The Carolina Mudcats brought the Carolina League back to the Triangle three seasons ago, and now they’re bringing the Atlanta Braves back as well.
On Thursday at Five County Stadium, the Mudcats and Braves held a news conference to sign a two-year Player Development Contract, bringing Atlanta’s Class A-Advanced club to the Triangle for the first time in 17 years.
And the rollout brought in a very high-level delegation from Atlanta, as Braves club president John Schuerholz was on hand along with interim general manager John Hart, former manager and Hall of Famer Bobby Cox and current skipper Fredi Gonzalez.
“For the locale and history, this was a no-brainer,” said Mudcats majority owner Steve Bryant, whose club will celebrate its 25th anniversary season in 2015. “It was more about taking this franchise to the next level with our fan base, and the Braves would have a bigger impact than anybody else.
“They proved that when they were in Durham that – yes, the Durham Bulls logo is great and all that – but people got spoiled with how good the players were. We haven’t been spoiled in a while (with the most recent playoff berth in 2007) and we need to be spoiled as well. This will just enhance the growth of baseball in the Triangle. There’s a little bit of irony that the Braves used to be in Durham, but it’s a good irony. (Former Bulls owner Miles Wolff) and I buried the hatchet a long time ago.”
Bryant said four clubs, including the Texas Rangers, had explored affiliating with the Mudcats.
The Braves had been affiliated with the Bulls from 1980 – when they placed a brand-new high-A team in the Carolina League – until Durham moved up to Triple-A in 1997. This will mark the Braves’ 36th straight season of association with the CL, with a short stop in Danville, Va., followed by longer tenures in Myrtle Beach and in Lynchburg, Va., before their return to the Triangle. Lynchburg won the league’s Mills Cup championship in 2012.
The Mudcats – whose second incarnation came to Zebulon when Bryant sold his Class AA Southern League franchise to a Pensacola, Fla, family and moved the Kinston Indians to town – were previously affilated with the Cleveland Indians. The Southern League club had been affiliated with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins and Cincinnati Reds.
Lynchburg will have the Indians’ affiliation for 2015, one of three changes in CL affiliations along with the Chicago Cubs’ new association with Myrtle Beach.
“We’ve heard about this facility before we ever laid eyes on it, but as we pulled up from the airport today, we were all astounded at what a beautiful ballpark this is,” Schuerholz said. “We’re delighted at this level of play to have a facility this grand.
“We take pride in that – we own a lot of our minor-league clubs (actually, every full-season one except the Mudcats) and we like the quality of the facilities our players are in as they matriculate up the ladder. And to know this will be one of the stopping points for their development in this great community in this great league – we’re delighted with that. We wanted to show today how much we appreciate this opportunity. Bobby and Fredi and John all wanted to be here.”
The Braves managers said they were almost shocked at the high quality of Five County Stadium for a Class A franchise.
“The hospitality here has been off the charts,” Cox said. “I am tremendously impressed with everything about this stadium from the batting cages to the clubhouses to the field itself. I don’t know where you would find a better one.”
Added Gonzalez, who played for the CL’s Prince William Cannons (now Potomac Nationals) in 1987, “This is one of the best (Class A) facilities if not the best I have ever been in. This is impressive. Right when you drive in you see the field, and the clubhouse here is better than the clubhouses at Wrigley Field and in Boston. Our players are going to get spoiled.”
Veteran league president John Hopkins said that the Braves remain a natural fit for the league, which has five of its eight franchises in the Carolinas and Western Virginia.
“I was happy both the Indians and the Braves were able to stay with us,” Hopkins said. “Those were two loyal affiliates – we’ve had the Indians continuously since 1987.
“If I’m a minor-league owner and I’m in the South, (Atlanta) is the affiliation I want. It’s the organization our fans can most closely identify with.”
Hart said the Braves should have several of their top prospects in Mudcats uniforms when the club opens April 9 at home against the Salem Red Sox.
“Right now you want to take a look at the kids that have come out of Rome (in the South Atlantic League),” Hart said. “You’ve got a kid in center field in Connor Lien, and Yean Carlos who is a quality left-handed pitcher who is coming back off of Tommy John (surgery). We’ve got a young shortstop, (Johan) Camargo.
“This will be a big push – we’ve got a couple of young international players we might want to make a jump. As an organization we look at mature guys who we might want to make a double-jump.”
Hart said the Braves will take their time in naming the Mudcats’ field staff. Last season Luis Salazar managed the Lynchburg club, while Jonathan Schuerholz – son of the Braves’ president – was the manager at Rome.