Next of Kin

Like Kinston, N.C., Pulaski, Va., also got baseball back after it briefly left town. (via Rutke421)

Like Kinston, N.C., Pulaski, Va., also got baseball back after it briefly left town. (via Rutke421)

In April, the people of Kinston, a small town on the eastern coastal plains of North Carolina, will watch something most of them probably never thought they’d see again: affiliated professional baseball at 67-year-old Grainger Stadium.

Everyone knows when towns lose their professional sports teams nowadays, rarely do they get them back, particularly without spending three arms and two legs (or more) on new venues. That’s why Kinston has a new team in the first place. Bakersfield, Calif., wouldn’t pony up for a new stadium to replace one built in the early 1940s as a Works Progress Administration project. After years of back-and-forth with the city of Bakersfield about venerable, sunset-facing Sam Lynn Ballpark, Minor League Baseball and ownership of the Bakersfield Blaze threw up their collective hands and left. No one was really surprised.

Flying across the country to another old ballpark? That was a surprise.

There is precedent for this, though. Pulaski, Va., now home to the rookie level Pulaski Yankees, lost its Appalachian League club after 2006 and spent a year without pro ball until the Seattle Mariners agreed to put their rookie team there for the ’08 season. John White, who works in the Economic Department of the City of Pulaski, said it wasn’t the first time baseball skipped town.

“There were several years in my youth when we would lose a team,” recalled White, who grew up there until he left for college. “It happened in my early years, in the mid 1950s. It seems like we lost the Phillies once.”

Actually, the Philadelphia Phillies jilted Pulaski twice: in 1955 to create a one-year void before the Chicago Cubs put a team there and again in 1977. The town went four years without organized baseball until the Atlanta Braves’ rookie-league club moved in.

“That summer we didn’t have a team when I was a kid was pretty depressing,” said White of 1956. “This was in the day when there was not a lot of air conditioning. One of the ways you cooled off was to go to Calfee Park. I remember that summer being torturous. I was at the ballpark for every game.”

Like Sam Lynn Ballpark, Calfee is a product of the WPA, constructed by local builders in 1935. Today, the park stands out for its castle-like outfield gate and long, covered seating area along the third-base line, where fans set up camp and lawn chairs on the tiered concrete slabs. Calfee is also enveloped by hills, and the people living in homes overlooking the field often sit on their porches to enjoy some free baseball.

There aren’t many other ballparks in America like Calfee, but that didn’t cut it any slack in 2006, when the Toronto Blue Jays bolted and no one took their place. This time, White found out that losing a team does a lot more than bum out the kids.

“One of the things baseball does, even for a short-season town like ours, is bring in a lot of revenue,” he said. “It’s not only the activity at the ballpark. There are a lot of these little multiplier effects. The team is really a community treasure and becomes an important part of our brand. When you lose a team you really lose part of your soul. That was a tough year for us.”

The city of Albuquerque, N.M., can relate. In 2000, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Triple-A team left for Las Vegas, and Albuquerque went two years with no baseball. Again, an old ballpark was its undoing. Albuquerque Dukes Stadium, built in 1969, had fallen hopelessly behind all the new parks in the league.

“The ballpark had become worn down and dated, and it was certainly no secret something had to be done to the facility here to get baseball back,” said John Traub, vice president and general manager of the current tenant, the Albuquerque Isotopes. “When our club moved here for 2003 and went through a $25 million renovation of the old facility, it looked like a brand new stadium on opening day. It had a wow factor that took the community by storm.”

Technically, what was done to the ballpark classifies as a renovation because a certain percentage of the old ballpark remained. A very small percentage. In reality, Albuquerque built a new stadium. Traub said fans who were still stung by the loss of the Dodgers affiliation suddenly didn’t care when they saw the new place.

The season attendance high at Albuquerque Dukes Stadium was around 390,000. In the facelifted Isotopes Park, the new team eclipsed that by July of its maiden season and wound up welcoming nearly 600,000 fans through the gates in 2003.

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“Having that two-year window gave the community a chance to miss baseball and realize summer evenings weren’t the same without it,” said Traub. “It was part of the fabric of the community, and people discovered there wasn’t a whole lot else to do here on summer nights. So when we came here people really rallied around the team.”

They still do. The Isotopes finished fourth in the Pacific Coast League in 2016 attendance with 522,266 fans.

Neither the Isotopes nor the Pulaski Yankees would have been possible had both communities not been proactive about keeping their ballparks running in one form or another. Albuquerque did that by renovating its ballpark. Pulaski hosted amateur baseball games and movie nights at Calfee Park, simply to justify its upkeep in the hopes of getting another team.

That’s exactly what Kinston did in its five years of baseball dormancy.

“We knew if we didn’t keep things happening at the stadium, we would never get baseball back,” said Bill Ellis, director of parks and recreation, for the city of Kinston. “So we hosted college events, the Junior College World Series. Events that our town didn’t normally get but could because didn’t have minor league baseball.”

In turn, the city felt compelled to keep Grainger nice and tidy.

“That’s the reason the Rangers came back,” said Ellis. “The stadium is in good shape, and we didn’t let it go down. The first thing you usually do when a stadium loses its main tenant is cut the maintenance budget. We didn’t.”

Ellis said Kinston could have had a new team for Grainger sooner. The college summer league in the region, the Coastal Plain League, courted Kinston several times. The league has a history of making good use of vacated minor league parks. The Gastonia Grizzlies play in old Sims Legion Field, where the Sammy Sosa cut his teeth as a Texas Rangers prospect.

“We resisted the temptation of putting in a [Coastal Plain League] team because an 8-10 year contract is required,” said Ellis. “They wanted to come three different times, but we held fast because we knew once we were tied up it would be hard to get another team in here.”

Ellis makes an interesting point, because the second relocated California League team is slated to move into Fayetteville, N.C., where the CPL’s Fayetteville Swampdogs currently play at J.P. Riddle Stadium. That ballpark also once hosted minor League baseball, most recently the Cape Fear Crocs in 2000.

In Kinston, however, the locals are rejoicing that their treasured home ballpark is back in business. The stadium opened in 1949 as the home of the Class D Coastal Plain League’s Kinston Eagles, which stepped up to the then-Class B Carolina League in 1956.

The Cleveland Indians were the last to have its affiliate in Kinston, where the high-A Kinston Indians played from 1987 to 2011. In that span, nearly every homegrown Tribe star passed through. Jim Thome was 19 years old when he played at Grainger in 1990. Manny Ramirez played 81 games there in 1992. CC Sabathia made seven starts for the K-Tribe in 1999.

Along the way, the city diligently made upgrades to its gem of a stadium. Among the latest were additions of new seating to the grandstand in 2002 and a new scoreboard in 2007. The September announcement about the Rangers affiliate spurred more upgrades, including new lights and ceiling fans for the grandstand and a new visitors’ clubhouse.

“This season what we’re doing primarily are upgrades to bring the stadium up to MiLB standards,” said Ellis. “Things like adding on walls and relighting some of the poles. We’re taking the old visitor’s locker room and making it a new weight room and kitchen facility for the team.”

Ellis said the team is also building a new concession stand down the third-base line and adding about 200 more parking spots.

All this is great. But with a population hovering just above 21,000, Kinston was — and now is again — the smallest full-season minor league market in the country. According to CityData.com, its population hasn’t grown since the Indians left. By contrast, the Bakersfield, Calif., market is home to 363,630 people.

“We have more industry now than we’ve had in a long time,” said Ellis. “When you look at the eastern North Carolina area as a whole, I think it’s ready and right for a new professional team.”

That’s why the Kinston baseball braintrust is doing all it can to represent the region and not just the town. It gave fans five online “Name the Team” options, all of which included “Down East” instead of the town name. (Never mind the nicknames, which stirred a firestorm among the locals.) This is what new general manager Wade Howell had to say in a recent press release from the Rangers:

While the new team will call the great City of Kinston home, there are so many people from neighboring areas that will be part of the new family of fans. To honor the geographic diversity of the fans, and to give a nod to the many vibrant areas the team will serve, we’ll precede the new team nickname with the phrase ‘Down East.’”

The vibrant areas Howell hopes to draw fans from include New Bern (population 30,242), Goldsboro (36,306) and Greenville (89,130). All three are fewer than 45 minutes away.

“We’re working hard to make sure everyone in the region thinks it’s their team,” said Ellis. “I’ve gotten a lot of phone calls from other city officials and parks and rec officials who are excited baseball is back. All the military bases are excited to have something for their young people to do. Sometimes you don’t know what you have until you lose it.”

Among those is the classic Grainger Stadium experience during a minor league ballgame, which Ellis said he and the city are determined to preserve. The stadium is still a relic of an age when watching a baseball game was a shared experience. There was little if any concept of luxury seating when the stadium was built, and Grainger won’t be adding any.

Ellis said the team plans to use this season to gather fan feedback on what additions to Grainger they’d like to see in 2018. The only sure thing is that it won’t be luxury boxes.

“In this market, I don’t think luxury boxes are the right thing,” said Ellis. “That’s why we want to build a new hospitality area. We’re putting money in that so all fans can take advantage and enjoy it.”

No matter what Kinston decides to do, the egalitarian spirit of Grainger Stadium will remain intact. And that’s something even rarer than an old, abandoned ballpark getting another minor league baseball team.

References & Resources


Chris Gigley is a freelance writer who has written for a number of Major League team publications, as well as Baseball America and ESPN the Magazine. Follow him on Instagram @cgigley and Twitter @cgigley.

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