North Carolina, already one of the most well-represented states in all of Minor League Baseball, will have an even more significant presence in 2017 and beyond.
Minor League Baseball announced Monday that two teams will be added to the Class A Advanced Carolina League in 2017. In a related move, two franchises in the California League -- the Bakersfield Blaze and High Desert Mavericks -- will cease operations once this season ends. In the process, the Carolina League expands to 10 teams while the California League contracts to eight.
Of the two Carolina League additions, one is definite. The Texas Rangers will own a franchise based in Kinston, North Carolina; this team will operate out of Grainger Stadium and replaces the organization's current Class A Advanced club in High Desert. Grainger Stadium is owned by the city of Kinston, which has a 12-year lease agreement with the Rangers. A temporary website for the Kinston club launched Monday, featuring season-ticket information, merchandise and an opportunity to submit suggestions in a "Name the Team Contest." The Rangers and the city of Kinston will welcome the return of baseball at free public event Thursday, featuring representatives from both entities.
Grainger Stadium, built in 1949, last hosted Carolina League baseball in the form of the Kinston Indians. That team relocated to Zebulon, North Carolina, following the 2011 season and became the Carolina Mudcats. (In a corresponding move, the Double-A team existing in Zebulon at the time relocated to Pensacola, Florida.) Kinston, with a population of approximately 21,000, will be one of the smallest markets in full-season Minor League Baseball.
"The Texas Rangers are very happy to be bringing baseball back to the great City of Kinston," said Neil Leibman, chairman of the Texas Rangers Ownership Committee. "We want to thank Minor League Baseball and the Kinston leadership for helping us to make this a reality for 2017."
The second addition to the Carolina League is yet to be determined, with Fayetteville, North Carolina, the most likely possibility. Earlier this month, the Fayetteville City Council unanimously approved a memorandum of understanding regarding the construction of a ballpark. The Houston Astros, who currently have their Class A Advanced affiliate in Lancaster, California, have long expressed interest in having a team in Fayetteville. Astros president Reid Ryan, reached by phone last week, said Fayetteville "checks all the boxes" for the organization's fans and players but that this is still "very much a developing story" that is "happening in real time." If and when a new ballpark is ultimately approved, the team would have to find a temporary place to play for at least the next two seasons.
Fayetteville, like Kinston, has a long Minor League Baseball history. Professional baseball in the region dates back to the 1909 Highlanders of the Eastern Carolina League. From 1987 through 2000 the city hosted a South Atlantic League franchise, known as the Fayetteville Generals (1987-1996) and then the Cape Fear Crocs (1997-2000). That team played in J.P. Riddle Stadium, which is currently the home of the collegiate summer league Fayetteville Swampdogs.
"It's flattering that clubs are making a major commitment to become part of our league, enabling us to return Carolina League baseball to two outstanding communities where we have some memorable history," said Carolina League president John Hopkins.
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
"As a league we worked diligently to explore alternatives to realignment, but the lack of alternatives combined with the importance of this project to address broader issues within Minor League Baseball led us to help facilitate this realignment," said California League President Charlie Blaney.
The California League's "lack of alternatives" included a lack of suitable future ballpark options for both Bakersfield and High Desert. Bakersfield's Sam Lynn Ballpark, which opened in 1941, possesses charm and eccentricity but lacks many of the basic amenities required of Minor League Baseball. Team ownership had tried for years to land a new ballpark -- most recently in Salinas, California -- but to no avail.
"Our official position is that we are devastated," the Blaze tweeted on Monday. "The sad emoji would also work. So much history...gone."
The High Desert Mavericks have played at Heritage Field at Stater Bros. Stadium since 1991 (when it opened as Mavericks Stadium). The facility, owned by the city of Adelanto, was acknowledged as one of Minor League Baseball's crown jewels when it debuted. (That year, the Mavericks became the first team in California League history to draw more than 200,000 fans.) Attendance plummeted this century, however, and before this season the team was involved in a public spat with the city over the current lease agreement. Mavericks owner Dave Heller acknowledged the acrimony Monday, remarking that "[T]he City of Adelanto's effort to lock us out a ballpark for which we have a binding legal contract creates too much uncertainty for next season and beyond."
Both Bakersfield and High Desert have one regular home stand remaining. High Desert clinched a postseason berth after winning the first-half South Division title, while Bakersfield is currently leading in the North Division. This situation led Mavericks general manager Ben Hemmen to envision what, for both teams, would be an ideal finale to their respective existences.