Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Wilmington Blue Rocks 5 at Down East Wood Ducks 4 (Carolina League) - June 5, 2017

Kinston has long been a minor league baseball town with a history stretching back to 1921. The Expos had a team here in 1974, and the Blue Jays followed suit from 1979-84 with future stars Jesse Barfield, Tony Fernandez, and Mark Eichhorn among those who passed through. In 1986, the Kinston Indians took over, and stayed here until 2011, when they were bought and moved to nearby Zebulon to take over the Carolina Mudcats name. I was quite disappointed when that happened because the team was using Grainger Stadium, a historic venue that opened in 1949. Living in Japan at the time, I figured I would never get a chance to see a game there.

Fortunately, the recent expansion in the Carolina League put a team back in Kinston and as part of my quest to see all active minor league parks, I finally had a reason and an opportunity to see a game at Grainger. The new team is called the Down East Wood Ducks, which was a controversial choice for two reasons. First, the name was trademarked on August 15, 2016, a month before the finalists were announced for the name-the-team contest (Eagles, HamHawks, Hogzillas, and Shaggers were the other choices). Wood Ducks was eventually announced as the winner but no fan was awarded a prize, suggesting a bit of subterfuge on the part of management. The other problem with the name is that the Down East region in North Carolina does not include Kinston, which is too far inland. To be fair, several businesses in the area use the Down East term, so it is by no means an official designation. I'm not sure why those who live further east would be upset to have their region getting national recognition.

Anyway, the name remains and the logo was created shortly thereafter. It now appears everywhere in the stadium and outside as well, including a nearby water tower.

The ballpark is located on Vernon Avenue, which is a continuation of the business portion of US70 that takes you into town. Parking in the large lot out front is free, though you might want to park far away as foul balls sail into the lot on a regular basis. Tickets are $8 for reserved seats between Sunday and Wednesday, $2 more on Thursday, and $2 on top of that for Friday/Saturday games. General admission tickets are $2 less each day, and are limited to a set of bleachers down third base, or a small grass area along first base.

The rest of the seating area is in a covered grandstand with 8 sections with about 14 rows in each. Behind the grandstand is the open concourse where you will find concessions and the team store.

As is often the case with older stadiums, there are support poles that might block your view, so get a seat in Row F or lower to avoid this possibility.

I ended up getting a seat in section 4, directly behind the plate (view below). Note the folding chairs right by the field. These are field level seats and seem to be for season ticket holders or groups. It is an interesting setup as you get your own box and can fit up to 8 seats in there, as well as enjoy wait service.

There is also a small picnic area along first base that is reserved for groups. There are no outfield seats here, and you cannot walk around the entire field.

This shot from the third base line is the best you can do to see the whole stadium. Netting covers the entire grandstand, so if you want a clear view, get the GA seats.

The shot below is taken from the top of the third base corner in the grandstand. The sun is setting behind third base and shines through the grating on top, another reason to sit lower.

The scoreboard includes a small video screen that is surrounded by ads. It does the trick, though for the first inning or two the sun is shining directly on it, making it difficult to read.

The starting lineups and standings are posted near the main entrance, but I did not see any display regarding the history of the teams here or a Road to the Show exhibit, about the only thing missing here.The Rangers own the team and have never been here before, so that might be the reason for the lack of history.

It was dollar dog night, so after a couple of those I had enough cash left to enjoy a Mother Earth beer, a bargain for $6. This local brewery is just a mile away and looks to be great place to stop before the game. Unfortunately, it is closed Mondays, so keep that in mind if you are planning a trip here.

Now about that logo. The team has really gone overboard in the placement of the bird; it is on the pavement, on the washrooms (Drakes and Hens), and even on the walls spouting out little facts about wood ducks.

One thing I learned is that they are also called Woodies and that is used as a team nickname as well. In fact, their home uniform is labeled Woodies. Nobody seems to think the secondary logo below is strange.

The team has a great merchandise selection as well. The full name abbreviates to DEWD and that is prominent on some t-shirts, as well as the name of the mascot.

Overall, Grainger Stadium is a great combination of the old and new of minor league baseball. I enjoy covered grandstands more than the open seating that characterizes most new stadiums, and really enjoyed the atmosphere here. But only the stadium is old, the Wood Ducks have wholeheartedly embraced their identity and are using it to establish a new tradition in this market. Definitely pay a visit to Grainger Stadium when you can to see the Woodies.

The Game

Wilmington (KC) was in town and the pitching matchup featured a couple of Venezuelans, with Andres Machado tossing for the Blue Rocks, while Frank Lopez toed the rubber for the Woodies. After a scoreless first, Lopez ran into trouble, walking the first three batters to start the second before Nathan Esposito (33rd round, 2015) hit a grounder off of Lopez's foot that scored two runs. Lopez escaped without any more damage but gave up a leadoff homer to Brandon Downes (7th, 2014). Two batters later, a double by Chase Vallot (40th overall in 2014, KC's #6 prospect) chased Lopez. Wilmington added an unearned run in the 4th before Down East finally got to Machado in the bottom half with a single, triple, hit batsman, single, and fielders choice to the right fielder (actually a missed pop fly) scored three runs.

The Blue Rocks increased their lead in the 7th with a single, hit-and-run single, and Esposito groundout, and that run was crucial as Luis La O (a 25-year-old Cuban who joined the Rangers system this year) led off the ninth with a homer for the Wood Ducks off closer Franco Terrero. But Terrero was not fazed and induced 3 weak groundouts to preserve the Wilmington win. Esposito gets my Player to Watch award with a 3-4 night.


Once again, I have completed all Advanced A ballparks. I have one AA stadium left (Hartford, June 17) and then two trips - a big one to the Pioneer and Northwest Leagues (14 parks to see) and then the final six in the Midwest League in August to complete all active minor league stadiums.

Next Up

Before that though, I'm heading to Montreal this weekend for the Canadian Grand Prix. It will be my first F1 race outside Asia, check back next week for a recap.



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