Life’s a pitch

 In Features July 2016

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By Page Leggett

Don Beaver isn’t one to hold a grudge. He could sit in his owner’s suite in the BB&T Ballpark he helped create and think about the 15 years of hassles, roadblocks and lawsuits that threatened to derail his dream.

He could view Jerry Reese, responsible for much of the stalling, as a villain and savor the sweetness of defeating a determined opponent. Instead, when the Charlotte Knights owner watches his Triple-A baseball team — as he does eight to 10 times a season — he’s thinking about just one thing: the game.

Beaver, 76, and a grandfather of 13, has been baseball-obsessed since he was a kid. While growing up in Mooresville, he pitched in the 1952 Little League World Series. He owns the Hickory Crawdads and half of the New Orleans Zephyrs, is part owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates and tried to bring Major League Baseball to the Triad in the late ‘90s. He’s no longer pursuing that goal, but believes North Carolina will make it to the majors, just not for another 10 to 20 years.

He doesn’t bemoan that — there’s no crying in baseball — and it’s easier to accept that defeat since his other big dream, baseball in uptown Charlotte, came true in April 2014. The bumpy road began in 1997, when Beaver paid George Shinn $10 million for the misnamed “Charlotte” Knights. Shinn had moved the team to Fort Mill, S.C., which Beaver describes as “always the wrong location. You had to fight traffic on I-77 — and usually at rush hour — just to get there.”

The team was also a loser financially: Beaver estimates he had operating losses totaling $2 million during the 16 years he operated in Fort Mill. Attendance consistently ranked at or near the bottom among Triple-A franchises, including a last-place finish in 2013.

That changed in a hurry in 2014 after the Knights signed a 49-year lease for a downtown stadium and arranged a lucrative incentive package with local lawmakers. Now in their third season at BB&T Ballpark, the Knights lead Minor League Baseball in attendance, about 9,000 per game, and have scored 75 sellouts, including 13 this year through mid-June. Beaver doesn’t disclose the team’s finances, but the rival Indianapolis Indians’ annual report suggests he may have already recouped his South Carolina losses. With the second-highest minor league attendance after the Knights, the Indians had net income of $1.6 million on revenue of $12.7 million in 2014. Based on recentsales of Triple-A teams, the Knights are worth more than $30 million, sports-industry investment banker Larry Grimes says. “It’s amazing how a new stadium can energize a fan base,” he adds. More important for city and county officials, the ballpark has helped spark hundreds of millions of dollars of development of nearby apartments and other projects.

Every story needs a colorful villain

The stadium would have happened a lot sooner if Reese, a graduate of UNC Chapel Hill’s law school, hadn’t filed seven lawsuits aimed at blocking Beaver’s move. He planned an eighth until a judge threatened sanctions. If Beaver bears his old foe any ill will, he doesn’t show it. Asked if he and Reese ever met to hash out their differences, he laughs. “You know, Jerry was from Hickory originally. (Reese grew up in nearby Newton.) He used to send me little notes occasionally to say, ‘I’d like to get in a golf cart with you and talk about this.’ I told him, ‘Ain’t nothin’ to talk about.’”

Reese has shown scant interest in the Knights. He took his grandchildren to a Knights youth night game, and another time watched the UNC Tar Heels whip the University of South Carolina Gamecocks 15-0. Those two visits are enough to spark some sniping. “I wasn’t impressed, frankly,” he says. “It’s a bit cramped and lacks the intimacy you need in a baseball stadium. It’s too small in scale for the city Charlotte purports to be. For all the public money that was put into it, it’s not the quality I’d expect.” And one more beef: “We couldn’t hear the public address system.”

By not aiming for the fences of Major League Baseball, Charlotte missed “a golden opportunity,” Reese says. Now it’s too late, he contends, because the city can’t support both the Knights and a major league team, while there’s limited uptown land available for a bigger stadium.

Beaver and Reese agree that Charlotte’s a great baseball town. At the Memorial Day game, fans were lined up before gates opened at 6 p.m. for the 7:30 p.m. start. They come early to watch the team warm up; get their pizza, hot dogs or chicken sandwiches; and venture close to the field to get players’ autographs. The atmosphere at Knights games reflects a classic slice of Americana, complete with red, white and blue bunting, moms and dads and babies, veterans in uniform. It’s baseball — and it doesn’t seem to matter to the fans that it’s not MLB.

Curve balls

Reese wasn’t the only obstacle for Beaver during his 15-year odyssey. “Everybody wanted us, but they ‘wadn’t’ gonna help us” is how Beaver recalls the early days. The recession made loans harder to secure, while it took years to build credibility in Charlotte’s business community, a process led by Beaver and General Manager Dan Rajkowski, who has been the team’s public face since 2005.

Michael Smith, CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners, the downtown booster group, credits the ballpark’s existence to Beaver’s tenacity. “There were so many times and reasons Don could’ve backed out, and it would’ve been rational for him to. But he didn’t. He was relentless.”

The 2012 land swap that made BB&T Ballpark possible was among Charlotte’s most complex transactions, with the city, county, school system and adjacent landowners juggling various interests amid Reese’s barrage of legal objections. After hundreds of meetings captained by Smith and spanning several years, a deal was struck:

City and county taxpayers coughed up $16 million to help pay for the $54 million stadium and related infrastructure improvements.

Mecklenburg County leases the 8-acre site, valued at $32 million, to the team for $1 a year.

The Knights own the stadium, pay property taxes, keep all revenue from the ballpark and accept the operational risk. Those taxes totaled about $427,000 this year, county records show.

The public backing helped soothe lenders’ concerns, Beaver says. When the Knights’ key sponsors Duke Energy Corp., Piedmont Natural Gas Co. and Carolinas HealthCare System came on board in 2012, and BB&T bought the naming rights, the effort gained the clout it needed. “The banks worked with us, but they also wanted to see a government revenue stream,” Beaver says.

The result doesn’t serve taxpayers well, according to Reese. “Don’s a good guy and a good businessperson. He got the city to pay his equity for free — no strings attached. It was a good deal for him,” he says, but not a good long-term strategy for an ambitious community.

Reese’s prediction: The Queen City is stuck with a minor league team and a minor league ballpark. “Charlotte may be a minor league city in perpetuity,” he says.

But there’s nothing minor league about downtown Charlotte. A “ballpark neighborhood” has grown up around the stadium, notes Charlotte Center City Partners spokesman Adam Rhew. Within a long flyball of the park, the Catalyst, Element and Mint apartments offer more than 1,000 units, while three more projects under construction — Museum Tower, Ascent and Circa — will add 923 more in the next year.

“BB&T Ballpark and Romare Bearden Park are … responsible for the development of those residential projects,” says Rhew. “But for the ballpark, they would not have been built. The success of the ballpark has created a desirable neighborhood where people now want to live.”

Beyond baseball

Dealing with the government is nothing new for Beaver. While baseball is his passion, his wealth is derived from nursing homes that receive more than 75% of their revenue from federal Medicare and Medicaid programs. For more than 23 years, he owned and operated the Brian Center, a Hickory-based chain with 50 facilities and about 6,000 beds. (The company was named after his son Brian, who died of a heart ailment in 1973. In 1997, Beaver lost another son, Patrick, 17, in a boating accident.) When the company sold to Living Centers of America in 1995, the deal netted Beaver $147 million.

He stayed in the industry, starting Claremont-based Choice Health Management in 1999. The business now owns 17 nursing homes in North Carolina and one in Columbia, S.C., mostly operating under the name Universal Health Care, according to the company’s website.

“Don’t let that relaxed, folksy, Southern aura fool you,” says Hickory Mayor Rudy Wright. “Don’s a driven man and a shrewd businessperson.” He points to Beaver’s persistence in landing a PGA Champions tournament for Hickory, which ran from 2003 to 2014 at the Rock Barn Golf & Spa in nearby Conover. “It was only here by virtue of Don’s commitment,” Wright says of the seniors tournament, which attracted stars including Lee Trevino, Fred Couples and Jay Haas.

A coalition of the city, Chamber of Commerce, and individual and corporate donors backed the tournament, Wright says, but “Don carried it. He made sure the books balanced.” The tour folded in 2014 for lack of a title sponsor, a reflection of difficult economic trends in the Hickory area that have also slowed home and land sales at Rock Barn, a 36-hole golf community that Beaver bought in 1997.

Beaver’s success has connected him to state powerbrokers and led to appointments by Gov. Pat McCrory to the Appalachian State University Board of Trustees and by former Gov. Mike Easley to the State Health Coordinating Council. He remains approachable, particularly at Hickory Crawdads games, the mayor says. “Everyone in town recognizes him. You don’t feel like you can’t go up to Don and talk to him.”

True believer

In Rajkowski, Beaver has a loyal lieutenant — the two have worked together for 23 years — and a true believer. “While there were a number of roadblocks, I was always confident this ballpark would get built and the team would relocate,” Rajkowski says. “I believed that once we made it through all the obstacles, I would be running one of, if not the, best franchises in Minor League Baseball.”

For Beaver and Rajkowksi, the fan experience at 72 home games trumps the score on the field. “We need to do three things:  Keep it fresh, fun and affordable,” Rajkowski says. Winning may matter to some minor league fans, but a vast majority of the 40 million attending games annually are more interested in fellowship and entertainment. Major league teams pay the players’ and coaches’ salaries, viewing AAA baseball as a proving ground and a holding tank for players, who range in age from the early 20s to mid-30s. Some are young, hot prospects, while others are just hanging around the highest minor league level, hoping for a temporary assignment in the big leagues.

The Knights have about 5,000 season ticket holders, or about half the 10,200-seat stadium. Eighteen of the 22 corporate suites are leased for the full year, with four others rented at each game.

One stadium secret: two suites each host 24 fans who can sit at field level, next to the team’s dugout. In those seats, fans are closer to home plate than the pitcher. Beaver had seen similar suites at the Pittsburgh Pirates’ stadium. Each suite rents for $2,250 on a game-by-game basis, with most dates sold a year in advance.

Can the ballpark continue to attract record crowds once the novelty wears off? “I’m counting on it,” Rajkowski says, citing the Durham Bulls’ ability to attract large crowds in a stadium built in 1995. Demographics are on his side, including thousands of well-paid millennials working or living within a few miles. “We have a built-in fan base.”

Storybook ending

Here’s more evidence that Beaver’s hard-won stadium was worth the fight: Others want in on the action. A group of Charlotte heavy hitters approached him about buying the team. He won’t name names but says his team isn’t for sale. You don’t work for 15 years on a thing and then turn it over to someone else to finish.

There’s not much Beaver set out to accomplish that he hasn’t, Mayor Wright says. “You have to envy Don. He’s dreamed all his life of being a key figure in baseball, and he is. He’s lived his dream the way the rest of us would like to have.”

The ballpark on South Mint Street is true to Beaver’s vision, and the economic development surrounding the stadium is proof that baseball, even the minor league variety, is an economic driver.  But the impact of Beaver’s dogged determination can’t be measured precisely. It’s more than the apartments surrounding the ballpark. More than the views of Charlotte’s changing skyline. More than the crack of the bat on a hot July night.

For legions of fans who agree there are only two seasons — winter and baseball — Don Beaver is an MVP. Michael Smith sums up Beaver’s contribution this way: “Don’s changed summer forever.”

With a legacy like that, who could hold a grudge?

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