Cannon Ballers leading way in Kannapolis’ revitalization

Atrium Health Ballpark, home of the Cannon Ballers, is the centerpiece of an effort to revitalize downtown Kannapolis. (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

KANNAPOLIS — The Kannapolis Cannon Ballers have a slogan painted in large letters for all to see as they enter Gate 1 at Atrium Health Ballpark.

“Have a blast!” it says.

It’s a play on the Carolina League team’s name, adopted as part of a rebranding strategy that coincided with the opening of its new stadium in 2020.

But there’s also another meaning. And all it takes is one look around at the giant inflatable “Boomer” mascot bounce house in left field, team employees wearing Hawaiian shirts and tuxedo T-shirts, or energetic young general manager Matt Millward wielding a Super Soaker to squirt hot fans on a steamy Sunday afternoon to figure out what it is.

“Everything we do is about having fun,” said Millward, a 35-year-old Penn State graduate in his third season with the team. “We have a splash pad and a full-sized playground, we’ve got a beautiful right field bar you can hang out at, an indoor club area and a lot of great baseball to watch. There’s something for kids of all ages.”

And that’s only the beginning. Beyond the right field wall, just outside the stadium gates, is a construction site that will soon become a multiuse development that will include team offices, an expanded team store, condos, event space and the Towel City Tavern — a full-service barbeque restaurant and bar featuring local beers with seating overlooking the action on the field.

It’s all part of a redevelopment plan that has seen the Cannon Ballers aid greatly in the revitalization of downtown Kannapolis.

On one side of the ballpark is the new city hall and the North Carolina Research Campus, a series of colonial-style buildings in which eight universities and independent entrepreneurs work on developing safer, more nutritious crops and healthier foods.

On the other is West Avenue, an area featuring shops, restaurants and the Gem Theater, a classic single-screen movie house that still shows first-run features.

“This is the anchor. It’s everything,” Millward said of the Atrium Health Ballpark. “Kannapolis did it a little bit differently than a lot of new, modern ballparks where they build it, then development grows around it. They planned everything to come together in synchrony.”

Parents laugh while children play in the water park at Atrium Health Ballpark in Kannapolis. (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

While the Cannon Ballers and their stadium are a major part of Kannapolis’ look to the future, there are still a few tributes to the past of the city, the franchise — which is a low Class A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox — and the game of baseball itself.

One is the organ music that’s played between innings and during rallies and other lulls in the game.

The tunes themselves aren’t anything out of the ordinary and are a feature of games at most stadiums. The difference with Atrium Health Ballpark is that it’s one of few left in the minor leagues that still has an actual organist playing them rather than a recording.

His name is Jason Atkins, better known by his stage persona of Greazy Keyz, and he entertains fans from his perch on the concourse directly behind home plate on a well-worn Hammond organ bought from an elderly couple in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

“It’s kind of a throwback to when every ballpark had a live organist,” said Atkins, moments after banging out a rendition of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It.”

Atkins was discovered by Millward at a Charlotte Checkers hockey game, where he performs during the winter season. He takes requests, hands out stickers to the fans and sells his own merchandise while adding his unique flavor to the games.

“I love being right in the middle of things, high-fiving people and being kind of an ambassador during the games,” he said. “I play pretty much what I want, but I know which songs the fans enjoy most. That connection with people is why I love playing music.”

Organist Jason Atkins, known as Greazy Keyz, performs for fans during a Kannapolis Cannon Ballers game at Atrium Health Ballpark. (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

The team’s name is a reference to Cannon Mills, a textile company that manufactured towels and bed sheets and was the heart of the city’s economy until it went out of business in 2003. Its headquarters were located at the site on which the ballpark and research campus now stand.

There’s also a nod to the franchise’s previous brand, The Intimidators, in the presence of its current mascot.

Boomer, a human cannonball, has a mustache that looks a lot like the one that was the one made famous by seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt Sr., Kannapolis’ favorite son.

Earnhardt was known as The Intimidator because of his fearless racing style. Since members of his family were part of the team’s previous ownership group and retain trademark rights to the nickname, the current owners — Temerity Baseball — decided to make a change after taking over in 2019.

It appears to be a popular move. Merchandise featuring the Cannon Ballers’ logo is among the best selling in minor league baseball.

Inside the stadium, Boomer’s image is everywhere, as is the actual mascot — who is usually somewhere in the vicinity of energetic hype man Trevor Wilt.

Clad in his trademark gold sequined bow tie, the former broadcaster might just be the hardest working man in baseball, emceeing promotions on the field during virtually every half inning and sprinting around the concourse, stopping only long enough to engage fans that recognize him.

“I worked a lot of hours doing broadcasting, but I told myself I can impact the community more and have more fun being a hype man,” Wilt said. “It’s all part of our mission of wanting people to come out here and have a blast.”

The kids playing in the splash zone down the left field line were certainly enjoying themselves on a 90-plus degree afternoon last Sunday.

So was Ashley Cole, standing off to the side in the spray enjoying an adult beverage with her brother Adam as her 4-year-old son Wyatt played in the streaming jets of water. Her husband Jared Putnam, meanwhile, watched from the stands with the rest of their group as the Cannon Ballers beat the Down East Wood Ducks 12-5.

“We’re cooling off, the kids are having a great time and relaxing, and the hubby is having a good time watching the game,” said Cole, from Asheville, whose family was at the game to pay tribute to her late uncle Joe Sulkowski, a China Grove resident and longtime season-ticket holder. “It’s the best of both worlds.”

Read NSJ’s other MiLB Across NC features:  Greensboro Grasshoppers  •  Carolina Mudcats  •  Down East Wood Ducks  •  Winston-Salem Dash