The Kinston Indians' Carolina League franchise will move to Zebulon for the 2012 baseball season, subject to approval from Minor League Baseball and review of Major League Baseball.
Carolina Mudcats owner Steve Bryant has acquired the Kinston franchise and will move the team in 2012 to Five County Stadium, a state-of-the-art, 6,500-seat ball park in Zebulon. The shift comes after Bryant's Class AA Mudcats franchise was sold. That team will move to Pensacola, Florida in 2012.The Kinston Indians will play the 2011 season in Historic Grainger Stadium, continuing to compete this coming season as the Carolina League affiliate of the Cleveland Indians.
Cam McRae, a general partner of the Indians ownership group, said the sale of the team does not mean baseball will disappear from the city. "I'm an optimist, and I'm hopeful that baseball will be played in Grainger Stadium in 2012," said McRae. McRae said that he and the City of Kinston are working with others in baseball on plans for 2012, but he could not disclose any details.
McRae said that he and North Johnson, the other general partner of the franchise, had worked hard with the City of Kinston for 17 years to keep the Indians playing at Grainger Stadium. "We've improved the stadium, put money in it, and we've had a solid Player Development Contract with the Cleveland Indians," McRae said. "We've put great players on the field and won three Carolina League championships. We did not have a for-sale sign on this franchise, but this transaction is a good opportunity for the Carolina League team to field a team in a bigger market and a modern ball park. Grainger Stadium is also a quality venue. Again, the process has begun to field a quality baseball team in Grainger Stadium in 2012."
Kinston City Manager Scott Stevens said he would work with McRae to secure a team for the 2012 baseball season. "Baseball is a part of what makes Kinston a great place to live," Stevens said. "We'll do everything we can to keep baseball being played in Grainger Stadium." The City of Kinston owns the 61-year-old park.
Kinston Indians General Manager Benjamin Jones emphasized the importance of community support for the team in 2011. "Our organization is going to extra lengths to offer a memorable fan experience at the ball park," Jones said. "The more fan support we have this coming year, the better our prospects will be to attract a franchise for 2012. We have good facilities and the support of the City. I know we'll work together to show that Kinston is a great baseball town."
Ross Atkins, Vice President -- Player Development for the parent Cleveland Indians, praised the association with Kinston. "We've had a great run over the past 25 years. We've had a great relationship with Kinston," Atkins said. "We're going to miss working with the City, Cam McRae, North Johnson and others in their ownership group. At the same time, we're excited about the opportunity to play in Zebulon, a great market with a stadium built to Class AAA standards, and to work with Steve Bryant."
McRae partnered with Johnson to lead a group of investors to acquire the franchise that had an affiliation with the Kinston Indians in 1994. In addition to McRae and Johnson, there are approximately 60 minority shareholders of the Kinston baseball franchise. McRae said that his ownership group was approached only recently by the Mudcats ownership about selling the Kinston franchise.
Johnson, now general manager of a Class AAA team in Gwinnett County, Georgia, agreed, saying that movement among minor league franchises happens from time to time. "You can understand why the ownership group in Zebulon found the Kinston franchise attractive," Johnson said. "The Indians have done a great job in Kinston and they became attractive to another market."
Johnson said his own career as a minor league baseball executive has taken a similar path. In baseball, he said, moving is a necessity if you're going to grow. Johnson left as Kinston's general manager eight years ago, going on to oversee team operations in California, Myrtle Beach and, now, in Gwinnett County, where he's general manager of the Atlanta Braves top minor league affiliate.
The Indians franchise will play 70 regular-season games in Kinston in 2011. "The staff is in place and ready for a great season of baseball," said Chris Hemeyer, who will begin his sixth season as the Indians' play-by-play announcer. "We're looking forward to a memorable 25th summer of Kinston Indians baseball."