On a cloudy Friday morning in early March, both personalities of the Tuckaseegee Dream Fields in west Charlotte, soon to be rededicated as the Stick Williams Dream Fields and Education Center, were on full display.
On one baseball field, players on Queens University’s newly minted Division I baseball team, with all the official uniforms and nice equipment that comes with that designation, did their warm-ups while preparing for the first game in a weekend series against Tennessee Tech University.
While these warm-ups took place on the big field, elementary-aged kids from the nearby Renaissance West STEAM Academy streamed out of a school bus, ready for a few hours of activities on two adjacent baseball fields at the facility, a trip that they earned by completing a recent reading program at school.
Though the infields on the two developmental fields were muddy, the kids would spend their trip fielding fly balls in the outfield, measuring their throwing speed in the indoor batting cages behind the D1 baseball field and snacking on hot dogs and hamburgers.
Though the simultaneous events were not planned as such — Queens had to move their game up due to a rainy forecast for later in the afternoon — it was symbolic of how the Stick Williams Dream Fields will operate, as the locally formed Knothole Foundation takes a big next step in its movement to bring underserved children from west Charlotte back into the game of baseball through athletic and educational programming.
Meanwhile, hosting the Queens University Royals and other high-end baseball tournaments is what will fund that same programming.
“We’re not a nonprofit that goes to somebody every year and says, ‘Give us money just to keep going,’” explained Knothole cofounder Jeff Schaefer. “We have a sustainability model on weekends with tournaments and things like that, and then during the week we can do all of our programming — our reading and writing programming, ACT/SAT prep, financial literacy programming, all that stuff can fall into place during the week.
“So we’re doing most of the work where people don’t see us, and then everybody comes out here on weekends and says ‘OK, this is just another tournament facility.’ It’s not. Baseball is just our conduit.”
During Knothole Foundation’s field rededication ceremony scheduled for March 24, that dream, many years in the making, will finally come to fruition.
Cost and effect in youth baseball
After spending five years as a utility infielder in Major League Baseball, Schaefer left the majors in 1994 but remained very much tied in with the sport. In 2007, he founded the Charlotte-based Carolinas Baseball Center (CBC), utilizing the national network of college recruiters and MLB scouts he had cultivated over the years to help prep high school players who aspired to play at higher levels.
During the years between his retirement as a player and the launch of CBC, however, Schaefer noticed a disturbing trend in the sport he loved.
“When I got out of pro ball, looking around and starting to do different things, people are saying, ‘Oh this tournament costs this much and it costs that much to play in that organization,’” he recalled.
He was taken aback, as growing up there was no cost to him or his family for him to play baseball.
“The cost to the player wasn’t even around. Everything was supplemented. Everything was taken care of by local businesses or whatever.”
The increased cost just to get involved in organized baseball at the youth level had the effect of chasing out anyone but the most privileged kids.
“What I started recognizing was, when we started our organization and we were inside the scope of what everybody else was charging, was that players weren’t coming because they couldn’t afford to play.”
Going hand-in-hand with racial economic disparities that have plagued America over generations, this change in baseball has affected the racial makeup of the sport as a whole, Schaefer pointed out. Today, Black players compose about 7% of MLB rosters, less than half of the 17% of Black players who played in the league in 1991 when Schaefer was active. In college baseball today, the number is closer to 3%.
“The numbers are horrible,” Schaefer told Queen City Nerve.
He decided he wanted to do something to help bring kids onto the baseball field regardless of socioeconomic status, launching the U Deserve a Chance Foundation in 2007, utilizing athletic and educational programming to mentor underserved youth in the Charlotte area.
Two foundations working in parallel
Around the same time that Schaefer was getting CBC off the ground, another former big leaguer in Charlotte had recognized the issue and was acting on it. In 2007, former Detroit Tigers pitcher Morris Madden launched the Carolina Metro Reds (CMR), an affordable youth baseball league for underserved youth with a focus on getting young Black children involved with the game. CMR was recognized as a nonprofit in 2011 and has coached hundreds of kids in Charlotte since then.
Like Schaefer, Madden focused not only on baseball skill instruction but on providing critical educational programming for kids.
“We actually tried to just give kids the opportunity to play, but now we’re at the point where nine out of every 10 kids that come through our program goes onto some higher level of education,” Madden said of the Carolina Metro Reds baseball family. “Not saying that they’re just going to play baseball, but the program is about reading proficiency, STEM — so we want to find out what kids want to do in life, and when we find out what they want to do we try to give them all the resources necessary to get them where they need to be.”
Eventually, the two former ballplayers decided they could do more together. In 2017, they began discussing a collaborative venture called the Knothole Foundation. The organization would center around what they were calling the “Tuckaseegee Dream Fields,” which Madden had been leasing from the West Mecklenburg Optimist Club for a cheap price in return for Madden’s upkeep efforts.
But the fields still needed work. Schaefer pitched an idea to renovate the fields and let them serve as the home base for Knothole, a one-stop facility where they could bring kids for both athletic and educational programming. They agreed to pursue the project, and the Knothole Foundation of the Carolinas was born.
Since then, the project has taken on dimensions that Schaefer and Madden hadn’t dreamed of when they first partnered. A $400,000 donation from MLB, help from the Charlotte Knights, and a deal to become the home playing field for the Queens University Royals has allowed the Knothole Foundation to build its vision and expand on its goals, becoming far more than a baseball field.
“A $300,000 facelift turned into a $7-million project. It’s been one of the greatest things that’s happened to me in my life to just come out here and be a big part of what’s happening here and giving kids this opportunity,” Madden told Queen City Nerve. “It’s going to be a legacy for me. I want the kids to remember who I am and what I was trying to do for them.”
Putting the Knothole Foundation vision into action
The three baseball fields at Stick Williams Dream Fields and Education Center are finished, for all intents and purposes, and they are impressive. Most recently, a donation of high-powered LED stadium lights from the Charlotte Knights organization will allow the facility to host night games.
What’s perhaps most impressive, however, is what the everyday visitor can’t see. In the facilities behind home plate on the big field, there’s not only a press box with state-of-the-art equipment, but a classroom filled with books and technology for kids to learn. Downstairs, a podcast studio allows kids to practice a new skill.
Attached to the Queens locker rooms, a large facility features three batting cages with state-of-the-art equipment, including radar guns, weightlifting equipment and more.
The facilities and fields are for Queens University baseball and softball use as needed, but when the team is out of town or off season, it’s open to the Knothole Foundation, which hosts three seasons of youth baseball programming per year. The $900 fee to participate in one of these seasons is mostly subsidized, as the average family pays less than $70 total per player, according to Anthony Grillo, Knothole’s interim executive director.
“We’re building an athletic department so the kids we serve through our baseball and softball programming will have access to health-care resources, academic achievement resources, digital connectivity, college and career readiness,” he said. “We really want to treat them as if they are part of a family.”
Grillo is inspired by the model of Renaissance STEAM Academy, which visited the grounds on the day Queen City Nerve was there. Also there that day was Richard “Stick” Williams, longtime local philanthropist, community advocate, and soon-to-be namesake for the entire facility.
Williams said he first became aware of what Madden and Schaeffer were doing around 2013, when Madden began hosting Carolina Metro Reds games at the fields. The grass was growing chest-high at the fields until CMR came on, he said.
Later on, they came to Williams with their vision for the new Knothole facilities.
“They laid out this incredible dream of what they wanted to do out here on Tuckaseegee Road,” Williams told Queen City Nerve. “I thought it was an audacious vision; I didn’t know whether they could pull it off, because that was a huge vision. So I stayed up with them over the years as they raised money, encouraged them, tried to point them towards prospects and so forth, and then they pulled it off.”
Williams said he’s honored by the decision to name the fields after him. He insists he pushed back on the idea when he first heard it, though he eventually gave in.
It’s not lost on him that, until the Carolina Metro Reds came along, there were no youth baseball organizations based in west Charlotte.
“First and foremost, to see this group deliver first-class facilities to the west side means an extraordinary amount to me,” he said. “For a lot of the families that live in this area, a lot of times it’s hand-me-downs or second-class, but to deliver something first-class is quite a message. And then to have programming for the kids, it’s not just about baseball but how baseball and other things can give a vision to a child about what’s possible, motivate them, give them more confidence and so forth … so to have an organization focus on the young people but also bring in the community means a whole lot to me and I think the whole community.”
Schaefer said that, thanks to all the work Williams has done in west Charlotte, he was the first person that came to mind when they started discussing giving the fields and facilities an official name, and they wouldn’t want to give it to anyone else.
After all, it was Williams who introduced a new word into Schaefer’s lexicon, one that he now uses as motivation.
“We brought him on early and we told him about the project we wanted to do, and he loved it but he thought it was an audacious project,” Schaefer recalled, laughing. “I told him that’s a word that I never had in my vocabulary, but now I use it all the time; we’re audacious. Nobody really thought that we could pull it off, and we did.”
SUPPORT OUR WORK: Get better connected and become a member of Queen City Nerve to support local journalism for as little as $5 per month. Our community journalism helps inform you through a range of diverse voices.
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.