ZEBULON — Unless you’re hoping for Shoeless Joe Jackson and a team of ghost players to appear out of nowhere, there aren’t many good reasons for building a baseball stadium in the middle of a remote pasture.
But Steve Bryant, the man who in 1990 bought a minor league franchise from Columbus, Georgia, with the idea of moving it to the Triangle, had no other choice.
So Bryant settled on a tobacco field exactly 37.8 miles from downtown Durham to become the home for his Carolina Mudcats.
His original plan to build a ballpark within the city limits of Raleigh was nixed by the already established Durham Bulls, who invoked a minor league rule prohibiting teams from locating within 35 miles of an existing franchise.
It’s a location so far off the beaten path that it would be easy to drive past Five County Stadium without ever knowing it if not for the distinctive water tower, painted to look like a baseball, that’s visible from U.S. 264.
The rural setting, combined with several changes in major league affiliation and level of play, has only challenged the Mudcats to work even harder to build a loyal and enthusiastic fan base.
“One of the biggest things we do is try to make sure people leave here with a smile on their face and know they were treated like a member of the family and also treated to a good show,” said Greg Young, the team’s radio broadcaster and marketing director since 2015.
“We pride ourselves in putting on a good entertainment product on top of the baseball game. I hate to say that it’s more than just baseball, but it is more than just baseball.”
Most of the fan engagement activities — including fireworks shows every Friday, frequent giveaway promotions, theme nights in which the team is rebranded as the Micro Brews in honor of their parent club, the Milwaukee Brewers, and a pair of energetic mascots named Muddy the Mudcat and Mini Muddy who roam the stands interacting with fans — are hardly unique to Five County Stadium.
The Mudcats just seem to do them with a much more relaxed attitude.
It’s a casual feel that sets them apart from the competition, especially a rival against whom they don’t actually face on the field.
Because of their proximity, the Mudcats and the Bulls are constantly waging a battle for the entertainment dollar of the same fans.
It’s not exactly a fair fight considering that Durham has the more accessible stadium, a popular Kevin Costner movie named after its team, and plays a higher level of competition in the Triple-A International League.
But the Mudcats, who play four rungs lower on the minor league ladder in the low Single-A Carolina League that includes three other North Carolina entries — the Fayetteville Woodpeckers, Kinston’s Down East Wood Ducks and the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers — don’t consider the disparity a disadvantage.
“This isn’t a knock on the Bulls, who are a high-level organization, but they are as close to a major league experience as you can get,” said public address announcer Hayes Permar, who contributes to the relaxed feel at Mudcats games with his trademark attire of a blazer and shorts. “It doesn’t quite feel like we’re competing with them for everything they offer.
“There you might see a guy who’s going to be in the major leagues tomorrow. But if you decide at 4 o’clock to go to a Bulls game, you might not get a ticket. And if you do, it’s liable to cost you $40. Here there’s a good chance you’re going to find some decent tickets at not that high a cost. And you still might see a guy who’s going to be in the major leagues. It’s just going to take a little longer for it to happen.”
One of those players is 18-year-old Jackson Chourio, who is hitting .328 with nine doubles and 16 runs scored since joining the team on May 3.
The exciting young team isn’t the only thing the Mudcats have going for them. There’s also the stadium itself.
There are literally no bad seats, even in an upper deck whose first few rows are actually closer to the field than those in the smaller lower bowl it overhangs, and there’s also plenty of room for kids to roam around the concourse. A young family sitting in the front row for a recent weeknight game against the Wood Ducks even brought a stroller into the park with them.
“I usually go to games at both places, but I like the Mudcats because I can sit wherever I want,” said Clayton resident James Overton, sitting all by himself in the otherwise empty section of the left-field stands. “I’ve been coming here since the first year the Mudcats had a team here when it wasn’t anything but bleachers and a tobacco field. It’s a really nice stadium now. More people need to come.”
That may soon begin to happen, though not because of anything team management is doing. Three decades after it was carved out of a remote pasture, urban sprawl is finally on the verge of reaching Zebulon’s field of dreams.
“What we have seen over the past five or six years, this is where all the growth is coming,” said David Lawrence, general manager for business development and brand marketing. “That was part of the grand master plan the original owners had, but lots of things happened.
“We had the downturn in 2006 and other things. But finally all that talk and all that planning isn’t just talk now. There’s a 900-home subdivision that’s just started next door to us, new infrastructure is being put in and folks are starting to gravitate out this way toward Eastern Wake County.”
Read NSJ’s 2022 MiLB Across NC features: Down East Wood Ducks • Winston-Salem Dash • Kannapolis Cannon Ballers • Greensboro Grasshoppers • Fayetteville Woodpeckers • Charlotte Knights • Durham Bulls • Hickory Crawdads • Asheville Tourists