KANNAPOLIS, N.C. -- As I drove up to Fieldcrest Cannon Stadium, home of the Kannapolis Intimidators, I fully expected to find something resembling Graceland with hubcaps and pine tar.
Instead, this quaint little field nestled into the tall pines 25 miles north of Charlotte has become something of a sanctuary.
Since his death last February, in a sickening display of morbid fascination and bottom-feeder capitalism, Dale Earnhardt's likeness has been plastered and peddled on everything from shaving kits, keychains, mugs and flashlights to clocks, hats, fishing equipment and beer cans. And at this writing there are 12,808 "Big E" items available on eBay.
Even on the official Earnhardt website, you must wade through dozens of items before finding something that isn't sold out.
Yet the one place that stood to gain the most from exploiting the memory of Dale Earnhardt has actually done it the least. In an oil-slicked sea of NASCAR gluttony, the Kannapolis Intimidators are a lone diamond of decency.
The Intimidators are co-owned by Dale Earnhardt Incorporated and named after the NASCAR legend. Earnhardt's group bought the Class A team in November 2000, four months before the crash at Daytona. "Dale was a baseball fan since he was a kid, and later a pretty serious Braves fan," says Intimidators communications director Marshall Smith. "So he was delighted to combine something he loved with something that would benefit his hometown."
Now it seems, fans are returning the favor. Average attendance is up nearly 20% this season, to 2,102.
There's a certain understated charm and dignity in minor league baseball, and here in Kannapolis this little team could teach a thing or two to the folks at NASCAR, who seem much more concerned with money and hype than with safety and class.
You can grab a seat here for four bucks. Then kick back, under an indigo-and-rose sunset, with the smell of corn dogs and draft beer in the air, and watch the Chicago White Sox affiliate take on teams in the South Atlantic League. Or, as the scoreboard lists the combatants: Good Guys versus Bad Guys.
Inside the main gate of the red-brick fieldhouse, there are black-and-white pictures of baseball greats hanging in cheap wood frames, as if you had just walked down into someone's basement. You can eat at The Pit Stop concession stand, buy a cracked bat or chase the mascot around the bases between innings.
But there isn't a single reference to Earnhardt, beyond what is necessary in the way of an explanation in the team program.
The players do not wear armbands on their black, red and gray uniforms. There are no moments of silence. There are pictures of Dale and a few pages on his career and his legacy in the program but nowhere is the deadly accident on February 18 -- six months ago this Saturday -- even mentioned.
The souvenir shop sells only one item that could pass for Earnhardt memorabilia: a black baseball jersey with the No. 3 and his name stitched on the back.
How, you wonder, did these guys ever come up with this kind of philosophy?
Well, it's simple really. They listened to Earnhardt himself.
"At Dale's funeral, one of the speakers told a story about how Dale had watched fans and friends mourn a driver who had been killed," says Smith. "And Dale told the guy, 'If that ever happens to me I want people to be dancing in the streets 'cause [my life] would be something to be joyous about, not sad.' We are just fulfilling his wishes and moving on."
"Dale Earnhardt was a guy who was direct and to the point with no fluff whatsoever," says Joe Menzer, author of The Wildest Ride, a new history of NASCAR. "That's why what the Intimidators are doing is so refreshing. If you knew Dale, then you would know this is the perfect way to honor him."
Some fans come here hoping for more. "I was surprised by the lack of a visible remembrance for Dale," says Helen Corley, who watched the game with her three children down the first-base line. "Dale Earnhardt was even more popular in this region than this minor league baseball team. I just figured there would have been a more obvious memorial for Dale at the stadium."
But if you look closely enough, the memorial is there. The parking lot is loaded with bumper stickers -- like 1951-2001 RIP Big E, or a three-picture set of the italic No. 3 morphing into a dove -- and the stands sometimes look like a quilt made out of Earnhardt T-shirts. Some fans drop off tapes, CDs, flowers, posters and other memorial items outside the gates.
Mostly, though, this is a team that has paid tribute to the Intimidator in a way that would have made Earnhardt smile so hard his trademark mustache would have tickled his ears. The Kannapolis Intimidators are just like their namesake -- they win, a lot. At 70-49, they have the second-best record in the SAL.
"I think Dale was just tickled to be a part of this," says Smith, who struggles a bit finishing his thought. "I know ... well ... I know he had planned on coming to some games this season."
Something tells me he hasn't missed a single pitch.
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