Best of the best: What makes NC’s 10 MiLB teams special

From best stadium and logo to top mascot and fans, the Old North State’s minor league baseball teams offer something for everyone

Boomer, the mascot of the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers, cools down fans during a game at Atrium Health Ballpark. (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

Read NSJ’s 2022 MiLB Across NC features: Carolina MudcatsDown East Wood DucksWinston-Salem DashKannapolis Cannon BallersGreensboro GrasshoppersFayetteville WoodpeckersCharlotte KnightsDurham BullsHickory Crawdads

North Carolina’s 10 affiliated minor league baseball franchises are like a family with a lot of children. While the teams all have their share of similarities, each has a personality and style all their own.

The range of those differences is as wide as the distance between them, as diverse as their locations and the age of their stadiums.

From the urban skyline of Charlotte’s Truist Field, the lush natural splendor of Asheville’s McCormick Field and the modern conveniences of Fayetteville’s Segra Stadium and Kannapolis’ Atrium Health Ballpark to the rustic old-school charm of Kinston’s Grainger Stadium, there’s something for just about everyone.

Over the past two months, I’ve had the opportunity to visit all 10 venues to get a feel for their unique gameday atmospheres.

Along the way I’ve seen some entertaining baseball, some creative promotions, a few future major leaguers, taken selfies with nine mascots and sampled some great ballpark food.

Most of all, though, I met some amazing people — including a 79-year-old usher who makes it his point to know everyone in his stadium, a passionate super fan who uses a megaphone to rile up his crowd, a rock ’n’ roll stadium organist, and a general manager who has turned his love for baseball and dogs into a Greensboro tradition.

Here’s the best of the best of what each team has to offer:

Best ballpark

Grainger Stadium, Down East Wood Ducks

This was a tough one, but this old baseball fan was drawn to the post-World War II vintage feel of Kinston’s beautifully restored and maintained park. Built in 1949, it’s a classic old stadium with a covered grandstand, 4,100 green seats, an outfield wall plastered from foul pole to foul pole with local advertising, and a vibe that mirrors the blue-collar personality of its town and brings fans back to a bygone era of minor league baseball.

Best sightlines

Truist Field, Charlotte Knights

There isn’t a bad seat in the house, especially around the right field party deck known as Corona Rooftop Beach. But the true draw to the Charlotte Knights’ home field is the spectacular view of the city’s uptown district beyond the outfield wall.

Best vantage point

Truist Stadium’s grassy hill, Winston-Salem Dash

Virtually every stadium in the state, including the Winston-Salem Dash’s home, features a luxurious indoor club where fans can, watch, eat and socialize in air-conditioned comfort. But if you really want to get the most out of your gameday experience, there’s no place better to do it than on a blanket spread out on the grassy berm in left field with a cold beverage and a group of your friends.

Best atmosphere

Durham Bulls Athletic Park, Durham Bulls

The bull that lights up and snorts smoke every time the home team hits one out, the high level of play and the quality of the team, the lively in-game presentation, the popular bar that overlooks left field and the large festive crowds that annually rank the Bulls among the minor league attendance leaders combine to create an electricity that is unmatched among state teams.

Best fans

Hickory Crawdads

Hickory might not have the biggest area from which to draw, but no other area around the state has embraced its local team the way these folks have the Crawdads. They come equipped with cowbells and other noisemakers and are led by a super fan called Mega Man (aka Christopher Pack). They cheer, chant and heckle opposing players until the bitter end, even when their team falls behind 18-1 after five innings — as it did on the night I was there.

Best picnic area/beer garden

Fayetteville Woodpeckers

Healy’s is the place to be for Woodpeckers games at Segra Stadium. Located beyond the right field wall with its neon signage and full selection of craft beers, the popular bar features traditional stadium seats, high-top tables and a couple of comfy couches for those who prefer a more relaxed in-game experience. “How can you beat this?” asked Cash Gaines as he watched from a couch with two of his Fort Bragg buddies. “It’s pretty awesome. It’s a great atmosphere.”

Best entertainment

Kannapolis Cannon Ballers

Most minor league stadiums feature organ music played between innings, during rallies and other lulls in the game. The difference at Atrium Health Ballpark is that instead of a recording, there’s actually a live human playing the tunes. His name is Jason Atkins, better known by his stage persona of Greazy Keyz. Sitting at a used Hammond organ located on the concourse behind home plate, he entertains fans with an eclectic playlist that ranges from “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” to “Push It” by Salt-N-Pepa.

Best mascot

Boomer, Kannapolis Cannon Ballers

It’s fitting that Kannapolis’ mascot is a human cannonball because Boomer can usually be seen moving around the stadium like he was actually shot out of a cannon. He seems to be everywhere, interacting with fans in the stands and taking part in on-field promotions. In between, he can usually be seen sprinting around the concourse trailed by the Cannon Ballers’ equally energetic game host, Trevor Wilt.

Best in-game promotion

Greensboro’s bat dog, Greensboro Grasshoppers

Her name is Willie Mae Mays and according to the team she represents, she “leads the South Atlantic League in retrieved bats.” The black lab is the fifth dog to carry on the Greensboro Grasshoppers’ bat dog tradition. For two innings per game Willie sits patiently by the dugout beside her owner — Grasshoppers GM Donald Moore — until she’s called upon to get the bats of home team hitters after they’re done using them. She also runs the bases after the seventh inning.

Best alter ego

Carolina Micro Brews, Carolina Mudcats

Every minor league team has an alternate identity, usually reflecting an interesting aspect of their community, to help spice things up for a handful of home games per season. While there are plenty of creative alter egos among the state teams, including Kannapolis’ Couch Potatoes and Kinston’s Collard Greens, the best of the bunch is in Zebulon, where the Carolina Mudcats take on the identity of the Micro Brews — a double meaning that plays on the area’s many craft breweries and the Mudcats’ major league affiliate, the Milwaukee Brewers.

The Carolina Mudcats’ alternate identity as the Micro Brews pays tribute to the region’s bustling brewery industry while also playing off the name of the team’s parent club, the Milwaukee Brewers. (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

Best uniforms

Durham Bulls

White with blue caps and the distinctive bull leaping out of a D on the chest, it’s the same classic look featured in the movie that made the team famous.

Best logo

Asheville Tourists

Yes, the Bulls’ logo is nice, but there’s just something irresistible about a smiling man in the moon wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap.