by their terms, defeated," Reese said. "But I then started really doing a lot of due diligence on the Triangle and Raleigh to see what was available there and how that might work, how it stacked up as a market.”
Yes, Reese now has his sights set on bringing MLB to the Raleigh area. He thinks it could work. He says he’s found the perfect site for a stadium, though he won’t disclose where it is. And, get this — he actually presented his case for Raleigh to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred in 2015.
“All that ended up with me approaching the commissioner of baseball, Mr. Manfred, about a meeting relating to baseball coming to the Carolinas, in this case, not an expansion team, but existing franchise," he said. "And that ended up in a meeting that I had with the commissioner and his executive team.
"That was some experience sitting around a big conference table with all those folks for over an hour.”
The meeting was just an informational presentation, and he didn’t get any kind of commitment. And Major League Baseball has talked about contraction more often than expansion recently, so it's unclear how likely it would ever be.
Reese swears he’s not trying to “get back” at Charlotte by lobbying for MLB in its rival city in the state.
"I find that revenge is not a very good motivation to do anything significant, to be honest with you," Reese said. "I don't take that view of it. It just seemed to me that things didn't work out in Charlotte for a reason. And I felt like I needed to move on, and have. And then I discovered that I might have found a better market and a much better site for the stadium than I could ever have done in Charlotte.”
Reese says he does sometimes regret fighting the city and county for eight years because it was a “significant professional and personal, financial sacrifice.”
But the sportswriter, Posnanski, thinks it’ll be tough for either Raleigh or Charlotte to land a Major League Baseball team. Raleigh, he says, is too close to Washington and Baltimore, and would infringe upon the fan bases in those cities. And now that Charlotte has a large enough population to compete with cities like Denver and Miami, it’s missing someone with a passion for baseball who can provide a big-money commitment.
"Unless there's, you know, some listeners, some billionaire that decides that what they want is to bring Charlotte a baseball team," Posnanski said. "And I think that was (what) the George Shinn idea was that, you know, some one person with a lot of money could make it happen.”
These days, though, the economics of baseball is a little different. It’s probably going to take more than just one passionate person to bring MLB to Charlotte. Posnaski says cities like Nashville already have large groups of interested organizers in place who are ready to pounce should the opportunity arise. They have stadium plans and are eager to provide money to build an outlandish stadium.
"I mean, the parks are absurd now. I mean, they're all billion-dollar stadiums. They're palaces," Posnanski said. "And so you're not going to be able to draw in a team with sort of an expandable park or something. And then you also, at the same time, cannot build a billion-dollar stadium without a baseball team. Like, you can't.
"There's no real — I mean, at least from my perspective — there's no real 'if you build it, they will come' type of perspective for that much money."
So, listener Edward Rose’s idea might not work, after all. Which is probably a sad realization for baseball fans in Charlotte.
"It would just be, honestly, a dream come true if they got a Major League team," Rose said.
It’s just probably going to be a dream that’s on hold for a while.