Union County players find a summer home with south Charlotte team
by Aaron Garcia
John Spencer looks right at home leaning back in his chair. Technically speaking, of course, it’s not his chair but rather Hal Bagwell’s, the coach of Charlotte’s Ardrey Kell High baseball team. But for now it’s on loan to Spencer, as is the office and the team’s clubhouse.
The place is decidedly Ardrey Kell’s. The various team plaques and large logos serve as constant reminders. But the purple and black motif is broken by the camouflage Ballantyne Smokies jerseys hanging from the stalls lining the locker room. As Spencer prepares his lineup for a game just a few hours away, the players break the air-conditioned darkness and sink into the median of overstuffed leather chairs, looking very much at home themselves.
Thanks to the efforts of Spencer and his partners, they are.
Spencer, a Wingate University grad and former Charlotte Myers Park coach, is the new part-owner and general manager of the Smokies, who play in the Southern Collegiate Baseball League, a wooden-bat league featuring future and current college baseball players from across the nation. Spencer, along with partners John deMaine and former Major League Baseball player Chad Tracy, purchased 90 percent of the franchise from former owner Bill Capps last fall and moved it to south Charlotte from Fort Mill, where Spencer managed the club last season. According to Spencer, the Ballantyne area was the perfect fit for his new venture.
“We weren’t just looking at the baseball side of it,” said Spencer. “We’ve got to look at the business side of it as well to say, ‘OK, where can we be the most successful?’
“We didn’t really know (where we wanted to move it at first),” added Spencer, 32. “We knew we wanted to be in a small suburb of Charlotte, so we thought about Waxhaw, obviously Ballantyne and Indian Trail, places like that. This was the best fit. We’ve got neighborhoods that surround the ball park, you’ve got shopping centers, you’ve got Ballantyne Corporate Park with 275 corporate businesses.”
The area also provided an inspiration for the team’s name as the club is named after H.C. “Smoky” Bissell, whose company developed the Ballantyne area.
For Spencer, it was the perfect place to establish a local foothold.
“I think when we started putting this together, we wanted to be an old-fashioned community baseball team, like a neighborhood baseball team,” said Spencer. “That’s the main message we wanted to get across.”
The Smokies have gotten a big boost this season from a handful of players that either hail from Union County or currently suit up for Wingate.
Former Marvin Ridge standout Shane Basen, currently an All-Atlantic 10 conference shortstop from the Charlotte 49ers, is batting .338 and leads the team with 10 stolen bases. Sun Valley alum Andy Capone (Appalachian State) has been one of the team’s most reliable bullpen options with a 2.92 ERA (second on the team) in seven appearances. Wingate hurler Olen Little is tied for the league lead with a 4-1 record while notching 22 strikeouts, and fellow Bulldog Blake Parsley, an Ardrey Kell alum, has allowed just seven earned runs in 14 innings of work.
Spencer said the presence of players such as Basen and Capone has helped the team’s fan base spread beyond the surrounding south Charlotte area.
“Initially, that’s how people are finding out about us,” Spencer said. “It starts with the players … People that have watched them play through high school and have followed Sun Valley and Marvin Ridge, they like to come see them once they’re in college, but you don’t get a chance to see them once they go to college. This is a chance (for the fans) to say, ‘Man, look at what this kid has done.’”
For the players, the Smokies and their SCBL rival, the Pineville Pioneers (owned by Weddington resident Dave Collins), have given them the ability to sharpen their skills during their summer breaks when playing options for college-level players are slim.
“During the summers there’s a lot of leagues, but its kind of tough to find one that fits what you’re looking for,” said Basen, who played in a summer league in Florence (S.C.) last year. Basen said playing for the Smokies has given him an opportunity to stay sharp on the field while also working a summer internship in downtown Charlotte during the daytime.
“You’re kind of getting the best of both worlds,” Basen said. “You can always work out and get stronger and quicker (without playing in a summer league), but just being on the field and going through game situations, nothing beats that.”
Capone, who played for Pineville last summer, agreed and said playing for the Smokies this season will give him a leg up on the competition when he returns to Boone in the fall.
“It’s a lot more beneficial (than working by myself),” Capone said. “Now that I’m playing, I feel like I’m back on a routine. Seeing live hitters, there’s nothing better (for a college pitcher). When I go back in the fall, I’ll feel like I haven’t really stepped off the mound in a while.”
Possessing a local pedigree is hardly a prerequisite for a Smokies roster spot, however, as the team also features players from California, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, West Virginia, Georgia, New York, Tennessee and even Cuba.
IF YOU BUILD IT…
The capacity at Ardrey Kell’s stadium, according to Spencer, is 1,200. Granted, those are standing-room-only numbers, and the Smokies haven’t come close to selling that many tickets for a game. Not yet. But Spencer understands that building a dedicated fan base takes time. He estimated that roughly 400 fans came out for the Smokies’ Fourth of July game. A good number. But Spencer was even more impressed by the 250 fans who showed up the following Friday.
“We’re competing with the movie theaters and the video games and the restaurants and all that,” said Spencer. “But I don’t think anybody offers what we offer to the community, as far as just a family night out at the park.”
Fans can expect all the accoutrements that make small-town baseball enticing for families, said Spencer, including T-shirt cannons and dance competitions for the kids.
“All the little things that just make it fun to come to the ball park,” Spencer said. “The kids are loving it.”
Spencer said he’s been pleased with the team’s attendance numbers, especially for its first year in its new home.
“Once we establish ourselves every year, there are going to be more people next year and more people the next year,” Spencer said.
The Smokies’ success has hardly been limited to attendance numbers. Despite a recent eight-game stretch in which they went 4-4, the Smokies are currently 18-13, good enough for first in the Southern Division and tied for first for the best record in the league with the Morganton Aggies.
With a playoff spot appearing to be a certainty, Spencer said he wants his players to continue to play aggressively, mainly because it gives his team a shot at winning the SCBL crown, which is always the ultimate goal.
“If they’re going to be here for 43 games during the summer in 100-degree heat, why not win it?” said Spencer.
But the other reason is because Spencer knows the Union County and south Charlotte communities, with their rich baseball histories, are a discerning lot that won’t be fooled by the sizzle of a roster of local players and free T-shirts. The steak better taste pretty good, too.
“If you bring in a quality product with baseball,” said Spencer, “people are going to come just because people get excited about baseball around here.”
And that’s what makes it the perfect home.