Mudcats will become Cleveland Indians affiliate

STAFF WRITERDecember 16, 2010 

— RALEIGH -- Editor's note: This story has been updated at 8 p.m with the latest news.

Changes are coming to the Carolina Mudcats.

After the upcoming season, the Double-A franchise in Zebulon affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds will be replaced by the high Class A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, currently operating in Kinston.

"To say that the Mudcats are leaving is not true," Carolina Mudcats owner Steve Bryant said. "We feel strongly about our brand. While the Double-A team will relocate, the Mudcats are going to be here."

Bryant is selling the rights to his Double-A franchise, which will move to Pensacola, Fla., and buying the rights to the high Class-A team in Kinston, where Historic Grainger Stadium was recently featured in Durham-based Baseball America magazine’s Great Parks calendar.

In a press release issued Wednesday, Bryant cited stricter enforcement of a rule requiring team owners to charter a plane or put players up in a hotel for a day off in cases where the travel exceeds 500 miles. Only three of the Mudcats’ nine Southern League opponents are within 500 miles.

The Mudcats will play in the Carolina league once they make the switch. There are four teams in the league within 193 miles of Zebulon, including Winston-Salem, Lynchburg, Va., and Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Pressed on the reasons for selling, Bryant acknowledged Thursday that talk in Congress over the Capital Gains tax rate rising from 15 percent to as high as 37 percent, was a factor in his decision to sell, as it could have cost Bryant close to $3 million in taxes.

Bryant said he paid $880,000 for the team in 1988. While he declined to say how much he sold it for, Southern League Commissioner Don Mincher told the Pensacola News Journal in 2009 that the average cost for a Double-A franchise was between $12 million and $15 million.

“[The potential of the tax law changing] had an influence on the speed at which it was put together, but all the components had to be there,” Bryant said. “It had to be a good fit for us.”

The components, Bryant said, were fixing the travel problem for his franchise, as well as other Southern League teams, and, most importantly, ensuring that there would be a team in Zebulon. The terms of his lease for the stadium, which doesn’t expire until 2022, states that there must be at least a Class-A level or higher baseball franchise playing at the stadium, Bryant said.

Florida businessman Quint Studer, who owns the Pensacola Pelicans, which play in an independent league, will purchase Bryant’s Double-A franchise. Bryant and the other parties have been working on an agreement for the past month.

Bryant said the Southern League and the Carolina League have both approved the deal, but Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball haven’t yet.

"We feel like we’ll get their approval," Bryant said.

Under the terms of the agreement, the two deals would be completed late this year or in early January, but Bryant would continue to operate the Double-A franchise in Zebulon for one year, reaping the profits or absorbing the losses, and the Kinston owners would do the same with the Indians. The franchises would move for the 2012 seasons.

Kinston looking

The Mudcats have been in the Southern League prior to Bryant buying the franchise and moving it to Zebulon from Columbus, Ga., in 1991. The Mudcats, which have since had affiliations with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins, have been affiliated with the Reds since the 2009 season.

In September, the Kinston Indians franchise signed a two-year contract extension with the Cleveland Indians, binding the two franchises until the 2012 season.

Kinston will be left looking for a baseball team. According to Kinston Indians spokesman Chris Hemeyer, Kinston is the smallest market in the nation with an affiliated baseball team.

The city has had professional baseball since the early 20th century.

Cam McRae, the Kinston Indians’ team chairman, said he’s already spoken with other owners about the possibility of bringing another minor league franchise to Kinston, though he declined to name possible teams.

“I have a lot of great memories [at Grainger Stadium],” he said. “I hope to have more. It doesn’t mean the end of baseball in Kinston.”

Former Major League stars Cecil Fielder and Fred McGriff played for Kinston.

Kinston mayor BJ Murphy said he felt confident another team would come. The city of Kinston owns Grainger Stadium.

“I would only be worried if the baseball season was starting tomorrow,” Weeks said. “We’re very fortunate that we’ll have a year to recruit a franchise here.”

League has been here before

The Carolina League has a history in the Triangle.

The Bulls were once members of the league, as recently as 1997, and four Raleigh teams have been members, as well as three Raleigh-Durham teams, over the years.

Bryant said he’s already had conversations with the managers of Wake County, Zebulon and the mayor of Zebulon. The $17 million stadium was paid for in large part with local taxes.

"I think they obviously have a concern when they have an investment like they have, that baseball is going to be here," Bryant said. "I think they like the fact that the Carolina League is close and that our fans would have an opportunity to go on the road and also bring more fans from areas such as the Winston-Salem market."

The Town of Zebulon and Wake County own the stadium, 15 and 85 percent, respectively.

Zebulon mayor Bob Matheny, reached by phone today, said he has no concerns about the change, and Wake County manager David Cooke agreed.

"There’s not a whole lot of difference between high Class-A and Double-A," Matheny said, noting that it will help the Mudcats stay financially viable. "We’ll still have baseball, and that’s the important thing. I feel very comfortable with it. I don’t feel we’re in harm’s way."

javier.serna@newsobserver.com or (919)836-4953

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