Mudcats to field Class A team

Staff WriterDecember 17, 2010 

  • The Carolina League has been in the Triangle before.

    Durham Bulls: Most recently the Durham Bulls ended their most recent of two stints in the league after the 1997 season. The Bulls then moved to the Triple-A International League and became affiliated with the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

    Class changes: The Carolina League has changed classes three times, most recently in 1990, when it moved up a rung from Class A to high Class A. It began as a Class C league from 1945 to 1948, was Class B from 1949 to 1962 and was Class A in 1963, when baseball realigned the classifications.

    Area affiliates: Here are the teams in and around the Triangle that were in the Carolina League through the years since it was formed:

    Durham Bulls 1945-67, 1980-97

    Raleigh Capitals 1945-53, '59-62

    Burlington Bees 1945-51

    Burlington-Graham Pirates 1952-55

    Wilson Tobs 1956-68

    Burlington Indians 1958-64

    Raleigh Mets 1963

    Raleigh Cardinals 1964-65

    Burlington Senators 1965-71

    Raleigh Pirates 1966-67

    Raleigh-Durham Mets 1968

    Raleigh-Durham Phillies 1969

    Raleigh-Durham Triangles 1970-71

    Burlington Rangers 1972

    Wilson Pennants 1973

    Source: www.baseball-reference.com

  • Carolina Mudcats timeline

    1991: In the Mudcats' first season, they play in what is intended as a temporary facility in Zebulon. They are affiliated with the Colorado Rockies.

    1995: Wake County, Raleigh commit a total of $5 million from hotel and restaurant taxes to renovate Five County Stadium.

    1998: Raleigh City Council, Wake County Commissioners approve additional $10 million from the interlocal tax for building the stadium.

    1999: Five County Stadium features 4,500 seats in a partially completed new stadium.

    2000: Five County Stadium opens for the 2000 season with 6,500 seats. But the clubhouses and team offices remain unbuilt and unfunded. Mudcats, Zebulon discuss how to fund the clubhouse and other finishing touches to the stadium.

    2002: After a year and half wrangling over money, with the town of Zebulon having threatened to sue the Mudcats and kick them out if they didn't pay more rent, the Mudcats signed a 20-year lease extension through 2022. The Mudcats agreed to pay lower rent but to pay for utilities and other related costs at the stadium. The deal also bound Zebulon and Wake County to pay for upgrades. Wake County also became the primary owner of the stadium, with the town of Zebulon retaining 15 percent ownership.

    2003: Mudcats change affiliation from Colorado to the Florida Marlins. The Marlins would soon earn a reputation for promoting Mudcats directly to the major leagues. Both Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera began the season in Zebulon and ended it by helping the Marlins win the World Series.

    2004: Renovations are completed at the park, including an office building, a restaurant and a new visiting clubhouse.

    2009: Mudcats change affiliation from Florida to Cincinnati.

    Javier Serna/N&O Research

— Changes are coming to the Carolina Mudcats.

After the coming 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 that now operates in Kinston.

"To say that the Mudcats are leaving is not true," 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 news 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 solving the travel problem for his franchise, as well as other Southern League teams, and most important, ensuring that there would be a team in Zebulon. The 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 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 searching

The Mudcats were in the Southern League before Bryant buying the franchise and moving it to Zebulon from Columbus, Ga., in 1991. The Mudcats, who 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 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 team's chairman, said he already has spoken with other owners about the possibility of bringing another minor league franchise to Kinston, though he declined to identify possible teams.

"I have a lot of great memories [at Historic 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 B.J. Murphy said he felt confident another team would come. The city owns Historic Grainger Stadium.

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

A legacy

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 already has 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 percent and 85 percent, respectively.

Zebulon mayor Bob Matheny, reached by phone on Thursday, 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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