As I was talking to Kinston Indians
general manager Ben Jones on Friday evening, a fan walked by and shouted "Appy League!"
"I hear ya, man," said Jones.
This unsolicited fan suggestion is one of many that Jones has heard since taking over the Kinston general manager role this past offseason. The K-Tribe (as they are locally known) are in the midst of their final season, as the franchise has been sold and will relocate to Zebulon, N.C., in 2012 (where they will play as the Mudcats). Thus ends the Indians' 25-year run at historic Grainger Stadium, which opened its doors in 1949 and first hosted Carolina League baseball in 1956.
But professional baseball in Kinston may very well continue. The K-Tribe's longtime ownership group, led by local fast food magnate Cam McRae, has publically communicated its willingness to bring a new franchise to the area. But just what that team might be, if any, remains a subject of speculation -- the aforementioned Appalachian League has been mentioned as a possibility, as has the collegiate wood bat Coastal Plain League. And the current uncertainty has led to the resuscitation of the long bandied-about possibility of relocating two teams from the California League to the Carolina League.
Only one thing's for sure -- people in Kinston and the surrounding area are proud of their city's baseball legacy and hope that it continues.
"At least ten times a day, I'm asked what team's going to be playing here next season," said Jones, who came to Kinston after a stint with the nearby Wilson Tobs of the Coastal Plain League. "What it shows is that a lot of people really care. Minor League Baseball here is part of the lifestyle, and one of the main things to do for entertainment. To not have baseball here would be sad."
With a population of just 22,000, Kinston is the smallest full-season city in all of Minor League Baseball. But Jones stresses that the market is "not so much Kinston as it is east North Carolina," before reeling off the names of half a dozen nearby towns whose residents regularly make the trek to Kinston.
"We're the only pro team east of [route] 95, and that's definitely part of our pitch," he said. "We have a lot more than just Kinston that supports us. Our job now is to let the fans know that ownership wants a team here, and that the front office wants a team here. We believe that there are options out there, and hope that things will go our way."
That sentiment can be found throughout Grainger Stadium. In Box 139, down the first base line, sits longtime season ticket holder John Williams.
"We'd love to see another affiliated team here," said Williams while keeping one eye on the playing field, always alert to the possibility of a hard-hit foul ball. "Something from the [Class A] South Atlantic League would be nice, or how about the California League? There are too many teams out there anyway.
"I just hate the thought of [Grainger] being empty. It would result in such a big hole in all of our summers, for us to lose baseball here."
Indeed, Minor League Baseball is the sort of community institution that simply cannot be replaced. Williams recalls one summer in which he and his family hosted Venezuelan infielder Eider Torres along with his wife and young daughter.
"We've been close friends with [Torres] ever since. He calls my wife and I his American mother and father," said Williams. "My daughter was 15 that summer, and by the end of it she was able to speak Spanish fluently. There are just so many moments that we'll always cherish."
Perhaps the most poignant example of Grainger Stadium's long history could be found on the concourse, where local baseball icon Carl Long was holding court. A member of the 1952-53 Birmingham Black Barons, Long went on to become the first black player in Kinston's Carolina League history.
"You really don't want to know what that was like," said Long of his experience integrating the circuit as a member of the 1956 Kinston Eagles. "I caught hell every day. But the experience made a better person out of me."
Indeed. Hardened and emboldened by his baseball trials and triumphs, Long went on to become Kinston's first black deputy sheriff, detective and commercial bus driver. Today he spends much of his time traveling the country with fellow Negro League alumni, sharing his segregation-era experiences with young people.
But when he's not on the road, Long can often be found at Grainger Stadium.
"I'm hoping something can be worked out," he said from the concourse, gazing up at the venerable facility. "We really need a team here."