Is this the end of the line for Minor League Baseball in Kinston?
The eastern North Carolina metropolis first fielded a Carolina League team at historic Grainger Stadium in 1956, and has done so consecutively since 1978. Kinston has hosted the Class A Advanced affiliate of the Cleveland Indians for nearly a quarter-century, and over the years many of the franchise's greatest talents have played for the "K-Tribe" en route to Major League stardom.
However, the 2011 campaign will be the Kinston Indians' 25th and final season. The club is slated to move to Zebulon, N.C., in 2012, replacing the Southern League's Carolina Mudcats (who, in turn, are relocating to Pensacola, Fla.)
For those in live in the small tight-knit city, the news of the K-Tribe's departure carried an immediate and tremendous impact. The presence of an affiliated Minor League team has always been a point of pride for Kinstonians, especially given their city's status as the smallest full-season market in all of baseball.
End of an era
David Hall, who covers the team for the Kinston Free Press, described the community's reaction to the team leaving as one of "shock and fear."
"The Indians are such a big part of our community identity," he elaborated. "Kinston without them is like New York without the Yankees or Green Bay without the Packers."
This "shock and fear" was exacerbated by the sudden nature of the announcement.
"It came completely out of the blue ... but everyone I've talked to in baseball says the only way a deal like this happens is if nobody knows about it. The best way to kill a deal is to make it public."
McRae, a general partner in the team's ownership group, orchestrated the sale. As the team's press release succinctly explained, "Carolina Mudcats owner Steve Bryant has acquired the Kinston franchise and will move the team in 2012 to Five County Stadium...in Zebulon. The shift comes after Bryant's Class AA Mudcats franchise was sold. That team will move to Pensacola, Florida in 2012." (McRae did not return a phone call seeking comment).
"Any time a sports franchise leaves, the knee-jerk reaction is to blame the greedy owner, but I don't think that's the case here," said Hall. "There are 70 or so investors in the [Kinston Indians] ownership group, and they weren't getting much if any return on their investment. Cam felt a fiduciary responsibility to these investors."
But regardless of the specific motivations and machinations, the team's impending departure can't help but be looked upon with great sadness.
"So many of the season ticket holders know each other," said Hall. "They gather every night [at Grainger Stadium] during the summer, tell stories, keep up with each others' families and maintain close friendships."
Indeed, Grainger Stadium's intimate setting combined with Kinston's small-town atmosphere (the city's population is approximately 23,000) has given the K-Tribe fan experience a distinctly familial feel. This has been dramatically illustrated in recent years, as scoreboard operator Delmont Miller, clubhouse manager Robert Smeraldo and legendary host mother Evelyn "Mama" Kornegay were all memorialized at public ballpark services (in 2008, '09, and '10 respectively). Such events serve as a moving testament to the friendships that are cultivated throughout the day-in, day-out rhythms of the professional baseball season.
Coming to terms
One of the many ballpark regulars currently grappling with the uncertain status of Minor League Baseball in Kinston is Chris Maroules, owner of local eatery Christopher's Café. For nearly two decades, Maroules has proudly provided postgame meals for the players.
"The [players] are always so appreciative, and the rewards so great that I continue to do it all these years later," Maroules said. "I've met so many great people."
Maroules cited everyone from CC Sabathia to Grady Sizemore to Lonnie Chisenhall to former manager Torey Lovullo as the sort of "great people" he's formed a bond with over the years. His enthusiastic retellings of his interactions with these and many former K-Tribe illustrate just what a thrill it can be to bond with up-and-coming prospects as they make their way up the Minor League ladder.
"These are real people, just gifted people, who want to live the dream," he said. "It's been great having these kids come through here, being able to learn the ins and outs of their lives ... and let me tell you, they can flat out eat."
Maroules' prowess in placating these prodigious appetites led to him receiving a championship ring after Kinston won the Carolina League title in 2004.
"I got [the ring] for being the team's nutrition expert, if you can call country-style steak and green beans 'nutrition,'" he said.
But despite this emotional attachment to the team, Maroules realizes that business has to come first.
"Baseball is all about moving up, my friend," he said. "Hopefully in the future we'll get another team, but I think it's a good fit for the Indians to go to Zebulon. If I was a businessman, I'd have had to make the same call."
But before the K-Tribe moves on to Zebulon, there is still the 2011 season to contend with. While some fans may steer clear of the ballpark due to feeling of anger or resignation, strong attendance would undoubtedly play a large role in recruiting another franchise to fill the vacancy left by the Indians. The team stressed this repeatedly in the press release announcing the move, with general manager Benjamin Jones noting "The more fan support we have this coming year, the better our prospects will be to attract a franchise for 2012."
Marketing a team during a so-called "lame duck" season would be a challenge for any general manager, but the task seems especially daunting given that Jones accepted the GM position just two weeks prior to the announcement. (He replaced Shari Massengill, who took an assistant GM job with the Gwinnett Braves. The G-Braves are headed by North Johnson, who spent 1987-2003 as Kinston's GM). Jones had spent the previous four years as GM of the summer amateur collegiate league Wilson Tobs, but the Kinston job is one he had always wanted.
"To be a GM in affiliated baseball has always been a dream of mine, so this was just too good of an opportunity to turn down," said Jones. "We're not certain about what's around the corner, but we have a great facility and a small but very dedicated baseball community. And I feel that's what's going to carry us into the future, the reputation we have and the facility we have."
There has already been ample theorizing around baseball as to who could replace the Indians in Kinston, with guesses ranging from a Carolina League expansion team (in tandem with a California League reduction) to a relocated short-season affiliated club to a franchise from a summer collegiate league. But this remains idle speculation, and all Jones and his staff can do is focus on the immediate future.
"Our plan is to make the 2011 season as memorable as possible, and we're asking our fans to give us as much support as possible," said Jones. "If we do our part and the fans do theirs, then we'll be able to show that Kinston is deserving of another Minor League franchise.
"It's hard to answer questions when people want specific answers, but the best way for us to market is to say 'Here's what we have, we're fortunate to have it, so let's make the most of it. ... We're not going to hide or sugarcoat anything, just play the hand we're dealt. This is why we get up every day, to be challenged and to find out what's next."