The date is July 3, 1991; Paula Abdul's "Rush Rush" is the nation's top song, The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear tops the box office and Sonic the Hedgehog is the hottest video game in homes across the country. Each magical in their own right. However, the true magic that took place that same evening was the baseball kind, as the Carolina Mudcats played their first game at Five County Stadium in Zebulon.
Since that original opening night nearly 300 future Major League Baseball players have dug their cleats into the Five County Stadium grass. Zebulon's ballpark has seen close to 2,000 Minor League games and has welcomed in over 6,000,000 baseball fans. A lot has changed since Five County Stadium first opened, but the one constant has always been the mission of Mudcats baseball.
According to team owner Steve Bryant, the Mudcats aim to "excel in the Magic of Baseball, provide a positive atmosphere for families to escape to a sparkling venue that provides creature comforts that enhance quality time together."
Bryant purchased the Mudcats in 1988 from a local ownership in Columbus, Georgia. The then Columbus Astros were the Double-A affiliate of the Houston Astros and were renamed in 1989 once Bryant took over ownership of the club. A fan vote was later held to pick the new team name and once all the votes were tallied the Columbus Astros were no more. From 1989 on, the club would be known as the Mudcats.
In 1990 the Columbus Mudcats packed up shop and left Golden Ballpark in Georgia for Eastern North Carolina. The club began the 1991 season as a first year affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates and a third year member of the Southern League. With Five County Stadium still in its infancy stages, the Mudcats opened play that season at Fleming Stadium in Wilson, North Carolina.
While Fleming Stadium proved to be a suitable host for Mudcats baseball that season, the goal was to always make Zebulon home. Five County Stadium, unfortunately, was still being constructed by the time the club left Fleming Stadium and was little more than aluminum bleachers and a trailer set across a tobacco field.
To say Five County Stadium was still work in progress back then would be an understatement. Stadium workers were still installing the seats when the Mudcats finally began their home slate of games in Zebulon. Fans, meanwhile, lined up outside the gates waiting to see the Mudcats play. Those same workers then doubled as ushers as they installed seats for fans as they entered through the gates. Stadium workers also had to physically raise a flag pole during the opening night rendition of the National Anthem before the game.
Baseball magic in Eastern North Carolina started with humble beginnings, but has flourished ever since. Since 1998 the stadium has seen multiple improvement/renovations projects that have included entry features, offices, tickets booths, new playing surface and drainage system, lights, outfield wall, and a greatly improved sound system. Most recently, in 2015, Wake County and the Town of Zebulon, owners of Five County Stadium, added a state-of-the-art video board to home of the Mudcats. At 82 feet wide the new board, nicknamed MUDZILLA, is the biggest wide screen video board in Minor League Baseball. Those changes are just part of the some of the great improvements to have been installed at Five County over the years. All of which have certainly enhanced the overall fan experience in Zebulon. That experience begins with the park, but it's often times the players who make the lasting memories that keep fans engaged for years to come.
On the field, Five County Stadium has not been a stranger whatsoever when it comes to the top talent in all of baseball. Over the years baseball fans in the Five County region have seen a steady diet of future big league stars. The original 1991 team saw future World Series Champion Tim Wakefield go 15-8 with a 2.90 ERA over 26 games. Wakefield returned to the Mudcats in 1993 after losing feel for his knuckleball. He eventually found the pitch again and returned to Major League action with Pittsburgh that same year.
All-Star catcher Jason Kendall made his first Double-A stop with the Mudcats in 1994 before named the Southern League MVP during his second go-around with the Mudcats in 1995. Kendall hit .326 with 140 hits over 117 games and helped lead the Mudcats to their first of two Southern League Championships. Carolina won 89 games in 1995 with manager Trent Jewett leading the club. The Mudcats defeated the Chattanooga Lookouts that year and picked up their first Southern League Championship title.
Their second title came in 2003 when Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Gonzalez, Dontrelle Willis and Josh Beckett led the (then Florida Marlins affiliate) Mudcats to a stellar 80-win, championship season.
Cabrera, the 2012 Triple Crown Award winner and two-time American League MVP, began the 2003 season with the Mudcats before going up to the bigs later that same year. He hit .365 with 10 home runs and 97 hits over 69 games with the Mudcats and finished that same season batting .268 with 84 hits in 87 MLB games with the World Series Champion Marlins.
Willis, like Cabrera, started the 2003 season with the Mudcats before being promoted to the Marlins in May. The Oakland, California native found instant success in Zebulon and would later become the National League Rookie of the Year after his call to the majors. Willis struck out 32 batters in 36 innings for Carolina in 2003 and posted a 1.49 ERA in six starts.
In all, the 2003 Mudcats were made up of 21 future Major League players. That club was managed, coincidentally, by former NC State standout Tracy Woodson who played for the Wolfpack before being drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1984.
The Marlins affiliation was Carolina's third since moving to Zebulon in 1991. They were with the Pirates from 1991 through 1998 before becoming an affiliate of the Colorado Rockies from 1999 to 2002. The Marlins came on board in 2003 and stayed with the Mudcats through the 2008 season. In 2009 the Mudcats switched affiliations again and became an affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds for three seasons before becoming a member of the Cleveland Indians farm system in 2012.
Each new player development agreement brought along a plethora of benefits to the Mudcats and baseball fans around the Triangle. Perhaps the most notable being the visits from the big league clubs and their players for exhibition games in Zebulon. In all, Five County Stadium has been the host of a Major League Baseball exhibition game seven times since it opened. The Pittsburgh Pirates played the Mudcats in Zebulon in 1992, 1994 and 1996. Carolina lost the first two meetings before shutting out the Pirates 12-0 in 1996. In 1997 the Seattle Mariners and Southern League All-Stars met up at Five County for a mid-season (July 21, 1997) exhibition showdown. That game saw Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. and teammates Alex Rodriguez, Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez and Joey Cora all make the trip to Zebulon to play against the very best players in the Southern League.
Somewhat like Griffey, another Hall of Famer (the basketball kind) graced the Five County outfield in 1994 when Michael Jordan and the Birmingham Barons came to town. Jordan temporarily retired from the NBA following the 1993 season and gave professional baseball a try in 1994. He was signed by the White Sox and assigned to Double-A Birmingham that season. His Airness went 2-for-4 in the first game of a series between the Barons and Mudcats in Zebulon. A sellout crowd of 8,045 made it out that night to Five County Stadium to see MJ take on the Mudcats.
The World Series champion Marlins played the Mudcats in Zebulon before the 2003 season. The "Future Stars" of the Cincinnati Reds played the Mudcats in 2003 and the Cleveland Indians did the same in 2012.
The Mudcats were a member of the Southern League for 21 seasons before embarking on an exciting run in the historic Carolina League in 2012. The move made sense for the Mudcats on several levels. The Carolina League was originally based out of Raleigh when it was founded in 1945. The move also made things easier on players as the change allowed for shorter bus trips and better travel accommodations.
The new era of Mudcats' Carolina League baseball began with an affiliation change as the Indians signed on through the 2014 season. Over those three seasons (2012-2014) future big leaguers like Giovanny Urshela, Cody Anderson and 2015 American League Rookie of the Year runner up Francisco Lindor all made Five County Stadium their home. In 2015 the Mudcats entered into a new player development agreement with the Atlanta Braves and thus began the "Braves New World" of Mudcats baseball.
The new partnership with Atlanta proved immediately beneficial as the Mudcats put together a winning season for the first time since 2008, narrowly missing the playoffs. The Braves also saw immediate success on the development side as relief pitcher Matt Marksberry made his Major League debut in Atlanta just a few months after opening the season with the Mudcats in Zebulon.
Atlanta has gone to great lengths to improve its farm system in recent years. Those efforts will result in some of the best prospects in baseball getting their "Braves Country" start this season in Eastern North Carolina with the Mudcats.
The bright future of Mudcats baseball lies in the talent on the field and under the glow from the largest wide screen video board in all of Minor League Baseball. The 2016 season marks the 26th straight year of baseball magic in Zebulon and it promises to be one of the best Mudcats fans have ever seen.