The Carolina League is comprised of only eight teams, but the game-day atmosphere can vary wildly as one travels from ballpark to ballpark.
Operating on the "no-frills" end of the ballpark spectrum are the Kinston Indians, who play in 62-year-old Grainger Stadium and function with a front-office staff consisting of three full-time employees. But when it comes to the "bells and whistles" side of the equation, no team in the Class A Advanced circuit can outdo the Winston-Salem Dash.
The Dash (named after the "dash" between Winston and Salem) are in their second season at BB&T Ballpark, a 5,500-seat facility on the western edge of the city's downtown area. Featuring a brick exterior, 360-degree concourse and a seating bowl offering views of downtown, BB&T Ballpark is one of the more striking destinations in the Minor Leagues.
The team led the Carolina League during its inaugural 2010 season, and next year the venue will be showcased to the baseball world when it hosts the annual Carolina-California League All-Star Game.
But the Dash's current success was far from a foregone conclusion. BB&T Ballpark opened over budget and behind schedule, forcing the club to remain in its previous home, Ernie Shore Field, for a tumultuous 2009 campaign.
Construction on the facility was delayed (partially the result of a messy "business divorce" between team owner Billy Prim and now ex-brother-in-law Andrew Filipowski), and the City of Winston-Salem stepped forward with $12 million in public money to ensure completion in time for 2010.
All of this resulted in a significant public relations hit for the club, with the joy of opening a new facility mitigated by a still palpable sense of community outrage. Dash president Geoff Lassiter, who joined the team prior to the 2010 campaign, concedes there is still work to be done.
"We're still getting first-time customers here and we need to keep reaching out to people who haven't yet made the trip," he said. "But Thursday through Sunday, this place is rocking and rolling. It's been great to see that the atmosphere can be as electric as a collegiate one, with 7,000 people packed in here."
It's not a coincidence that Lassiter made that comparison, as he came to the Dash after working as assistant director for marketing at nearby Wake Forest University.
"Day to day, it's a very similar operation," he said. "The difference is that in college people are either leaving the stadium mad or they're leaving happy. It's all about wins and losses. Here, you can walk away after a loss and still feel good. This is a place to relax, to get away from it all and just have fun."
With the turmoil surrounding the stadium's construction finally in the rear-view mirror, the Dash can focus on further development. Next on the agenda is the construction of "One Ballpark Center," a planned six-story building beyond right field that will house the team store and front office (with the remainder of the space leased out to local businesses).
If all goes according to plan, that will just be the tip of the iceberg. The Dash ownership group also owns 33 acres of land surrounding the ballpark and the long-term goal is to construct what Lassiter calls a "multi-use village" with bars, restaurants, a movie theater and office buildings.
"As it stands now, if people aren't coming to the ballpark, then they aren't coming to this part of town," he said. "But if our fans are going to be working in the area, then they should be able to play in it, too."