Kinston Celebrates Final Opening Day
Indians Weigh Options As Team Prepares To Leave Town
KINSTON, N.C.—There was a little bit of everything at Grainger Stadium on Friday as the Kinston Indians faced the beginning of the end.
An elite prospect made an electrifying professional debut. Fans packed the stands on a pristine spring evening as a smoke cloud carrying the scent of Eastern North Carolina barbecue wafted through the air. As a bonus, the home team even survived surrendering a four-run lead and came back to beat Winston-Salem on a 10th-inning walk-off single.
But most notably, perhaps, the 62-year-old ballpark was teeming with a mix of nostalgia and optimism as the K-Tribe played the final Opening Day game of a 25-year affiliation with the Cleveland Indians.
The Kinston club was sold to Double-A Carolina Mudcats owner Steve Bryant in December and will move to Zebulon, N.C., after the season. The Mudcats' Double-A affiliation with the Cincinnati Reds will move to Pensacola, Fla., and continue in the Southern League. Cleveland's high Class A affiliation will go on in the Carolina League, but under the Mudcats' banner in Zebulon's more modern Five County Stadium.
The three-city shuffle leaves Kinston, which has had a Carolina League franchise for a total of 49 years since 1956, looking for a replacement team to call quaint, 4,100-seat Grainger Stadium home in 2012.
The possibility that Kinston might be without affiliated baseball for the first time since the mid-1970s is hardly a cloud hanging over the head of the franchise, a Toronto Blue Jays farm club for seven years before the Indians came to town.
"It's certainly sad to see it go because it's been such a wonderful relationship over the years," first-year K-Tribe general manager Benjamin Jones said as an announced crowd of 4,102 groaned in response to a late double play. "But the future is something that I'm excited about and we as an organization are excited about. I tell people a lot of times that if the Blue Jays had never left town, we never would've had the Kinston Indians. And so I think sometimes change, although it's hard to deal with, can be a very positive thing. The future is, I think, very bright for us here in Kinston."
K-Tribe majority owner Cam McRae, a successful local entrepreneur who led the group that bought the Indians in 1994, said he sold the team to restructure ownership and give the approximately 70 investors in the franchise a long-awaited return. The Indians, McRae said, have struggled at times to make payroll over the years.
The owner of about 50 Bojangles' chicken restaurants and a handful of other businesses, McRae said he has been working toward landing another franchise since before he sold the Indians.
"I'm optimistic, as I have been," he said shortly before the K-Tribe opened Friday. "There are multiple dialogues ongoing. It'll just be a while before anything really shakes out. Nothing firm yet, but some distinct possibilities."
One situation McRae is keeping an eye on is the uncertainty with fellow Carolina League affiliate Frederick. The Keys must win a request for proposal process to extend its lease on Harry Grove Stadium with the City of Frederick. A competing group is submitting a proposal for use of the stadium as home to an independent league team. The deadline for proposals is Friday.
McRae, the vice president of the Carolina League and a member of its board of directors, said he is interested in every club in the league but added that he has a keen interest in possible scenarios with the Keys.
"That would be a logical thing," he said. "If they lost their venue, we would certainly be there to catch 'em.
"The circumstances are out of our control. Right now, we're just a spectator. We'll see what happens. If certain things happen, that really puts us in play. Even then, there's no guarantee, but it really makes us a definite player in that."
It was the players on the field that fans were interested in Friday as the Indians battled their counterparts from the White Sox organization. Lefthander Drew Pomeranz, taken fifth overall by the Tribe out of Ole Miss in the 2010 draft, dazzled with nine strikeouts over 5 1/3 scoreless innings in his first pro start.
After a brief rain shower sent a handful of the fans home early in the ninth inning, minor league veteran Ronald Rivas provided a one-out game-winning single in the 10th so the postgame fireworks could commence.
"A perfect way for the season to open," second-year K-Tribe manager Aaron Holbert said.
Better Than Ever
Grainger Stadium hardly looks like a place about to be deserted. The Kinston front office, which had just begun the first year of a two-year player development contract extension with the parent club, made numerous facility upgrades after last season.
The batting cage outside the home clubhouse received new netting. An equipment storage shed was added to reduce clubhouse clutter. New flat-screen TVs hang in the meticulously cleaned manager's and coaches' offices. The team will ride on a new bus this season.
The improvements, the K-Tribe staffers hope, will help in their quest to carry on Kinston's long baseball history, which goes back to the city's days in the old Eastern Carolina League in 1908.
"We are operating under the assumption that we are going to continue having baseball here," said Jones, who came to Kinston from the Wilson Tobs of the collegiate Coastal Plain League in November despite knowing that the team might leave. "There's going to be continuity, and we're just going to roll from what we have here to whatever's next and be ready for it. The improvements that we make this year will certainly apply to whoever's here in the future."
Kinston's commitment to accommodating the Indians one last time is not lost on the parent club.
"They put some money into a situation that looks like a bleak situation," Holbert, a former major league infielder, said. "You never know if another team's coming in.
"They've done everything they can to say, 'Although it's your last year, we don't want it to be our last year as an affiliate.' I, as well as the players and the whole Cleveland Indians front office, are appreciative of that."
McRae, who has a large collection of photos chronicling his years with the Indians and deeply cherishes the ongoing relationships he's established in the game, will have no part of pessimism when it comes to the city's baseball future.
Although he doesn't expect to make an announcement—if one is to come—until after the season, McRae has ordered his troops to promote the fact that Kinston had the longest ongoing affiliation in the Carolina League and one of the longest in the minors.
"I choose to look at the mix as the cup's half full, more on the celebration side," McRae said. "Because not many people, not many towns or cities can celebrate 25 years.
"The fact that we've done that is a good thing. And I think that lends itself to and, hopefully, helps facilitate baseball continuing here."