ZEBULON — For a trio of guys who have been in the Zebulon area for two days, Carolina Mudcats players Tyler Naquin and Tony Wolters and new manager David Wallace like what they see.
That’s fitting in a way, since Naquin is a self-confessed “south Texas boy” and Wallace grew up outside of Nashville, Tenn. Wolters is just glad to be somewhere with trees visible after spending more than six weeks in Arizona for spring training.
Trees surround their home for their summer minor league baseball exploits – Five County Stadium. That is a positive for the new guys.
The feeling of a rural location is something the Mudcats have battled for their 20-plus years in the Triangle, even after the expansion of U.S. 264 and the building of Interstate 540 helped ease baseball fans’ path to watch baseball.
“The ease of getting here is there,” Carolina general manager Joe Kremer said. “Now we just need the weather to cooperate better with us than it did last year to see more fans come out.”
Last year, the Mudcats lost four games to rainouts and had 16 others delayed for weather at the stadium, which is at the junction of U.S. 264 and N.C. 39 near the Wake County-Johnston County line.
Carolina will open the season Friday night, its second in the Advanced Class A Carolina League, against Winston-Salem. The Mudcats’ roster will feature two of the top three prospects in the Cleveland Indians’ system – shortstop Francisco Lindor and Naquin, an outfielder – and several other players who led Class A Lake County (Ohio) into the playoffs last season.
Fielding a successful team and putting prospects who have followings in the baseball community in the lineup are sure ways to draw more interest from fans. And Mudcats owner Steve Bryant expects to do both this season.
“Those families who come out to three or four games a year might come a time or two more if we’re winning,” said Bryant. “But they’re really not living and dying on who wins and loses. They just want a fun night at the ballpark, and we feel like we offer that.”
Even with the building of the expressways in Wake County, the Mudcats’ fan base hasn’t grown much in that direction according to Bryant, a Johnston County native. The influx of fans has come from the eastern side of their five-county drawing area, namely fans from Greenville, Kinston and Goldsboro. That’s fitting since the Kinston Indians made the move to Five County Stadium and Bryant’s ownership before the 2011 season. Highways, like I-795 around Goldsboro, U.S. 264 outside of Wilson and the straight shot up U.S. 264 from Greenville, have made the drive easier for those who used to attend Kinston games.
“We had a lot of fans coming in with Kinston Indians gear on last year,” Bryant said. “A lot of them left with Mudcats’ gear and Indians gear. We just want to get them back as often as we can.”
Kremer said the team’s fan base will always be strongest within 20 miles of its stadium so projected growth in eastern Wake County and northwestern Johnston County will help the fan base continue to grow. The economic and real estate woes also stalled the Mudcats’ two decades of work in making Five County Stadium a destination point for Raleigh-area baseball fans.
“Just as the growth was coming our way, everything went bad and the housing developments stopped,” Bryant said. “Now as that development starts to slowly start again, the Zebulon area will benefit since this area is the only area really left to develop in Wake County. When that happens, we are going to have an influx of new fans.”
Best: 919-524-8895; @dclaybest