North Carolina Vacation Abound with Baseball Viewing
Kevin Schneider | On 27, Jul 2013
A summer trip to central North Carolina offers opportunities to watch plenty of Cleveland Indians minor leaguers in attractive, quirky settings, but, while there, fans can find plenty to do beyond the ballparks.
Trendy main meal, dessert, and brewery stops highlight the area among academia, history, and nature.
Known as the Piedmont, the central part of this state lies between the Appalachian Mountains in the west and the Atlantic Ocean’s beaches in the east. Fans visiting should consider staying in the Durham or Raleigh areas, both with numerous hotel options in the middle of the action.
Carolina Mudcats – Five County Stadium
For Indians fans, a trip to the area should start by getting a taste of Carolina Mudcats baseball, where Cleveland continues to hone many of its top prospects. The stadium and its trademark Mudcats baseball water tower seem to pop up in the middle of a field.
Second baseman Joey Wendle has propelled himself into the Indians crowd of middle-infield prospects this year with a .313 batting average to go with 12 homers, 45 RBIs, and 8 steals. Center fielder Tyler Naquin, the Indians 2012 first-round pick, has turned in a solid season so far again, batting .286, with 8 homers, 40 RBIs, and 11 steals.
Five County Stadium features local brews, along with unique ballpark fare, such as homemade ice cream, sweet-potato fries, “pig wings,” and even a “Bucket o Bait” $7 bargain with BBQ, baked beans, and slaw.
In between innings, the Mudcats aim to entertain with family-friendly songs, dancing, and contests. This includes the unusual “junk in the trunk” challenge in which a child must shake six table-tennis balls from a box fastened to his or her backside within 30 seconds.
A bevy of minor-league baseball towns surround Zebulon, starting with Durham, a 45-minute drive northwest from Zebulon and past Raleigh.
Durham Bulls – Durham Bulls Athletic Park
About a 30-minute drive northwest of Raleigh, perhaps no town epitomizes minor-league baseball more than Durham, made famous by Kevin Costner’s portrayal of veteran catcher Crash Davis in the classic 1988 flick Bull Durham. Wool E. Bull, just like the movie, wags his tail and shoots steam from his nose when a member of his bunch hits a homerun. Incidentally, he also has his own Wool E. World to the right of the right-field foul pole.
The Tampa Bay Rays AAA farm team owns a sizzling 67-40 record and features former Indians Shelley Duncan and Chris Gimenez. The Indians triple-A farm team, the Clippers, are hosting Durham through Monday.
Designed by the same firm that dreamt up Camden Yards and then Jacobs Field, the Bulls home opened in 1995 and sits amid an attractive downtown with plenty of locally owned restaurants and shops.
Fans without tickets can dine on the outdoor patio of Tobacco Road Sports Café, which features a great view from left field, for batting practice or the game itself. The restaurant has solid bar food, including an East Carolina barbecue sandwich with traditional bitter vinegar sauce, and a wide range of local brews available in traditional draught sizes or small $1 samples.
The walk around the stadium offers good picture opportunities with Bull statues and a walkway honoring renowned Durham figures, including the great Crash Davis himself. The adjacent area known as American Tobacco once housed the Lucky Strike cigarette factory but has been transformed into a 1 million-square-foot campus highlighted by the old water tower and tiered, streaming waterfalls.
Along this walk, locals frequent an independent theatre, outdoor grassy performance area, and restaurants, offices, and stores. A park of Durham’s farm-to-table trend, The Parlour has taken the idea to the creamery by crafting flavors such as summer corn with blueberry swirl, Vietnamese coffee, and blackberry.
Winston-Salem Dash – BB & T Park
The Dash’s home is about a two-hour drive west of Raleigh. On Friday, the Mudcats finished off a series win in Winston-Salem for the first time since 2007. The White Sox affiliate, like the Mudcats, play in the Carolina League’s Southern Division. A free shuttle goes from central downtown locations to BB & T Park on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday home games.
With one of the minor’s most creative, double-meaning names, the Dash features infielder prospects Chris Curley, batting .292 with 21 homers, 78 RBIs, and 14 steals, along with Rangel Ravelo, hitting .319 with 47 RBIs.
Wilmington Blue Rocks – Frawley Stadium
Playing in the Carolina League’s Northern Division, this Kansas City Royals affiliate hosts the Mudcats in a three-game series starting Sunday. Frawley Stadium includes a few interesting gluten-free items, including Rice Krispie treats for $2.50 and a hot dog plate that also includes chips and salad – yes, salad – for $7.
From Raleigh, Wilmington can be reached by a southeastern jaunt of about two hours. A trip to Wilmington presents the chance to mix in carnival and beach strolls.
Nearby Carolina Beach, a quick 20-minute drive from Wilmington International Airport, features an old-fashioned boardwalk with small beach shops and walk-up eateries, including Britt’s Donuts, dishing out mouth-watering mom-and-pop delights for 70 years.
The pristine beach also borders an amusement area with live music, carnival rides, and games. The area offers shopping, fresh seafood, and beach relaxation on a smaller and less-commercialized scale than Myrtle Beach, for example.
Other Nearby Rookie League and Single-A Ballparks
A member of the Appalachian League in the advanced rookie level, the Burlington Royals play no Indians affiliates in this short-season schedule. But the Burlington Athletic Stadium is but a 60-minute drive northwest from Raleigh.
The Greenville Drive, playing in the single-A South Atlantic League, Boston’s farm team competes at Fluor Field, less than a 90-minute drive east of Raleigh.
The Miami Marlins single-A team, a South Atlantic League member, the Grasshoppers play at NewBridge Bank Park, about a 75-minute drive from Raleigh but only about a 50-minute drive from Durham.
First, the trip also could become one filled with college visits, with numerous quality universities dotting the area. The so-called Research Triangle includes the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Duke University in Durham, and North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
Numerous biking and jogging trails meander through local and state parks. For instance, the American Tobacco Trail runs out 12 miles from downtown Durham with wide, mostly flat graveled terrain and a thick tree canopy. Locals, though, brag more about Eno River State Park, with 25 miles of hiking trails in a more secluded setting around the water.
Local breweries continue appearing, and many restaurants and bars offer small samples for a dollar or two, depending on the size. In Durham, Fullsteam Brewery downtown offers brews with local ingredients such as sweet potato and basil.
Art galleries, new eateries, and shops also continue to pop up around Durham. The newly opened Rise, a biscuits and donuts eatery, features new flavors through the day from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. The yeast-donut offerings include a maple-bacon bar with a strip of thick, peppery bacon resting on a bed of maple frosting atop a long donut. Banana pudding and crème brulee also come in round donut forms.