Minor League Baseball In NC
There’s nothing bush league about Minor League Baseball in North Carolina these days. In fact, with record crowds, a wide variety of stadiums, unique team names, promotions, mascots, personal contact with players (including future Major League stars), and perfectly palatable prices (and food), the national pastime means major fun for fans willing to beat the bushes in North Carolina.
“Take me out to the ballgame” takes on a new meaning when it comes to Minor League Baseball, where peanuts, Crackerjack, and practically everything else about the experience somehow taste better – and cost way less – than a Major League experience. Many also went out to a Minor League ballgame after seeing the feature film, “Bull Durham,” and kept returning for more. Though you likely won’t see Kevin Costner behind the plate, the old stadium used in the film still stands in downtown Durham and is going to be used as a Minor League training facility (the snorting bull was moved to the sparkling new ballpark).
All of these reasons and more have meant a resurgence for Minor League Baseball in the past 15 years or so, with North Carolina’s new stadiums and refurbished gems welcoming record attendance by thousands of fans in the know. North Carolina currently hosts ten Minor League teams, which ranks the state behind only California, Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania in total number of clubs. They are: Asheville Tourists; Burlington Royals; Carolina Mudcats (located in Zebulon, east of Raleigh); Charlotte Knights; Durham Bulls; Greensboro Grasshoppers; Hickory Crawdads; Kannapolis Intimidators; Kinston Indians; and Winston-Salem Dash. The teams range in level from “Rookie” league to Single-A, Double-A, and one step from the majors at Triple-A. Current affiliations with Major League teams include the Rockies, the Royals, the Marlins, the White Sox, the Rays, the Pirates, and the Indians.
Take Me Out to the Ballgame (and Ballpark)
When baseball fans talk about going to a game, the stadium is often mentioned as much as the score. That’s thanks to an incredibly wide variety of ballpark styles, sizes, and overall experiences.
In many ways, the Minor League stadium craze (both new and refurbished) started at the majors with the 1992 opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore. This throwback to earlier stadiums (but with all the modern amenities) was anything but cookie-cutter – and it’s major success and popularity led to the construction of many similar but smaller versions at the minor league level in North Carolina and elsewhere.
These new stadiums feature popular options like open concourses (to watch the action while waiting at the concessions stand), an array of food options (including food and beverage service at some seats), luxury boxes, multi-million-dollar scoreboards, more numerous and larger bathrooms, and family-friendly attractions and activities to get young ones interested in the national pastime. First Horizon Park in Greensboro, Durham Bulls Athletic Park, L.P. Frans Stadium in Hickory, Five County Stadium in Zebulon, and Fieldcrest Cannon Stadium in Kannapolis provide perfect examples of these modern wonders. Though a bit older, Charlotte’s Knights Stadium (currently just across the state line in South Carolina) also has many new-style touches (like a restaurant overlooking the field).
Of course, funding issues have often kept municipalities from building brand new stadiums. This has led to the refurbishment of some classic older stadiums to make them more fan-friendly. Diamonds in North Carolina no longer in the rough include McCormick Field in Asheville (Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb played here), Burlington Athletic Stadium, Grainger Stadium in Kinston, and BB&T BalllPark in Winston-Salem.
More Than a Game
Minor League Baseball has become especially known for wacky promotions, mascots, and even team names. This has definitely increased interest from the young and young at heart, with Minor League team souvenir sales at an all-time high (who can resist a Hickory Crawdads baseball cap?).
Pre- and post-game promotions, along with between-innings shenanigans, have made Minor League games fun for all. Whether it’s an autograph session before batting practice, sumo wrestling between innings, or letting the kids run the bases after the game, promos pack people in (and not just for “Thirsty Thursday”). Baseball is even for the dogs, thanks to popular promotions like “Bark in the Park” (dogs get free admission).
Mascots have also become a major part of Minor League fun. From dogs that deliver balls to umpires to fun plays on team names, mascots are still fan favorites – especially younger fans, who are now also drawn to stadiums by huge playgrounds, carousels, kid-friendly food, and more. From Ted E. Tourist (a teddy bear) in Asheville to Conrad the Crawdad in Hickory and Muddy the Mudcat in Zebulon, there’s no bull when it comes to mascots (except in Durham, of course).
Along with offbeat promotions, mascots, and fans, the name game has also put Minor League Baseball on the map. Fans easily forget about boring old monikers like Red Sox, White Sox, Cubs, Cardinals, and Giants when they can support clubs like the aforementioned Crawdads or the Bulls, Mudcats, Grasshoppers, and Intimidators (named for the late Dale Earnhardt).
Given all that Minor League Baseball in North Carolina has going for it, there’s no reason that another year of record attendance won’t make it into the scorebook. From batting practice to the last pitch, this is a game that’s anything but bush.
- The Ultimate Minor League Baseball Road Trip (Josh Pahigian, The Lyons Press) is perhaps the single best resource for planning visits to Minor League stadiums. It’s quite detailed, including tips on the best seats, food, and nearby attractions.
- The handy annual booklet, Minor Trips, is a pocket-sized guide to every Minor League stadium. They also publish an excellent newsletter for die-hard fans.
- The official Minor League Baseball website, provides an excellent online guide, as well as links to individual (and often excellent) team websites.
By Lynn Seldon
By Lynn Seldon
added: December 22, 2008
updated: April 7, 2010