The wait is over, the weight is off

by Ogi Overman

The first time only happens once, and 7,111 folks, no doubt aware of that fact, became baseball fans for an evening last Tuesday, April 13. How many of them were fans before BB&T Ballpark at long last threw open its gates is unknown. But what seems highly likely is that most of them were fans by the time they sauntered out that evening. A goodly portion of them did stay around for the 12-inning contest and postgame fireworks, and, truth be known, did not seem overly upset that the home team lost.

The fact that the team was a year late in making its debut in the new venue did not matter.

The fact that the facility cost almost twice as much as originally planned, coming in at a cool $48.7 mil, did not matter.

The fact that the taxpayers are on the hook, at least for the time being, for $14 million of those cost overruns did not matter.

The mere fact that they were actually playing in their sparkling new downtown Winston-Salem home was all that really mattered.

All that aside, what seems beyond dispute is that Winston-Salem has itself a crown jewel that will instantly vault to the head of the pack of minor-league ballparks. Like Greensboro before them, and Durham before Greensboro, Winston-Salem is now basking in the glory of upper-echelon ballyards,

breathing in the rarified air of must-see venues, telling itself it was well worth the wait.

And meaning it. A year from now, again like Greensboro and Durham before it, there will be nary a naysayer to be found.

Make no mistake, BB&T Ballpark lived up to its press clippings; the hype was not hype. Some ticketing and parking issues had a handful of fans a bit perturbed, but that can be attributed to opening-night jitters. On a made-for-baseball April evening in a positively Rockwellian setting, nothing was about to spoil this night. After so many things had gone wrong in this seemingly unending saga, tonight was payback. It was as if the baseball gods decreed, “Okay, we owe you one.”

Carolina League president John Hopkins, still dressed in his pregame dignitary garb in the third inning, stopped for a brief chat with a scribe from across the county line. He summed up the import of the occasion thusly: “The bar has been raised to a level we have never seen before. They did it right; it was worth the wait. A new standard has been set, and after tonight stadium opponents will be an endangered species.”

An inning later, the suit and tie stowed away, he had become Joe Fan, ambling around the outfield concourse in shirtsleeves, soaking in the sights and sounds and smells and sensations of a new ballpark. In his mind, this VIP could have been a 12-year-old member of the Knothole Gang, hoping a foul ball might come his way. And so might the other 7,110 kids of all ages there.

On this night, in this place, for these few hours there was no raucous healthcare debate, no home foreclosure crisis, no unemployment line. The only line that mattered was the concession line trying to get a beer and a hot dog. Two days before tax day, there was certainly no talk of tea parties or terrorists. The only partisan bickering to be heard was the universal, “Come on blue, get in the game.”

Opening day is always special. Baseball purists regularly make the case for declaring it a national holiday. But in this town, this opening day truly did have the feel of a municipal holiday. Local TV crews were there at the crack of dawn, helicopters circled overhead, bands played, tickets got scalped, Dash memorabilia flew off the shelves and two jets flew over seconds after the last notes of the national anthem were sung.

Indeed, this oft-beleaguered tobacco town had every right to revel in this moment. After waiting for the day that seemed to take forever to get here, Winston-Salem could not be faulted for wishing it would never end. And for those who truly believe that time stands still, that dreams sometimes do come true, that for three hours old men can become kids again, it never will.