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Volume 20 No. 42
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Baseball returns to Kinston with new identity

The crowd at Grainger Stadium welcomes baseball back to Kinston, the first minor league action since 2011.

Monday afternoons are slow in downtown Kinston, N.C. — population 21,000 — and April 10 was no exception. With most neighboring establishments closed, North Street Pub and Eatery’s doors were open for lunch. It sat mostly empty, with employees outnumbering patrons six to two. Gathered around the bar, however, three female staffers discussed the big rush they anticipated that evening.

It was opening night for the Class A Down East Wood Ducks at nearby Grainger Stadium, the first since 2011 in a town whose professional baseball history dates to 1908. The town lost its team when the local ownership group of the Class A Carolina League’s Kinston Indians sold the team to a group in Zebulon, N.C.

The five-season stretch that followed was the city’s longest without baseball in about 80 years. Both residents and local officials were skeptical about pro baseball ever returning.

“It didn’t look real good,” said Bill Ellis, longtime Kinston Parks and Recreation Department director. “We were hoping we could eventually get an Appalachian League or low-A league that would be 30 home games. We never dreamed we’d be able to get back the Carolina League franchise.”

“It’s a town with sort of middle-of-the-road folks, not a lot of money. So it took a franchise that wanted to come here and develop players.”

Texas Two-Step

Enter the Texas Rangers, who in recent years found themselves on the short end of the stick with regard to their high-A affiliation. The Rangers’ baseball operations department considered the Carolina League the best of the three leagues to develop talent at that level, which led it to sign a player development contract with the Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Pelicans in 2010. But once that deal expired in 2014, the Pelicans jumped ship, signing a new deal with the Chicago Cubs.

That left the Rangers an unhappy affiliate of the California League’s High Desert Mavericks, based in the desert town of Adelanto, for two seasons. The independent owners of the club found themselves in a feud with the municipality that threatened the team’s residency at its ballpark.

“There were a lot of political issues that we were affected by but weren’t a party to,” said Joe Januszewski, Rangers executive vice president of business partnerships and development.

The new team store was a popular place for fans throughout the evening.
Instead of constantly rolling the dice by signing player development contracts with independently owned teams, the Rangers decided to buy their own minor league affiliate for the first time under current ownership. Seeking a Carolina League team in a market with an existing stadium and municipal support, they soon set their sights on Kinston.

“We bought the team to have control over our player development pipeline and know that we could be in a league where we could give our players the best opportunity to mature, grow and succeed on hopefully a potential path to the major leagues,” Januszewski said. “Buying the team was the only way to guarantee that.”

Januszewski assumed the role of team president on top of his role with the MLB club, and Georgia native Wade Howell volunteered to relocate to North Carolina to serve as GM. As part of a 12-year lease with the club, Kinston agreed to pay for $1.625 million worth of renovations to the city-owned ballpark across two offseasons. City Manager Tony Sears said Kinston had just finished paying off the previous round of upgrades to the 67-year-old ballpark last year.

Old Town, New Tricks

Kinston, even with its long-standing baseball history, had an attendance problem before the Indians packed their bags. The Indians failed to fill 50 percent of Grainger Stadium’s 4,100-seat capacity on average in all but one season between 2000 and their departure in 2011.

So when local majority owner Cam McRae received an offer from the group in Zebulon to sell the team at what Ellis characterized as a “premium price,” taking it was the financially responsible decision for him and his investors.

The Rangers, however, saw Kinston as a viable market. In addition to the municipality’s willingness to contribute financially, local business had seen an uptick in recent years with the opening of a new brewery and the launch of a PBS reality show about local gourmet eatery Chef and The Farmer.

They also saw an opportunity to market the club beyond Kinston, choosing to buck tradition and use “Down East” as the team’s geographic identity. The club identified the 300,000 people living within 100 miles of Kinston as potential customers, particularly if the team could market itself as an attraction on the way to the beach.

Januszewski and Howell projected attendance of 180,000 for 73 home games during the 2017 season and eyed 200,000 — about 2,740 fans a game — as an attainable goal.

Opening Day

Howell retreated to his office at Grainger Stadium at 2 p.m. on April 10 as members of his staff laid cones in the newly paved parking lot ahead of the 7 p.m. home opener. Outside his window, an eager group of tailgaters had already claimed their spot along the edge of the lot. Banners featuring the Wood Ducks logo adorned light posts along the surrounding streets.

Snuggles, a visitor from a local animal preserve, soaks up attention from baseball fans on opening night.
On the opposite wall, two floor-to-ceiling white boards listed the date of every home game for the upcoming season, along with columns for each day’s opponent, promotional theme and projected attendance. By that point, reserved seats were sold out for opening night, and the board forecast a standing-room-only crowd of 4,500.

The newly repadded outfield wall at Grainger Stadium was a who’s who of local businesses, with two rows of signs spanning from foul pole to foul pole. Howell estimated that 70 percent of the team’s sponsors were from Kinston. Reserved field boxes, each of which held six to nine white plastic folding chairs, were all spoken for.

Ten minutes after the gates opened at 5 p.m., fans were milling about in the concourse and visiting the newly renovated concession stands. Some stopped to snap pictures with Snuggles, a real wood duck from a local animal preserve who was on hand for the festivities.

Long-haul truck driver Gary Williamson, who moved to nearby Dover, N.C., in 1981, praised the return of the “good, clean family atmosphere” at the old ballpark, where he used to watch the Indians twice a week. Even though his job won’t allow him to come quite as often nowadays, he and his wife purchased a partial season-ticket package.

Local businesses have a strong presence along the stadium’s outfield wall.

Many fans arrived in Wood Ducks attire, but that didn’t stop them from packing the newly built team store, where lines were long throughout the evening. Others were content to just take their seats in the old grandstand, even with first pitch more than an hour away.

At 6:30, with most fans already through the turnstiles, the PA announcer signed on for the first time, grabbing the attention of fans throughout the park: “Grainger Stadium: Baseball is back in Kinston.”

That had, of course, become official months earlier. But in that moment, with fans in the ballpark and first pitch just moments away, it was suddenly real. Fans who had already taken their seats in the grandstand stood and applauded. The wait was finally over.

Alex Silverman is a writer in New York City.