04/17/11 — Team's departure to Five County Stadium leaves officials scrambling for replacement

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Team's departure to Five County Stadium leaves officials scrambling for replacement

By Ryan Hanchett
Published in Sports on April 17, 2011 1:51 AM

Opening day at historic Grainger Stadium signalled a new baseball season, but the end of an era for the Kinston Indians.

The Class A Carolina League affiliate of the Cleveland Indians organization heads to Zebulon next spring, which is part of a three-tier deal that also involves sending the Class AA Carolina Mudcats to Florida in 2012.

The transaction wasn't easy for Cam McRae, ownership chairman of the Kinston Indians. McRae built a strong business reputation and spearheaded a group that brought the Indians to town in 1987. This past December, he presented the same group with the proposed sale of the team, which they ultimately accepted.

Ben Jones, the Kinston general manager, knew about the change upon his hiring. Two weeks later, the deal was made.

"When I was brought in, (McRae) was very up front with me about what was going on with the organization," said Jones. "I was not aware of the specifics at that time, and I honestly don't think he was either, because this was a deal that came together very quickly."

Kinston moves into Five County Stadium, while the Mudcats, now a Cincinnati Reds affiliate, will head to Pensacola, Fla. If Kinston finds a new team, it's not known if it will play in the Carolina League.

None of the current employees of the Kinston front office are moving with the team in 2012, so there is an urgency to finding a replacement for the K-Tribe as soon as possible.

"If there is any one group of people who have a lot riding on baseball staying in Kinston, it is the front office employees," said Jones. "Many of our people have come from good distances away to join the Indians so it is important to us that baseball is played here in the very near future."

Despite what the casual observer may view as an uphill battle, finding a new team to occupy Grainger Stadium is a challenge that McRae and Jones both look forward to taking on.

The facilities in Kinston, which are owned by the city and leased to the Indians, are some of the best maintained in all of minor league baseball. Also the location and climate in eastern North Carolina make the city attractive to teams from the northern United States.

"The great thing about Kinston is that we have two things that Major League teams are looking for in a minor league city," said Jones. "We have top-tier facilities, complete with one of the best infields in all of minor league baseball, and we have a lot less commotion for young players to get caught up in. Guys who play here can focus strictly on baseball and stay out of trouble."

With all eyes on 2012, it would be easy for the mood to be gloomy around the stadium. However a walk around the concourse reveals no sign of Armageddon. Jones and his staff are rolling full-speed ahead on this summer's campaign and are planning on bringing excitement to the ballpark every night.

Nearly a century old

The Kinston Indians have been a staple of summertime in eastern North Carolina since 1987. With highly-regarded prospects, big-name managers and a beautiful ballpark, the K-Tribe built a reputation as one of the most fan-friendly atmospheres in all of professional baseball.

"A whole generation of fans has come to know what the Kinston Indians stand for over the last 25 years," said Jones. "We have built a name on providing fun, family-friendly entertainment at a price that people can afford."

The history of minor league baseball in Lenoir County goes back nearly 100 years when the Robins threw the ball around the horn in 1921. The team belonged to the Eastern Carolina Baseball Association of the Outlaw League. In 1925, the club changed its mascot to Eagles and became a member of the Virginia League.

A decade later, the Eagles joined the old Coastal Plain League where they remained until 1952. During their early days, the Eagles had affiliations with the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals in the big leagues, but spent most seasons unaligned with a major league franchise.

There was little stability within the organization as managers came and went almost every season and money problems trumped turnstile profits. Kinston did not field teams from 1953-56 and '58-61.

The Eagles resumed play in 1962 and baseball has reigned in Lenoir County ever since.

"Baseball is so important to this county and really the eastern part of the state," Jones said. "When you look back, it's clear that the people here love the game."

While baseball was being played, the lack of stability in the minor league market became too much for many professional teams to take. The Pittsburgh Pirates dropped their affiliation with the club in 1965. The Atlanta Braves took over, but last lasted just two seasons.

The Montreal Expos and New York Yankees each gave Kinston a chance as a farm team as well. Neither lasted more than a few years, despite bringing in big-name managers like former Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone and former Boston Red Sox skipper Grady Little of "Bull Durham" fame.

The Toronto Blue Jays became the saving grace of Kinston baseball and took over the Eagles' affiliation in 1979. After two seasons, Toronto changed the minor league mascot to match its own and the Kinston Blue Jays manned the Grainger Stadium diamond until 1986.

Another new major league club, and another new mascot arrived in 1987.

This time the match seemed to be made in heaven as the Cleveland Indians took the reins and began to build for the long haul in eastern North Carolina. The inaugural Kinston Indians squad finished with 75 wins and advanced to the Carolina League championship with first-year manager Mike Hargrove.

Over the last 23 seasons, the players have changed. The managers have come and gone. Even the facilities have undergone an overhaul.

The one thing that hasn't changed is the ideal that baseball is a part of the fabric of Lenoir County. That is what has made the thought of moving the Indians franchise so difficult for the people in and around the organization.

Quality players

Several Major League prospects dot the K-Tribe roster.

Shortstop Juan Diaz came into his own in 2010 with a .271 batting average in 61 games in Kinston. In 2008 and 2009, Diaz was an All-Star in the California League and the Arizona League, respectively.

Pitcher T.J. McFarlane, a young left-hander from Illinois, also had scouts salivating after a solid 2010 season. McFarlane finished the year 11-5 overall in 20 starts. The 6-foot-3, 200-pounder possesses the prototypical size for a potential major league starter.

"We have a great group of young players coming back and I don't expect the move to effect our play on the field this season in any way," said Jones. "The great thing about minor league baseball is that it forces players to work hard every day because most of our players are not guaranteed another shot next year."

Along with the standard Indians' schedule, the organization has scheduled added events at the stadium this spring, which includes a three-game series between the Air Force Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy in late February. There will also be a high school showcase tournament held in Kinston in April.

The Indians open their season April 8 against Winston-Salem.

"There are a lot of things to be excited about as we get into the swing of things," said Chris Hemeyer, the Indians' media director. "No one here is going to take it easy this season, we have a lot of great promotions planned and a lot of things that should make fans want to come to the ballpark."