KINSTON — For five long years after its minor league team left town, the City of Kinston continued to maintain the pristine grounds at historic Grainger Stadium.
The field was mowed and manicured regularly. The seating area remained painted and maintained. Even the turf was replaced at one point, all in hopes of someday luring professional baseball back.
You could call it a field of dreams if you’d like. Field of wishful thinking might have been more accurate.
“Although it appeared that the market for professional baseball was gone forever, it was our belief that the community and this region were better off investing in Grainger than to let her go to ruin,” said Mayor B.J. Murphy of the old park, which first opened its doors in 1949. “It was a very conscious decision to continue maintaining the grounds in the hopes that one day we could entice professional baseball back.
“Considering that the municipality of about 22,000 on the banks of the Neuse River was the smallest market in organized baseball at the time of the Kinston Indians’ departure in 2011, the city’s chances of getting back into the game appeared to stand somewhere between slim and none.
But against all odds, the efforts of Murphy, city parks and recreation director Bill Ellis, former team owner Cam McRae and others paid off last fall when the Texas Rangers — lured by a groundswell of local support and the availability of a move-in ready stadium — decided to relocate their Class A farm team from Victorville, Calif.
Playing as a Carolina League expansion franchise, the Down East Wood Ducks are off to a rousing start while drawing large crowds and rave reviews after their first month of operation.
“Until I got here, I had no idea how excited people were about it and how passionate they were about baseball coming back,” team general manager Wade Howell said. “I was already excited about being part of a new franchise. I mean, how many times do you get the chance to start a minor league operation like this? Not many. But the first time I came I got even more excited because people were really behind it and you could see there was a lot of potential.”
The first glimpse of that potential came on April 10, opening night, a festive occasion that couldn’t have gone better had it has been scripted.
With a crowd of 4,267 packed into a ballpark whose official capacity is listed at 4,100 — on a Monday, no less — the Wood Ducks scored a run in the bottom of the 10th to claim a walkoff 4-3 win against the Winston-Salem Dash.
Although the team has cooled off somewhat after a hot start, the momentum that began with that first game is still going strong.
“If they’re going to come out and support us, we want to give them a good show,” said manager Howard Johnson, a former major league third baseman who played on World Series champions with the Detroit Tigers and New York Mets. “We just want to continue what we’ve been doing. We’re excited to be a part of this thing (and) the Texas Rangers are too.”
Truth be told, the Rangers had their eyes on Kinston as early as 2014 when they ended their affiliation with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. Their plan to procure an existing Carolina League franchise fell through, however, and they opted instead to buy the High Desert Mavericks of the California League.
In the meantime, Kinston did its best to justify the cost of keeping Grainger Stadium operational by hosting local high school games there as well as the annual Freedom Classic, a three-game series each February between baseball teams from the Naval and Air Force academies.
That turned out to be a smart decision after High Desert’s stadium lease was voided early last season, forcing the team to cease operation. It’s a situation that created a natural attraction between the Rangers and Kinston once the Carolina League announced its intention to expand by two teams.
The Fayetteville franchise currently playing in Buies Creek was the other.
Unlike that team, which is affiliated with the Houston Astros, the Wood Ducks didn’t need to find an interim home while waiting for a stadium to be built. And with a 12-year contract to play in Kinston, they won’t have to go looking for another one for a long time.
“It was the perfect alignment of their needs and our desires,” Murphy said. “Our internal policy as a government here has always been to try to find a way to say yes, not no. I think with us being flexible, having access to an incredible stadium in a region of the state that desperately wanted a professional team and them being a corporate owned team, all the stars aligned to make this work.”
It’s working better than anyone could have imagined.
Home dates at Grainger are almost as much of an event as a game, especially on Fridays when the atmosphere is enhanced by the presence of local food trucks before and during the game, and fireworks afterward.
Much like Kinston itself, with its growing restaurant and craft beer scene downtown, Wood Ducks crowds are an eclectic mix of old and new.
There are the traditional baseball fans, some of whom have been coming to games for decades, in the quaint covered grandstand with its subtle green seats, Down the right field line on the patio, one of the aesthetic upgrades added by the Wood Ducks upon their arrival, children scramble around in a protected play area while young adults sit at picnic tables paying only slightly more attention to the action on the field.
Every now and then, their conversations are interrupted by a high-pitch screeching over the PA system — a signal that there are, ahem, Ducks on the pond — or the even more threatening sound of someone yelling “head’s up!” when a foul ball is headed in that direction.
“Minor league baseball has been around here for so long, for so many years, it’s just become part of the community,” said Stan Stedner, a long-time fan of the Kinston Indians who began going to games at Grainger in 1986 and who now serves as an usher for the Wood Ducks. “It’s not like going to Wilmington or Raleigh or someplace like that.
“You can see it on the people’s faces. They’re having a good time, but they also take pride in the fact that this is a team of our own.”
The Wood Ducks are more than just a local phenomenon, though.
Because of the catchy nickname, an even more marketable logo and the acronym DEWD that adorns everything from clothing in the small but always crowded stadium gift shop to the team’s colorful mascot, the team has quickly gained widespread appeal.
It’s a success that’s somewhat bittersweet to old-timers like Stedner and politicians like Murphy, who would have liked to seen Kinston be incorporated into the franchise’s name. But because of the size of the immediate market, general manager Howell said it made better business sense to market the Wood Ducks to the entire Down East region.
“There was a little bit of pushback, just because it was different. I understand that,” he said. “But we were always thinking from a regional standpoint. We were never trying to run away from Kinston. The DEWD acronym really plays into social media and hashtags and things like that.”
As a compromise, the team’s players wear a patch on their uniform sleeves with the world “Kinston” written over an outline of North Carolina.
“Talking to people connected with the teams in the past, they said that if you can somehow connect with the region and make it everybody’s team, you can get that buy-in a little more than just people thinking it’s the city’s team,” Howell said. “For the city, the more people that come in here the more that will and spend money.”
An example of that took place last weekend when despite flooding concerns, a bigger than expected crowd attended Kinston’s annual BBQ Fest on the Neuse on a night in which the baseball team drew nearly 3,000 for a game against the Wilmington (Del.) Blue Rocks.
Murphy said many of those in attendance at Grainger Stadium came early so that they could also take part in the festivities at the BBQ Fest and vice versa. It’s the kind of situation that has helped turn Kinston’s wishful thinking into a dream come true.
“Our community has faced two decades of decline because of federal policies that led to the loss of tobacco and textiles, compounded by Hurricane Floyd in 1999 that literally wiped out neighborhoods,” Murphy said. “For the past 10-15 years our community has struggled to find an identity.
“We have seen that start to turn around with the advent of a foodie culture here, the microbrewery culture and some success on economic development. But this team and baseball being back in Kinston has sparked a level of optimism in our community that I haven’t seen in my 36 years here.”