Zebulon Happy To Join The Carolina League

ZEBULON, N.C.—Joe Kremer was talking recently about the shipment of weights and other equipment from Kinston, N.C., to a new home at the Carolina Mudcats’ Five County Stadium.

The longtime Mudcats general manager insisted repeatedly that the Indians moved the equipment in February before realizing that he actually meant November.

“My mind’s moving forward,” Kremer said, apologizing with a chuckle, “not backward.”

The innocuous slip points to what seems to be a mantra now in Zebulon, where a new affiliation and a more sensible league membership have the franchise looking toward to what it hopes will be a bright, profitable future.

The Mudcats, members of the Double-A Southern League for the first 21 years of their existence, will begin an affiliation with the Indians in the high Class A Carolina League in 2012. The franchise moved from nearby Kinston, which had enjoyed an uninterrupted relationship with the Indians since 1987 and now finds itself without a team for the first time since the 1970s.

Kinston businessman Cam McRae sold the Kinston club to Mudcats owner Steve Bryant in December 2010, when Bryant sold Carolina’s spot in the Southern League and its affiliation with the Reds to a group in Pensacola, Fla.

With the dust clearing on the three-city shuffle, the Mudcats are bracing themselves for a rebirth.

As the Southern League’s northernmost club, the Mudcats routinely made trips of 500-850 miles and logged close to 14,000 miles on the team bus every season, Kremer said. Now situated near the middle of the Carolina League—and without a trip longer than the 377-mile trek to Wilmington, Del.—they expect to save both money and energy while galvanizing their fan base.

“It means we won’t be on 12-hour bus rides, and our players won’t get there dead tired,” Bryant said. “So it probably means a more competitive team. But what was important for us is that our fans can go watch our team play on the road without having to take a week’s vacation.”

A Sensible Move

For the fans at home, little will change. The Mudcats will still be the Mudcats, only with players from a slightly lower level and a different organization. Bryant expects only scouts to be able to discern a difference in quality of play.

The franchise had been with the Reds since 2009 after affiliations with the Marlins (2003-08), the Rockies (1999-2002) and the Pirates (1991-98). The Indians recently made two moves to indicate that they’d welcome another lengthy high Class A affiliation, announcing both a two-year extension of their player-development contract with Carolina, through 2014, and an exhibition game between the Mudcats and the parent club to be played in Zebulon on April 3.

“We expect this to be the beginning of a very long and productive relationship,” Indians farm director Ross Atkins said.

Kinston, whose professional baseball history reaches back to the early 1900s, appears to be left in the lurch. The city had fielded a Carolina League club almost consecutively since 1956, and news of the team’s sale hit the eastern North Carolina town of 22,000 hard.

McRae has said since the transaction that he is actively searching for a team to replace the Indians, but he indicated in December that the chances of landing a franchise for the 2012 season were growing slim.

Indeed, with league schedules around the country long ago released, it appears that quaint, 63-year-old Grainger Stadium will likely sit empty for at least a year.

Former K-Tribe assistant GM Matthew Rau is the lone remaining full-time employee at the ballpark, answering phones and filling merchandise orders without a title. Former GM Benjamin Jones took a management trainee position with Bojangle’s, a Cajun chicken restaurant chain of which McRae is one of the biggest franchise owners.

Bryant, who has owned billboard companies and worked in other facets of marketing, hopes to pique the interest of baseball-starved fans in Kinston. With the Mudcats now the city’s closest minor league team, Bryant plans to market in the area and is considering broadcasting games there.

Meanwhile, he said he’s doing everything he can to help McRae with the complex task of finding Kinston a new team.

“The excitement over getting in the Carolina League is affected a little bit by all the close ties that Kinston has had to this team,” Bryant said. “We don’t want to be the Grinch that stole Christmas. It really wasn’t our goal to go out and hurt Kinston in any way. Until they get a team, we want them to consider this a home team for them.”

While Kremer, the Mudcats’ GM since the team moved from Columbus, Ga., in 1991, feels Kinston’s pain, he is excited about his team’s new direction. The changes, he said, improved both leagues involved.

“It just made sense,” Kremer said. “It’s great when something makes sense and it’s good for everybody, and this happened to work out just perfect.”

Bryant said the move harkens back to when the Carolina League was true to its name, with teams in North Carolina towns like Wilson, Rocky Mount, Fayetteville and Durham.

“We’re sort of going back to our roots, sort of back to the future,” he said, “because the future is bright ahead of us.”

David Hall covers baseball for the Kinston (N.C.) Free Press.