On April 3, the Down East Wood Ducks will host Mount Olive College in their first exhibition game in their new home: Grainger Stadium. The 68-year-old venue has been a mainstay in Kinston’s culture and will house its first professional franchise since the Indians left following the 2011 season. It will be the continuation of a long time tradition after a relatively brief interruption. Chris Thomas has more.
For 6 years – this was the sound at Grainger Stadium.
Outside of a few other amateur games and non-sporting events, it stood silent and unoccupied.
This is how it sounds now.
A large excavator, pulling land up where the expanded parking lot is expected to be. Pressure washers running from the inside, cleaning the grandstands, revealing its dark, green paint once more.
The stadium will host the “Freedom Classic” series between the Air Force and Naval Academies this weekend but the first home game for the expansion Down East Wood Ducks is a little more than a month away.
It comes as Minor League Baseball’s attendance rises across the nation. A Forbes magazine article stated the Minors had the third best year of attendance in its history last year and their 20 most valuable teams alone drew in $37.5 million.
“Minor League Baseball is sort of the hottest thing going in America now and to have it back in our own backyard just means so much to everybody.”
Bill Ellis is Kinston’s Parks and Recreation director. The city owns Grainger stadium and has recently invested more than $1.6 million in getting ready for the Wood Ducks
The team is part of the Texas Rangers’ minor league system and a member of the Single-A Carolina League, which includes teams in Wilmington, Winston-Salem, and the Mudcats from Zebulon – the team that used to be the Kinston Indians.
According to Ellis, the money for the repairs came from funds the city already had and didn’t require an increase on taxes.
“No, we were very fortunate, we borrowed some money about 10 years ago to renovate the stadium and we’ve got that all paid off, so we were able to keep that long payment at the same amount to make these renovations so…we will not see a tax increase.”
Renovations to the stadium will take place over the course of two seasons. This year, about $750,000 is being spent on expanding the stadium’s parking lot, installing a new concession stand, construction on a new, team locker room, and new lights.
It’ll be the revival of a long standing, regional tradition.
The past 6 years have been the longest drought the city’s experienced since Grainger Stadium was built in 1949. Ellis moved to the city in 1979 and has fond memories of the old Indians team that left town after the 2011 season.
“We knew a tradition was coming to an end when we saw that last out, it was sort of a sick feeling in your stomach know that…we’d probably never see…another professional baseball team here.”
The Indians were independently owned but the new team is an expansion team and belongs to the Arlington, TX based, American League club.
“Quite frankly, I think the reason we got it back was because this is a team owned ball team. So, the Texas Rangers actually own this franchise and they’re looking to develop young talent and get them up to the big leagues.”
Kinston has had multiple teams since 1900s but many of them went by the nickname “Eagles.” Those teams went in and out of the Major League Farm system starting in 1950s – when they became a Boston Red Sox affiliate.
During that era – while the Eagles were a Yankees affiliate – one of the teams’ biggest events came on April 3, 1973 when the Yankees and Mets squared off following spring training. The game featured Hall of Famer Willie Mays in his last season but the star of the night was Ron Bloomberg, a former Eagle who hit a game winning single and put the Yankees on top 6-5.
In the early 1980s, Ellis said the team generated more than $2 million but they ran into some hard times until the end of the decade –
“And then we had a local ownership group headed up by Cam McCray that bought the team just to keep it in Kinston and they kept it here for 23 wonderful years with the Cleveland Indians. We at that time had the longest relationship with a minor league team.”
Now, Minor League Baseball is back with a new name: the Wood Ducks, a breed native to eastern North Carolina that came back from the verge of extinction in the early 20th century.
Paul Mixner was hoping the team would reclaim the “Eagles” moniker. He’s the manager of Hawk Sauce Company on Queen Street – about a mile-and-a-half away from the stadium – and would have liked a nickname related to his shop.
Regardless, he’s glad someone’s occupying Grainger Stadium after the Indians’ departure.
“We lost that impact tax dollar wise…I never really looked into what it did tax-dollar-wise but this has to be a plus for the city since the city owns the stadium. It’s kind of nice to know the rent’s getting paid.”
Mixner believes the new team could be a positive for the town’s commercial district along Queen Street.
“You know I don’t know that the Indian farm team drew in a tremendous amount of people but when the people were here… they’ll come in early, they’ll travel to local businesses…or maybe some of the historical sites, they’ll come in, spend a day, maybe even the weekend if it’s a multi-game tournament.
Most of the employment promised by baseball’s return is seasonal. According to Bill Ellis, the team is expected to generate $3.5-4 million dollars for the community at large. Ultimately, baseball’s future impact on Kinston will be decided one ticket and one game at a time. I’m Chris Thomas.