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With loss of Wood Ducks, Kinston’s baseball future cloudy

Grainger Stadium

Though it was inevitable the Down East Wood Ducks (Single-A; Carolina League) would be leaving Grainger Stadium by 2025, the city is bracing for yet another loss of affiliated ball and planning a future for baseball.

It is never a great day when a market like Kinston, N.C., loses pro baseball. Grainger Stadium opened in 1949 as a replacement for Grainger Park, the former home to pro baseball in Kinston. The Kinston Eagles/Blue Jays/Indians began play in 1978 before departing in 2011, while the Down East Wood Ducks began play in 2017.

Kinston is not a large community–just 19,000 or so–and for years the team was kept alive by owner Cam McRae, a major Bojangles franchisee. When the Texas Rangers placed a new franchise at Grainger Stadium as part of the dissolution of two Cal League teams (Bakersfield and High Desert) and addition of two Carolina League teams (the other was the Buies Creek Astros, which later became the Fayetteville Woodpeckers), the move was seen as a temporary one while the Rangers sought a new ballpark for the team.

That search was impacted by COVID-19, but what forced pro ballpark out of Kinston to a new ballpark in Spartanburg in the end was MiLB’s new facilities rules, set to totally kick in for the 2025 season. The Texas Rangers sold the Wood Ducks and transferred the team’s lease to Diamond Baseball Holdings (DBH), which announced the move to a new Spartanburg, S.C. ballpark. To meet the new standards would require a boatload of money for a ballpark with some serious physical challenges, such as a location in a a flood plain, we’re told, while doing business in a community of 19,000.

Publicly, the city is projecting optimism about pro baseball being played at Grainger Stadium, per the Free Press:

Asked if that means Kinston will actively recruit a new baseball team, Barwick said, “We know that DBH owns many teams and franchises but we have not yet met with their management to discuss their long term plans in Kinston. We look forward to working with the new ownership to continue Kinston’s baseball legacy.”

This is a message the Texas Rangers also championed.

“We will be working with Diamond Baseball Holdings to explore options to keep baseball being played at Grainger Stadium in the future,” said Neil Leibman, Rangers’ President of Business Operations in the news release.

In the new MLB-run baseball world, however, keeping baseball alive doesn’t necessarily mean the involvement of Minor League Baseball. A few insiders have suggested the more likely course here is the acquisition of a summer-collegiate Appalachian League team to replace the Wood Ducks after the move to Spartanburg. Whether DBH operates the team or basically leases the team out to one of the groups running most Appy League operations won’t really matter. (Also part of any deal: the Grainger Stadium lease, running through 2031.) The important thing will be the survival of baseball at a lovely old ballpark that, while perhaps being economically obsolete and physically challenged, is still a wonderful place to take in a game.

RELATED STORIES: DBH buys Down East, Hickory; will move Wood Ducks to new downtown Spartanburg ballpark; Down East Wood Ducks Unveil Logos; 2017 Best Logo/Branding: Down East Wood Ducks; Down East Wood Ducks / Grainger Stadium

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