On Thursday, it was announced that the Carolina Mudcats of the Southern League will be moving to Pensacola, Fla., for the 2012 season. The team will serve as the premier tenant of Community Maritime Park, a mixed-use facility currently being constructed along the Pensacola waterfront.
In a related move, the Carolina League's Kinston Indians will relocate to the Mudcats' previous home of Five County Stadium in Zebulon, N.C.
The Mudcats, Double-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, were purchased by Quint and Rishy Studer. The Studers owned the independent-league Pensacola Pelicans from 2001-2010, but sold the Pelicans to an ownership group based in Amarillo, Texas, in order to make room for the Mudcats franchise.
"I am extremely proud and excited for the actions that are being announced today," said Quint Studer. "Bringing affiliated baseball to Pensacola will continue to add to the rich sports history that already exists in the area."
Pensacola will be without professional baseball in 2011, as the ownership group prepares for the 2012 arrival of its new, yet-to-be-named Southern League franchise. Assisting in the transition is Bruce Baldwin, a veteran baseball executive who served as the general manager of the International League's Gwinnett Braves in their inaugural season of 2009.
"Pensacola is a heck of a sports community. It's the home of Emmitt Smith, Don Sutton, and Roy Jones, Jr., and that's just a few," said Baldwin. "Bringing affiliated baseball here propels us to the next level."
The Carolina Mudcats will continue to exist in 2012 and beyond, albeit in a new incarnation. Mudcats owner Steve Bryant has bought the Carolina League's Kinston Indians, who will replace the Southern League franchise departing for Pensacola.
Bryant notes that the change was necessitated by prohibitively expensive and time-consuming road trips. As the Southern League's northernmost franchise, the Mudcats often faced off against opponents residing more than 500 miles away. League rules call for players to fly when the distance involved is more than 500 miles, or else receive an off day.
But as a Carolina League entity, the Mudcats will have no such issues. All Carolina League clubs are within 500 miles of Zebulon, easing travel costs and providing greater fan involvement through natural in-state rivalries.
"With this new setup, the Mudcats franchise is rejoining its roots in North Carolina professional baseball, as at one time, all teams in the state were Class A," said Bryant. "Our dedicated and much-appreciated fans and corporate sponsors will have the same great Mudcats experience as before this transition, as our stadium, with its fun special events and top amenities, and our front office all will remain the same. The Carolina League teams are close enough for our fans to be able to reach away games more easily."
Thursday's maneuverings leave Kinston without a team in 2012. Though one of the smallest full-season markets in Minor League Baseball, the city has been a Carolina League stalwart. Kinston first fielded a Carolina League team in 1957 and has done so continuously since 1978. The Indians compete at Grainger Stadium, the league's second-oldest stadium, built in 1949.
Despite the K-Tribe's imminent departure, the team's former ownership stressed its commitment to keeping professional baseball in the city.
"I'm an optimist, and I'm hopeful that baseball will be played in Grainger Stadium in 2012," said Cam McRae, a general partner in the Kinston Indians ownership group. "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."