KINSTON — Leo Pate has climbed the stairs to his seat in Grainger Stadium for nearly all of the 1,500 or so home games the Kinston Indians have played in the past quarter-century. Though he hollers as loud as anybody when they win, he says, "Nature and everything else tells you: Sooner or later, you're gonna lose."
In their 25th season in Kinston, the Indians are winning. But the town is losing the Indians.
When the last game ends in early September, the K-Tribe will leave the smallest market in professional baseball for Five County Stadium in Zebulon. As of yet, Kinston has not found a new tenant for Grainger Stadium, which has had a professional team for most of its 61 years.
Baseball fans remain hopeful. Baseball is, after all, a game of possibility and promise, as much about dreams as it is about athletic drive. And like the aspiring players it cheers all summer long, the city of Kinston has visions of glory in the face of some long odds.
"Other towns of a similar size - Goldsboro, Rocky Mount, there were a lot of them - their teams and their stadiums are long gone," said Chris Holaday, a Hillsborough writer who has written history books on the evolution of more than a century of professional baseball in North Carolina. "Kinston has just always been a baseball town."
Kinston fielded pro teams in 1908, 1920 and 1921. Those didn't last, but in 1925, the town got another team, the Eagles, that survived until the Great Depression, which wiped out minor league teams across the country. The city got back into the game in 1934 with a team in the Coastal Plain League, which lasted until the league disbanded in 1952.
Just before the United States entered World War II and for several years after the troops came back, baseball boomed. At the peak of this fervor, Holaday said, North Carolina had 48 pro teams, most supported by the relatively wealthy owners of local textile mills or cigarette factories.
"Every town wanted their own team, and it was a point of pride to have a team," Holaday said.
To make Kinston more hospitable to the game, the city built a stadium in 1949 on a piece of donated land. By the 1960s, when the proliferation of air conditioning and television had driven many baseball fans indoors on steamy summer evenings, Grainger Stadium still drew 5,000 people a night to watch teams that were now affiliated with baseball's big leagues.
Kinston had farm teams for one big league name after another: the Boston Red Sox, the Detroit Tigers, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Atlanta Braves, the New York Yankees, the Montreal Expos and the Toronto Blue Jays.
"People couldn't wait to get home from the fields or the mill and get to the game," said Bill Ellis, who has overseen the operation of Grainger Stadium for Kinston's parks and recreation department for 30 years and is now serving as interim city manager. "It just became a way of life."
Living with 'Mama'
Minor league baseball went into a deep slump nationwide in the 1970s, and Kinston struggled with low attendance as well. But in 1987, the city landed the high Class A farm team of the Cleveland Indians, launching a relationship that became one of the longest-running in minor league baseball.
The team seemed to like the city as much as the city liked the team, Ellis said.
Bigger markets come with bigger temptations for young men experiencing their first taste of freedom. Though a few players have met and married local girls over the years, for the most part, Ellis said, "They come down here to play baseball."
For 15 years, eight or 10 team members each season lived under the watchful eye of Kinston's Evelyn Kornegay, who housed players in her two-story home, fed them, washed their uniforms and did her best to keep them out of trouble.
They called her "Mama," and when she died last year, former players including Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia sent condolences.
Kinston's greatest baseball asset, though, is Grainger Stadium itself. The city has invested in additions and renovations to keep the park competitive, and for years, the facility has been known in the minor leagues for having one of the best playing fields in the country.
Sown with rye and Bermuda grasses, the field is exceptionally level, largely symmetrical and free of odd shapes around the periphery. The lines are chalked, not painted.
"Other teams like to play here because it's smooth, and that makes it fair," groundskeeper Stephen Watson said.
Cam McRae, who owns a string of Bojangles' restaurants in the region, led a group of investors who bought the team in 1994 with hopes of capitalizing on a resurgent interest in minor league ball that was helped along by the popular 1988 movie "Bull Durham."
At the time, McRae said, the group thought it could get attendance up to more than 200,000 fans a year.
That never happened. The team is on track this season to get the same 120,000 or so spectators it has had for years. That's an average of about 1,650 a game; stadium capacity is 4,100.
The 1980s and '90s were hard on Kinston, which lost the two mainstays of its economy: shirt factories and the tobacco market. Flooding of the Neuse River from hurricanes in 1996 and 1999 resulted in the loss of 1,900 homes in town.
Rebuilding a town
Adrian King, who grew up in Kinston and moved away for 40 years to work for Coca-Cola, said it was painful to come back for visits during those years.
"When I would come home, it was like slow motion," King said. "I was watching a town absolutely fall apart."
In 2003, when he retired and moved back to Kinston, he said, the city had hit bottom.
Two years later, King was hired as executive director of Pride of Kinston, the city's downtown revitalization effort. The city has made progress in recent years, with new shops, a brewery and an acclaimed restaurant called Chef & the Farmer, all downtown. A new Civil War museum is in the works, and the city has commissioned a new parklike entrance for its historic Maplewood Cemetery.
Last year, Spirit AeroSystems opened a 500,000-square-foot plant in Kinston where it makes parts for Airbus aircraft, and this month it announced plans to expand. Kinston also has MasterBrand Cabinets, which announced plans in April to grow by 334 jobs with the help of a state grant. Sanderson Farms, the nation's fourth-largest poultry processor, opened a plant in Kinston employing 1,200 people in January with plans to hire 300 more next year.
New jobs and beautification projects, while welcome, did not immediately translate into higher attendance at Indians games, and though McRae said they had not been trying to sell, investors agreed to a deal in December that involved shuffling the Indians and two other teams.
Players and coaches will report to Zebulon after this season, but the office staff will stay at Grainger Stadium, with McRae paying their salaries, to continue work on bringing a new baseball franchise to Kinston.
Hope for a new team
General manager Ben Jones, 30, joined the team the month the sale was announced. It's a dream job, he says, even though he doesn't know when - or if - there will be players on the jade-green field he can see out the window of his stadium office once this season ends.
"Baseball is just something that people feel passionate about," Jones said, and seeing it played in an intimate space like this brings the game alive in a way that watching the major leagues on TV can't.
Here, players take the time before and after games to talk with fans and sign autographs. Seats are so close to the action that a fan's water bottle set too near the net on the wall behind home plate occasionally gets knocked off by a foul ball.
The air smells like hot dogs and popcorn. The people in the next row are neighbors. The outfield wall is covered with ads from hometown businesses, and when a player comes up to bat, that wall doesn't look so far away.
Every game, every inning, every at-bat feels like a fresh start. It's easy to get excited.
"I tend to holler a lot," said Carol Tyndall, who was part of a thin Monday-night crowd for a game this month against the Winston-Salem Dash.
Tyndall, 73, and a friend have box seats, and though the friend couldn't come that night, Tyndall cheered for the Indians anyway. A semi-retired real estate broker, she wore a straw hat and pink lipstick, and batted a paper fan on a wooden stick.
In the stands near third base, Jennifer Allen, a 23-year-old jewelry crafter, did her best to hold onto her unofficial title as loudest Indians fan.
Holaday, the baseball historian, says that part of the charm of minor league baseball is the community it creates.
"People from all walks of life, from different social levels, different parts of the town, are all congregating for a single purpose," he said. "You take that away, and those people are separated again."
Bets are split on whether Kinston will be able to land another professional team or settle for becoming home to college-level games. If Jones has any strong leads, he's not saying. No announcement is expected before the season ends.
"We're hopeful," he said.
That's baseball, says King, the downtown developer.
"Every time that first pitch is thrown out," he said. "There's always that element of wondering what's going to happen next."
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