Friday, April 18, 2014

Video: Despite rain, Knights honor the Crockett family and Charlotte O's

Jim (left) and Frances Crockett (right) - photo by Jeff Siner
By Seth Lakso, Charlotte Observer Correspondent 

A steady rain ruled out the possibility of the Charlotte Knights and Gwinnett Braves playing any baseball on Friday night at BB&T Ballpark, but for the fans who braved the puddles to make it out to the ballpark, it was still a night to remember.

The rain held off just long enough for the Knights to make it through their tribute to the Crockett family and the Charlotte O’s, a Class AA Southern League affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles that played in Charlotte from 1976-1987.

The Knights brought over 40 former O’s players, coaches, and staff members out on the field for a pregame ceremony. Later, many signed autographs for fans, as they huddled together under the stanchions.

Among those in attendance were former O’s manager Grady Little, Jeff Schaefer – who won a championship with both the O’s and the Charlotte Knights – and local hero “Cat” Whitfield

The highlight of the night came when Whitfield, who is famous for being “the guy” who started at shortstop over Cal Ripken Jr. when they were both with the O’s, played the Star Spangled Banner on his guitar for a lucky group of about 200 in the Club Lounge along the first base line.

“The plan was for me to play the national anthem before the start of tonight’s game,” said Whitfield as he tuned his guitar. “Everyone just pretend we’re outside. Oh yeah, this is going to be the Charlotte O’s version.”

If you’ve ever heard the band Boston play the Star Spangled Banner, that’s the way Whitfield played it on Friday night.

As he played, a gathering of former ballplayers turned into something that could be more aptly described as a family reunion. And in many ways, that’s really what it was.

When Frances Crockett was the O’s President and General Manager, Magnolia Avenue – where Crockett Field stood and the O’s played – was almost never without her or one of her five children.

Debbie, her eldest, supervised the vendors at the park. Lisa, worked as a uniformed hostess. Jimmy worked on the grounds crew, Betsy ran the souvenir stand, and the youngest, Ron, was the team’s ball boy.

If you worked or played for the O’s, you were, for all intents and purposes, a Crockett.

It was by reaching out to the family – famous for its ability to draw in a crowd with various promotions – that Charlotte Knights’ Director of Public Relations and Media Relations, Tommy Viola, was able to secure the attendance of so many former O’s.

“This was a day that we’ve been planning since the end of the 2013 season,” said Viola. “Obviously there was rain and the game, unfortunately, was postponed. But if you walk around and see these guys together now, they’re just having such a great time. To have them all back and in one room together, it’s been exciting.”

As a Charlotte resident since his baseball career came to an end, Jeff Schaefer, has had the unique perspective of seeing the Charlotte O’s come full circle into today’s version that’s back in Uptown.  

“When I first got here in 1982 and Frances (Crockett) and her family were the one’s running the team, it was a different environment,” said Schaefer. “It was really a family atmosphere and the front office was close with the players.

“It’s amazing,” he continued. “You go back 30 years and some faces you remember and some you don’t. There’s less hair, bigger bellies, you know, all that good stuff going on. But you reconnect pretty quickly. We’re a baseball fraternity and as soon as you recognize someone the stories come rushing back and the conversation flows like we’re back on the bus going to Memphis.”

Grady Little, who managed the O’s from 1983 to ‘84, summed up the day well.

“This Crockett family, they're promoters,” he said. “And this deal that they’ve promoted here tonight with the Charlotte Knights organization is outstanding.”