When thinking about the teams in the Cleveland Indians Minor League System, it is easy to focus only within the state of Ohio. With Triple-A Columbus and Double-A Akron just a hop, skip and a jump away from Progressive Field, along with Lake County being the first stop in A-ball, the top prospects in the organization are normally close by for Tribe fans to keep tabs on. However, Cleveland’s reach also extends south of the Mason-Dixon Line in the Carolina League, one of the oldest leagues in baseball.
This season marks the 27th consecutive year the Tribe is affiliated with the Carolina Mudcats organization in Zebulon, N.C., with the first 24 years coming in Kinston. It is the second-longest tenure with a Major League Club in the Carolina League, with only the Frederick Keys’ (previously Hagerstown Suns) partnership to the Baltimore Orioles stretching longer.
The Mudcats first played baseball at Five County Stadium in 1991, after Steve Bryant purchased the Pensacola Blue Wahoos and moved the club just outside the Triangle in North Carolina. The team then held a contest for fans to vote for its new nickname. Bryant located the club in Zebulon to comply with the Minor League territorial rules after the Durham Bulls refused to allow a stadium to be built in Raleigh.
In its first 20 years in Zebulon, the Mudcats were Double-A squad competing in the Southern League, with Pittsburgh, Colorado, Florida and finally Cincinnati. Famous players who donned the Carolina uniform include knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, former No. 1 overall draft pick Kris Benson, and Bronson Arroyo, along with current Cleveland nemeses Anibal Sanchez and 2012 American League Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers.
Bryant sold the Double-A club prior to the 2011 season and the club ironically shifted back to Pensacola for the 2012 campaign. In the process, the Kinston club was purchased and moved to 70 miles down the road to Zebulon, keeping the Tribe involved in Carolina League play.
“We feel this move will be great for our fans,” Bryant said prior to the 2013 season. “If they’d like to visit other ballparks, the travel won’t be hard at all. It also is travel-friendly for the team and staff.”
With over 20 years of ownership experience heading into the move to the Carolina League, Bryant had dealt with several Major League clubs and understood the inner workings of player development, along with what it takes to be a successful Minor League franchise. The Mudcats are typically one of the top sellers in team merchandise and have a brand that is recognizable throughout baseball circles.
“In the Minor Leagues, it is not really about wins or losses,” Bryant said. “You want to have an atmosphere that is fan-friendly and family-friendly. We’ve done that. As far as the games, we are here to help develop these players, so they can fulfill their goals. We have to provide an environment for that too.”
“Cleveland has been first-class,” Bryant added. “We’ve had four teams in the Majors we’ve been affiliated with, and they’re all great. The Indians organization rates at the top. They carry themselves a special way.”
Located just outside the state capitol with a airport nearby, along with manageable drives to both the beach and mountains, Five County Stadium directly off Highway 39 in Zebulon is often a popular stop. And for fans of the Tribe that have relocated to the Carolinas or some that just want to come down to the area for a visit, Bryant has no doubt that they would enjoy the experience of seeing Cleveland’s future stars performing for the Mudcats.
“We often see people wearing Cleveland hats,” Bryant said. “Of course, we get fans from other teams too. They are fans who want to just visit stadiums or even support the parent club of the opposing team, but the Cleveland fans get out here a lot to support us. It has been a great relationship for us.”