After a 21-year relationship with the Southern League, Mudcats’ Owner Steve Bryant hopes that the best has yet to come as they join the Carolina League next spring
ZEBULON--When the last pitch is thrown at Five County Stadium on Monday, it won’t just signify the end of another season, but will mark the end of an era. Whoever delivers the last pitch, whether it is the home-team Mudcats’ closer, or a reliever for the opposing Mississippi Braves, it will be the final time that a baseball with the inscription “Southern League” will cross home plate.
In December of 2010 news broke that Mudcats’ owner Steve Bryant was on the verge of selling his Double-A franchise to the owner of the then Pensacola-based Independent League franchise, the Pensacola Pelicans. In this basically three-team swap, Bryant would acquire a new team, a High-A Carolina League franchise that currently resides in Kinston, NC.
On a particular night eight months later Bryant sat relaxed in the back of the air-conditioned confines of Cattails Restaurant. Cattails, which sits on top of the first-base side of Five County Stadium, is where you’ll most likely find Bryant during a Mudcats game when he’s not walking around the stadium talking to the fans.
Donning a Mudcats collard shirt and sipping on a goblet full of ice water, he watched his Mudcats through the glass windows battle the farm team of the Florida Marlins, the Jacksonville Suns. With Mudcats’ radio announcer Patrick Kinas playing in the background, Bryant reflected on the past 21 seasons and what’s to come in the future, only taking breaks to watch a play taking place on the diamond below.
It was just a year ago when Bryant stood in front of home plate and addressed the crowd to announce that the Mudcats had reached an agreement on a player development contract to keep the Cincinnati Reds in Zebulon for two more years. At that time no one knew, not even Bryant, that the Mudcats would not fulfill that two-year agreement to keep the Reds’ Double-A team at Five County Stadium through 2012.
“I was approached in September, after the season, about would I have an interest in getting involved in the sale of the club,” Bryant said. “I told them I had no interest if it involved leaving Five County without a team.
“I worked too hard to get a team here, to get the stadium built, and I wasn’t going to take baseball away from Wake County.” he said.
Bryant disclosed that he had been approached numerous times over the years about selling his Double-A franchise. He would always balk at the opportunity if it left him without a team. Then came the Kinston Indians, a High-A team just over sixty miles southeast of Five County Stadium. Bryant purchased the team with the intentions of moving it to Zebulon, leaving the fans of Kinston teamless.
Many people questions why Kinston, who has had a team there for decades and has a rich baseball history, would agree to such a deal that would leave them without baseball.
“In my discussions probably 15 years ago, (the Kinston Indians) came to the conclusion they had to bring in a bunch of outside investors to keep baseball in Kinston,” he said. “There were about 65 of them that put money in just to keep baseball in Kinston. And what has happened is baseball has grown, franchises have grown, and Kinston hasn’t.
“When we made an offer to them, the general partners for this year had the responsibility to all the investors to bring the offer to the table. We paid them fair market value. We didn’t try to get it discounted,” he said. “Our goal was we were going to sell our team and let’s take the money, turn it, and reinvest it.”
Bryant pointed out that because of how the Southern League was transitioning and rumors of moving current teams to southern states such as Louisiana, he felt it was the right time to make the move.
“ I’ve always felt that the Southern League, while I’ve really enjoyed being in it and the prestige of being in the Southern League, left us and went south,” he said. “When I brought the team here, we had a Double-A team in Charlotte and Greenville, South Carolina. So our travel was real easy. Yeah, we had to go to Alabama and Tennessee, but we had these intermediate stops.
“We could stop in Greenville and then go and come back and play Charlotte and come back (home.) It wasn’t 10 or 12-hour bus rides,” he said.
Bryant noted how much of a crackdown baseball has had on travel in recent years, making it more costly for the Mudcats.
“The last five or six years, Major League Baseball’s biggest beef with the minor leagues is these long bus rides. They have instituted a rule that said ‘if you go more than 500 miles in one trip you had to have a day off,” he said. “We had situations where I was taking 28 or 29 guys, counting the trainers, on a bus trip. I’d put them up in a hotel room an extra day or night without even playing a game.
“Then that wasn’t good enough. The major leagues wanted you to get an exception if you went over 500 miles, and they didn’t even want to give you those,” he said. “And then they started suggesting these sleeper-buses and our cost went up by 40 percent.”
Bryant commented that most Triple-A teams fly from city to city because of big advertisement dollars and bigger stadiums, an advantage that Double-A teams do not have.
But the travel arrangements were not the only component that had Bryant contemplating leaving the Southern League. Bryant said that the fans’ comments also had an impact.
“I had so many fans tell me ‘hey, I’m going to go see the Mudcats play in Mobile, I took my week’s vacation.,’” he said.
Bryant felt it was unfair that fans, in order to see their team on the road, had to take so many days off.
“In the Carolina league they can take a weekend and go to Myrtle Beach and watch a couple of games,” he said. “They can take a night and go to Winston-Salem and watch a game. Every team is within one days drive from here.”
By cutting ties with the Southern League, Bryant will join a new league full of different opponents and a somewhat new brand of baseball. Teams will be closer, and there will be the use of the designated hitter year round; Bryant, however, doesn’t see the switch as beginning a new era, but more of another segment in the history of the Mudcats.
“I don’t think of it as so much as the end because we had a lot of segments,” he said. “We had the segment where the stadium was basically modular and erector-set; we got through that phase.”
Bryant listed different ‘segments’ such as affiliation change, the bypass opening up, among other things.
“There has been sort of the sense all along that we’d go from here to here and the it’s going to change completely and then we’d go from here to here,” he said. “And we’ve seen those changes, but what’s remained consistent through all those changes have been that the fans come out here and have the same experience or better.”
The segments that Bryant referred to aren’t as nonchalant as he made it seem. Bryant and his front office staff went through a plethora of setbacks and hardships to get his baseball team in Wake County.
A rocky start
When Bryant purchased the then Columbus Astros in 1988, his main objective was to bring baseball back to the Triangle. Bryant wanted the team where the RBC center currently is in Raleigh but the Durham Bulls’ owner at the time, Miles Wolff, implemented a 35-mile radius rule. Bryant then found a plot of land that was just outside the radius and was still in Wake County. He decided that’s where he wanted his field of dreams to be.
“The most importing thing of all was securing a site and some very, very special people helped us secure this site,” he said. “And without it, it would never have happened without a lot of people doing things that were extraordinary by taking the chance on loaning us money and buying the land and starting up the stadium.
“There weren’t many people who thought it would ever make it. And because so many people stepped forward and stood up and said ‘I’m going to help you do this,’ quitting was never an option,” he said.
Bryant thought that one selling point to Wake County and the fans would be that he would give them the chance to see Double-A baseball, something that hadn’t been done before in the area.
“When we first bought a team to bring here, the highest level of baseball around here was A-ball. So had we brought an A-ball club in, no one would have thought any different about it,” he said. “And when we brought Double-A instead of A-Ball, it was quite frankly a freak of nature that a Double-A team was even available.
But it wasn’t as easy of a sell as he thought.
“In order to even be taken seriously by the city of Raleigh, we had to show the ability that we either owned a team that we could bring, or that we could have an agreement to buy a team,” he said. “So when I bought Columbus, there was no assurance that I would ever get a stadium built. But by my willingness to go do that, it showed the city my intentions were to do it and it really made us a serious player.”
But Bryant said that he and his front office got used to all the setbacks that were put in their way and just trudged forward.
“Every day by lunch, if three or four things didn’t pop up, that any of which, if it wasn’t resolved properly, would have killed the whole deal, it was a slow day,” he said. “We eventually got immune to the fact ‘all right, what’s going to be next? Whatever it is, we’ll deal with it.
“If this had to be done today with the way we did it, it couldn’t have been done,” he said. “In this economy, I’m not sure this stadium could be built. You look at the stadium now and you realize that this is here for future generations. It’s an impeccable stadium and it’s beyond our wildest dreams that we’d ultimately end up with this.”
Back to the future
Bryant said he is very excited about joining the Carolina league, a league that he’s always thought highly of.
“I always thought a High-A team would do well here,” he said. “The reason I thought that was North Carolina, in particular Wake County and the Triangle, and for that matter Rocky Mount and Wilson as well, have all had Carolina League teams.
“Obviously the movie Bull Durham portrayed the minor leagues and almost every city they went to was a North Carolina city and it was the Carolina league,” he said. “We’re sort of going back to the future; we’re going back to the days of when the minor leagues were at its height in the 50s, when the Carolina league was the league in this part of the world, and recapturing that romance.”
Bryant said that even though the players on the field may be a year or two younger, they would still have “those stars in their eyes” of wanting to make it to the big leagues.
“I think we have a chance to sort of have a rebirth with everything here now with the stadium finished and the roads open,” he said.
As the game finished and the Mudcats defeated the Suns 5-2, Bryant believes that things from here on out would be better for the Mudcats. He thinks this new change will help the franchise grow and will be beneficial to everyone. Bryant is confident that this spot is the right spot for baseball, no matter what league they play in.
“Once the first game was ever played here, I knew we had the right place,” he said. “I knew it would take a while for it to really mature, but there was no question that the passion was here and this was sort of hallowed ground–not bad for a soy bean and tobacco field.”