Ballantyne’s own

First-year baseball club finds home in south Charlotte

by C. Jemal Horton

The Ballantyne Smokies take a moment for the national anthem before a recent game. Photo courtesy of Holden Memories Photography

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 the 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, an Independence High grad and former 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 (and Spencer’s former teammate at East Carolina) 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.”

LOCAL FLAVOR

The roster also reflects that ideal as several local high school products pepper the roster. Myers Park alum and current University of North Carolina designated hitter Brian Holberton leads the team with a .378 batting average and has been joined on the team by fellow former Mustangs Joe Hager (UNC Greensboro) and Grant Fisher (Elon). Ardrey Kell alum Blake Parsley (Wingate) has been solid in the bullpen. Recent South Mecklenburg High alum Andrew Mauldin, who will join the Liberty University program in the fall, also has gotten a taste of college competition, both as a pitcher and a second baseman. East Mecklenburg High also has a pair of products on the team in pitchers Olen Little (Wingate) and Lou Trosch (Guilford).

Charlotte roots are hardly a prerequisite for a roster spot, however. In fact, the team features players from California, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, West Virginia, Georgia, New York, Tennessee and even Cuba. Gastonia Ashbrook alum and current Montreat College standout Brandon Harris leads the league in home runs (12) and RBIs (30) with a .375 batting average while playing right field. Center fielder James Fowlkes, from Tennessee’s Lee University, is batting .298, while left fielder Weston Lawing, a Belmont product and current Lander College (S.C.) player, has given the outfield a “gritty” presence, said Spencer. Marvin Ridge alum and Waxhaw resident Shane Basen (Charlotte 49ers), a shortstop, is leading the team with 10 stolen bases and sports a .338 batting average, while Indian Trail Sun Valley’s Andy Capone (Appalachian State) has been solid as a relief pitcher.

Spencer said that while he hand-picked some of the players, many of them were recommended by coaches from across the country.

“I know what I’m looking for (in a player): I want guys that are going to come in with good instincts who will play hard and aren’t going to be problems because chemistry is as important as anything else when you start putting these teams together,” said Spencer.

For the players, the Smokies team, along with the Pineville Pioneers, has given them the ability to sharpen their skills during their summer breaks when playing options for college-level players are slim. For others, such as Mauldin, the ability to get their feet wet against college competition is invaluable.

“I was looking for a team and talked to (South Meck head coach Jon) Tuscan, and he thought it would be a good option for me to play with college guys before going to college in the fall,” said Mauldin. “It’s been high-level competition, and it’s definitely been good for me to see what college competition is going to be like.”

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.

WINNING NOW

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 south Charlotte community, with its rich baseball history, is 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.

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