When it comes to size, scope and longevity, few, if any, sporting bodies can rival Minor League Baseball. With 160 teams in nearly as many markets, there are innumerable nooks and crannies to explore. This marks the seventh installment in a series dedicated to such explorations, providing one unique, weird,
When it comes to size, scope and longevity, few, if any, sporting bodies can rival Minor League Baseball. With 160 teams in nearly as many markets, there are innumerable nooks and crannies to explore. This marks the seventh installment in a series dedicated to such explorations, providing one unique, weird, poignant or otherwise memorable fact about each team or city in each of Minor League Baseball's 14 admission-charging leagues. Remember -- it's about the journey, not the destination. To share your own favorite team or city facts, please reach out via email ([email protected]) or Twitter (@bensbiz). Previous installments: International League, Pacific Coast League, Eastern League, Southern League, Texas League, California League.
The Carolinas are exceedingly well represented on the Minor League landscape. Five teams operate out of South Carolina and a whopping 11 are based in North Carolina, more than in any other state.
Nonetheless, the Carolina League contains an entire division of teams not based in the Carolinas. The league's Northern Division can be understood to mean "north of the Carolinas," as it currently includes three teams in Virginia, one in Maryland and one in Delaware. Geographical nit-picking aside, please note that the Carolina League -- a Class A Advanced circuit -- has been a Minor League Baseball stalwart since its 1945 inception. Let's get to the facts.
The Mudcats are listed first in this article because of alphabetical happenstance. "Carolina," however, is an exceedingly indistinct geographical signifier. The Mudcats, a Milwaukee Brewers affiliate, operate out of Zebulon, North Carolina. If the team was known as the Zebulon Mudcats, it would appear last in this article. Not only that, it would appear last in an alphabetical listing of all 160 current Minor League locales. And not only that, they'd appear last in an alphabetical listing of every locale in which Minor League Baseball has ever been played (according to this writer's thorough but perhaps not unimpeachable research). Second to last on this list is Zanesville, Ohio, which has fielded teams named the Kickapoos, Clay Diggers, Moguls, Infants, and perhaps most notably, Flood Sufferers.
Down East Wood Ducks
The Wood Ducks, along with the team now known as the Fayetteville Woodpeckers, joined the Carolina League in 2017. As such, they are the circuit's newest entities. But the Wood Ducks paradoxically play in one of the league's oldest ballparks. That venerable facility is Kinston, North Carolina's Grainger Stadium, which opened in 1949. Prior to the Wood Ducks, Grainger Stadium hosted Carolina League baseball in the form of the Eagles, Expos, Blue Jays and Indians. That latter entity existed from 1987 through 2011 before moving to Zebulon and becoming the aforementioned Mudcats. The first member of a Grainger Stadium-based team to make it to the Majors was catcher Moose Morton, who played for the 1950 Kinston Eagles, and four years later, struck out in his lone Major League at-bat as a member of the Boston Red Sox.
After two placeholder seasons as the Buies Creek Astros, the Woodpeckers played their inaugural season in 2019. Their most popular player on the Opening Day roster was Seth Beer, a top prospect with an irresistible alcoholic beverage-based name. The Woodpeckers sold "Beer" shirseys in the team store, while Beer burnished his legacy by compiling a 1.028 OPS over 35 games with the Woodpeckers. Beer was especially potent on the Woodpeckers' beer-centric "Thirsty Thursdays," as he hit a home run in each of the Thursday home games he played in Fayetteville (April 18, April 25 and May 2).
The Keys, established in 1989, have been a Baltimore Orioles affiliate for all of their existence. The first player to receive a promotion from Frederick directly to Baltimore was Gene Kingsale, a 20-year-old who played 49 games with the 1996 Keys before making his MLB debut with the Orioles on Sept. 2. Kingsale's speedy callup resulted in another more significant first in that he also became the first native of Aruba to play in the Major Leagues. The second, Calvin Maduro, debuted just five days later.
The Fredericksburg Nationals, formerly the Potomac Nationals, are waiting to make their debut. When they do, they will become the first professional baseball team to play in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The previous Virginia city to make its professional baseball debut? That would be Woodbridge, home of the aforementioned Potomac Nationals, which first hosted a team in the form of the 1984 Prince William Pirates. The first professional baseball team in all of Virginia? That would be the 1884 Richmond Virginians, who began that season in the Eastern League and finished it in the American Association.
The Hillcats are the only team in Minor League Baseball and perhaps the only team in all of professional sports to serve the regional delicacy that is the Cheesy Western. Made famous by Lynchburg's Texas Inn and Roanoke's Texas Tavern, the Cheesy Western is a burger topped with onion, pickles, sweet relish, cheese and -- most importantly -- a fried egg. The Hillcats began offering them in 2019, out of a specially branded concourse kiosk featuring a Cheesy Western logo designed by Brandiose.
Myrtle Beach Pelicans
Wheel of Fortune, billed as "America's Game," has particularly strong connections to the Carolina League. Host Pat Sajak lives in Maryland, and the Frederick Keys honored him with his own bobblehead in 2015. Letter turner Vanna White, meanwhile, is a native of North Myrtle Beach. When the Pelicans hosted the Carolina-California League All-Star Game in 2008, White served as the evening's special guest. After being driven on to the field in a classic automobile, she threw out the ballgame's ceremonial first pitch.
Salem Red Sox
"Best view," like best anything, is a subjective term. But the Salem Red Sox could make a very strong case for having the best view in the Carolina League on account of their gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountain backdrop. This backdrop is featured in the team's primary logo as the mountains can be seen in silhouette behind the team name. The Red Sox previously had been known by an explicitly mountainous moniker, as they played as the Salem Avalanche from 1995 through 2008. Salem was a Colorado Rockies affiliate for the first eight years of its Avalanche existence.
Wilmington Blue Rocks
Even casual Minor League Baseball observers are aware of Mr. Celery, a mysterious vegetable mascot who only appears in the immediate wake of the Blue Rocks having scored a run. It can be tough to separate fact from fiction when it comes to Mr. Celery, but these three things are verifiably true: There was a Mr. Celery fan club named the Celery Squad, George Brett once insisted upon having his picture taken with Mr. Celery and the Mr. Celery costume was once stolen by ne'er-do-well members of the Kinston Indians bullpen.
The Carolina League was founded in 1945, and in that time only one franchise can claim to have operated continuously since its inception. That franchise is Winston-Salem. It began with the Winston-Salem Cardinals (1945-'53) who begat the Twins (1954-'56) who begat the Red Birds (1957-'60) who begat the Red Sox (1961-'83) who begat the Spirits (1984-'94) who begat the Warthogs (1995-2008) who, finally, begat the Winston-Salem Dash who persist to this day. Let's hear it for longevity.
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.