Minor League Baseball: North Carolina’s Biggest Block Party
Take a diamond of sod about half the size of a city block. Pepper it with youngsters with big league dreams. Add fans, family, friends, fireworks, food, freebies and wrap it all in the flag. And you’ve got the reasons why Minor League Baseball will connect with tourists and Tar Heels alike even bigger this year than it has in recent memory.
Which is saying quite a bit, really. In a state known more for basketball passion, Minor League Baseball has enjoyed a boom in popularity in the past several seasons, a surge more related to sheer family entertainment value than to any team’s position in the standings of their respective league.
Going back to the ’80s, minor league owners realized that the product was as much showmanship as split-finger fastball. Ever since, the nine clubs strung like beads along the I-40 and I-85 corridors have served as a laboratory of fan promotions and ballpark improvements, generating a level of enthusiasm many GMs in “the Show” would envy. As a result, the minors in North Carolina offer tourists and travelers a unique opportunity to connect with the real spirit of the state’s cities and towns – and the real spirit of baseball – in a setting that’s often as much block party as it is ballpark.
Oh, there’s a game going on, allright. North Carolina has always been a proving ground for Major League talent, including such Hall Of Fame probables as Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken, Jr., Derek Jeter, Manny Ramirez and Chipper Jones. And this year will be no different. Though rosters are never firmly established in the minors, here’s a brief overview of what ’02 holds in store for traveling fans in North Carolina.
When you’ve been around since 1897, chances are you’ve sent a lot of players to the bigs – 497 to be exact. Even the batboys here have included such notables as Thomas Wolfe and University of Kansas basketball coach Roy Williams. Asheville’s McCormick Field is unique in that it’s both an urban park and, as befits this mountain destination, sports a wooded backdrop.
Thirsty Thursdays, the Tourists’ discounted beverage night, the brain child of GM Ron McKee, is probably the most popular ongoing fan promotion, although the club has the usual number of family-oriented giveaways. This year, this Colorado Rockies’ affiliate expects to field an aggressive team heavy on the pitching. www.theashevilletourists.com
The Warthogs, who have played continuously since 1945, claim the title of longest consecutively playing team in North Carolina. This year will mark the 59th season of this White Sox affiliate in the Carolina League. It’s difficult to separate the Warthogs from the experience of a visit to historic Ernie Shore Stadium (link to separate story), named for the teammate of Babe Ruth who put down the original $250,000 stake to build the park in 1956. This year, the stadium has been newly renovated for fan comfort. Though in recent seasons the Warthogs have sent players like Carlos Lee and Jim Parque to Chicago, they expect “we’ll be better than we were last year. In Class A, you never know what’s going to happen day to day. We just guarantee that every night is going to be an experience and you won’t go home with an empty wallet.” www.warthogs.com
Not to be outdone, the Bats merely boast the oldest Minor League ballpark in the entire country, War Memorial Stadium. No, not that war. World War I. This venerable structure, despite its age, boasts great legroom: you don’t have to wait till the middle of the seventh to stretch. As might be expected from the Yankees organization, the Bats “pride themselves on winning,” according to Media Relations Director Josh Flickinger. Nine Bats played for the big club in the last year alone. Though all minor league teams have fireworks, the Bats are unique, with displays every Friday night. Other promotions include $1 tickets (with newspaper coupon) on Mondays and a popular used car giveaway in August. As far as what kind of team to expect, “we’ll know when they get off the bus.” www.GreensboroBats.com
The B-Tribe is unique to North Carolina for a different reason. The Rookie Advanced affiliate of the AL Cleveland Indians, Burlington plays a short season which doesn’t begin until after the Amateur Baseball Draft in June. The team has a mini-camp in Burlington in June, “which gives us the opportunity to know who our roster is going to be.” Last year, Burlington sported four of Cleveland’s top five draft picks, pitchers all. Also last season, Burlington selected their first All-Time team, which included such current stars as Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez and C.C. Sabathia. The most popular fan offering will be the return of the Six-Pack Promotion, a ticket package that includes six of the best dates during the season including batting helmet night and a t-shirt giveaway. www.btribebaseball.com
What could possibly be bigger than winning two of the last three Southern Division IL titles? How about a 100th Anniversary? That’s the best reason for the Durham Bulls, now in the Tampa Bay organization, to party in ’02. And party the Bulls will, as they celebrate no fewer than 10 different team affiliations in a century of play. Every Friday night, the Bulls will don a uniform from their past and honor fans with special autograph signing sessions. Popular bobblehead doll promotions, which in the past have included David Justice, Andruw Jones and Chipper Jones, will also be continued. Even the Bulls, whose ballpark has been immortalized in film, say you can’t look at the minors purely as baseball. “We are the most inexpensive family entertainment value around. We treat our ballpark like Disney World, with Wooly Bull, the clowns, great food…” The team? A little older, wiser than last year. Watch for hot prospect Powell Crawford. www.dbulls.com
The Kannapolis Intimidators, class ‘A’ affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, kicked off their season on April 4 with a game against the Lakewood Blue Claws. They began their season with a change of management, replacing Todd Parnell with Tim Mueller as their new general manager. As Parnell left, he commented, “We have worked hard to establish the Kannapolis Intimidators as leaders in the community and in Minor League Baseball. Tim is a tremendous baseball executive that I know will combine his talents and desire with those of this extremely capable, experienced staff to take
this team to the next level.” Beginning the season with a new manager, the team returns to Fieldcrest Cannon Stadium, their home since it was built in 1995. “The Cannon’s” press box and clubhouses rate among the best in the league. Other features include six luxury suites with an elevated view of the field, box-seat and reserved-seat sections with chair backs, general admission bleacher seating, and a grassy area down the 3rd base line to accommodate overflow crowds. The Pit Stop Playground located down the first base line and various games on the concourse level keep kids of all ages entertained. www.intimidatorsbaseball.com
The White Sox AAA affiliate, whose home is just off I-77 two miles south of the state line, lights up the sky with fireworks to start the season on April 9th, end it on August 30th, as well as two sky shows on July 4th and 5th. Charlotte Knights Stadium personifies what minor league baseball is all about. Down the 1st base side, a playground features mini golf, speed pitch and a working horse carousel. Meanwhile, the 3rd base side has an adult beverage garden where group outings congregate. Upstairs, a full service restaurant offers all you can eat. Though the Sox are famous for setting the table with talent, this year’s Knights could be especially interesting, with as many as 7 of the top 10 organization prospects according to Baseball America. These include No. 1 prospect OF Joe Borchard, No. 2, 6’11” RHP Jon Rauch and 3B Joe Crede. Appropriately, manager Nick Capra is the first Knights All-Star player to return as skipper. www.charlotteknights.com/
North Johnson, A.G.M. of the A Advanced club in the Cleveland organization, has sent “a phenomenally high rate of players to the majors for 8 of the past 10 years.” He anticipates no letup in the production. Kinston’s 52-year old Grainger Stadium, says Johnson, “evokes memories of what baseball is really all about. All the boxes and reserved seats have been completely rebuilt. There’s something going on each and every night – fireworks, caps, t-shirts, coolers, ball toss, dizzy bat races. Plus, we have our own little twists like bobbing for shrimp or a crab. And because of our closeness to the military bases, we’ll have Military Appreciation Night every Wednesday like we have for the past 10 years.” Johnson expects “a good combo of hitting, pitching and speed.” Watch for top Tribe prospects 3B Cory Smith and slugger Ryan Church. www.kinstonindians.com
This AA Rockies affiliate plays in the Southern League and calls Five County Stadium in Zebulon, NC home. The home slate is spiced liberally with fan promotions. Childrens’ giveaways alone include Notebook Night, Bat Night, T-shirt Night and Replica Jersey Night. Adult giveaways include gym bags, magnetic schedules, 6-pack coolers and umbrellas. Fans will enjoy Friday night fireworks, with two extravaganzas on July 3 & 4. The Mudcats expect to field several of Colorado’s best prospects, including RHP Aaron Cook, 3B/1B Garrett Atkins, and RHPs Ryan Kibler and Jason Young. www.mudcats.com
GETTING THE MOST OUT OF THE GAME
Get there early. The minor leagues offer the kind of player/fan interaction that has long been absent from the majors. The kids can get autographs, ask questions and watch the guys warm up.
Enter Contests. Minor league ball is all about promotions, giveaways and contests. Don’t be bashful — get involved. You just never know what you might win. Sing. You’ll bring a tear to your own eye if you join in with The Star Spangled Banner. And you wouldn’t want to miss chiming in on “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
Pin your child’s ticket onto a jacket or pocket. If you get separated, the usher will know where to find you. Don’t forget the sunscreen, bug spray and a baseball hat or visor. No whining allowed during the game, so be prepared. Cry Foul. If you don’t always pay attention, sit behind the screen behind home plate to avoid foul balls. If you want to catch a foul, hang out near the bullpen. At many stadiums, you can also stand right behind where the pitchers and catchers sit just past first and third bases. Don’t push the mascot. Your child may be afraid of a large baseball with legs. Don’t force little Ashley or Cole to say hello — there’s plenty of time for that next season GoNOMAD thanks the North Carolina Div. of Tourism, Film and Sports Development. contact: 800-VISITNC
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