National Anthem, hot dogs and baseball

CHARLOTTE, NC – I honestly can’t remember if I’ve ever played the National Anthem before a baseball game, so I believe Wednesday, June 1, marked a first for me.

I do remember playing the Star Spangled Banner prior to a few Tulsa Fast Breakers basketball games, when I was the mascot, “Bubby Breaker,” for Tulsa’s former CBA franchise. That was interesting because I actually did it while in the costume, which really surprised the Fast Breakers fans.

I’ve played the National Anthem hundreds of times as a member of one band or another, however, this time I was alone and not hiding behind a mascot head. Admittedly I was very nervous about playing in front of 7,309 fans at BB&T Ballpark in Uptown Charlotte, but thankfully it went real well.

On this night, former Major League Baseball player and manager Lou Piniella was on hand to sign autographs prior to the game and to throw out the first pitch. I didn’t get a chance to meet him, but would have loved to. The autograph line was very long, as there are many transplanted New Yorkers in the Charlotte area who remember Piniella’s glory days with the Yankees.

Piniella was an outfielder who spent 18 seasons in the majors with the Yankees, Royals, Indians and Orioles (1964-1984), then he managed another 23 years with the Yankees, Reds, Mariners, Rays and Cubs (1986-2010). He won World Series titles as a player with the Yankees in 1977 and 1978 and as a manager of the Reds in 1990.

The Knights ballpark is a beautiful place to watch a game, much like Tulsa’s ONEOK Field. It’s nestled in between large office buildings in what is known as the “Uptown” section of downtown Charlotte. BB&T Ballpark opened in 2014, and this is the third season for the Knights in this ballpark. The stadium features picturesque entryways with brick walkways. The bricks are for sale to the public to have their family name, business or message inscribed. The ballpark also is laid out a lot like ONEOK Field in that it is in the new style of “open-air” ballparks, where you can watch the game from the concourse that surrounds the seating area.

The Knights used to play in a stadium just south of Charlotte across the state line in South Carolina. I’m told by a 20-year season ticketholder that the team hardly drew over 1,000 fans on weeknights, so the move to the city center has certainly paid off.

I would have liked to go up to the press box to get a look around, but since I was playing the Anthem, I decided to not request a press pass this time.

The Knights are the Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox and play in the International League. Their opponent this night was the Syracuse Chiefs. I had to refrain from cheering because I was a guest of the Knights, but I am from New York state, and the Chiefs are the Triple-A affiliate of my favorite MLB team; the Washington Nationals. I had my nephew Brandon with me, who lives in Northern Virginia, and he too is a Nationals fan, so he enjoyed seeing players who have spent some time in Washington.

We had dinner at a restaurant with family before heading to the ballpark, so I wasn’t hungry enough to get any food at the game, but I was thrilled to see they serve Sahlen’s brand hot dogs, from Buffalo, New York, in the concession stands. That’s the hot dog I grew up eating at old College Stadium in Jamestown, New York. When I worked for the Jamestown Expos, we sold Sahlen’s hot dogs, and the company has been around since 1869. Sahlen’s is the official hot dog of the Buffalo Bills, Buffalo Sabres, Buffalo Bisons and WNY Flash. The Knights are the only team outside of Buffalo that serves Sahlen’s and it’s likely due to the fact that, as I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of Western New Yorkers living in the Charlotte area, including my wife’s parents and several of my cousins. Not only that, but they also sell Sahlen’s hot dogs at Harris Teeter’s grocery stores in the area, so you know I’ll be doing little shopping and bringing some back to Oklahoma with me.

Next up, I’ll be playing the National Anthem at a Kannapolis Intimidators game, while I’m still here in North Carolina. Then who knows; maybe I’ll get to play at a Major League Baseball game sometime. We’ll keep you posted.