Friday, I embarked on the longest stadium road trip that didn’t include a vacation as I headed south for an eight-hour (nine thanks to traffic) drive down to North Carolina. The trip came to fruition when I realized I can get three games in two days and there is a great pit stop along the way to break up the long drive. The Carolina Mudcats, East Carolina Pirates baseball team and North Carolina FC of USL League One were the visits planned. I left NJ at 6 AM and reached Alexandria, VA not long after 10 AM. What a fantastic little place that is just a stone’s throw from DC. I’ve heard it’s great to live and visit there and I found all that true and then some. Most of my time was just strolling Old Town and the Waterfront, along with a nearby lunch. Outside dining wasn’t in the cards today thanks to the heat (plus it’s noisy near the waterfront with all those planes constantly going by from DCA). Speaking of the weather, it has been a cool Spring here in the Northeast. Of course, we’re making a quick jump to Summer and the first heat wave will coincide with this trip. While driving through Virginia, my car thermometer cracked 100 degrees and by the time I reached North Carolina, it was a steamy 96 degrees. Thankfully, the first game would be a 7:00 start, out of the scorching sun.
Five County Stadium is in Zebulon, NC, a town that has the distinction of being dead last on my Stadium List and the only one that begins with the letter Z. These are the things I think about. It certainly is a different place within today’s world of Minor League Baseball and I’ll have more on how they got a team once the detailed review is complete next week. I started by having dinner at Southland Steakhouse and had an absolutely awesome steak that really hit the spot. The ballpark was a little more than five minutes away and I pulled into the gravel parking lot to a somewhat generic looking stadium on the outside. Things were way better on the inside as I fell in love with the interior design. Yes, it’s older and full of concrete, but it is different! I’m so sick of cookie-cutter minor-league designs and this was anything but as an upper deck of sorts hang over 4-5 rows of very intimate field level seats. Making up for a blah outfield view is the water tower in left field in the shape of a baseball and with the Mudcats logo on it. As for the game, it became one of the most memorable in my 230+ stadium visits. Carolina went to the Bottom of the 9th down 6-2 and it looked like a ho-hum loss, especially with two outs and no one on. A couple of doubles were followed by a walk and a single and suddenly, it was 6-4. After a Wood Ducks pitching change, the game appeared over after a comebacker to the mound, but the pitcher somehow botched the toss to third! Oh My. Up comes Hendry Mendez and…a Grand Slam! Unreal, the Mudcats win 8-6. Check out the comeback below….
Saturday featured altered plans, some good, some bad. I stayed at a hotel in Wilson. This small city is home to a Coastal Plain League team as the Tobs play in historic Fleming Stadium. The ballpark also has a small little museum on North Carolina baseball history and it opens at 10 AM, so I went to check it out before driving to Greenville. The place was empty and after waiting for 15 minutes and giving them a call, no one showed to unlock the doors. I felt out of place and gave up waiting. Not wanting to just sit in a hot car, I drove into downtown and stumbled on a wonderful little park. It’s devoted to Vollis Simpson and his Whirligig’s (though he didn’t like to call them that). This link is best to show the beauty of these creations and the story is fascinating.
That proper distraction was a nice way to start the morning as I then drove 45 minutes east down US-264 to Greenville. This was East Carolina’s last baseball game of the season and they came in on a 13-game winning streak after an uncharacteristic poor start to the year. The Pirates program is a good one as they’ve hosted a Regional (which is the goal of many in this sport) each of the last three years. They’ve garnered a reputation as having a great fan base and atmosphere. I may not have seen a big crowd, I did see the great atmosphere and it is highlighted in the outfield shaded area known as “The Jungle”. Mixed with those relaxing in lounge chairs are others who stand along the wall cheering and chanting. They also are known for their constant chatter with the opposing left-fielder. While there is some hazing, these conversations are often good-natured and that was the case on this day as Houston’s Santiago Garcia was on the good side of the crew. The post-game jump has become tradition on this little side of ECU and it is indeed a fun place to watch a game. The crowd though was quite small and I know it was hot, but it was Senior Day and even looking at the attendance from the night before, it was a ballpark less than half full. I did like the Clark-LeClair Stadium, though it had way too many stairs and not enough shade (understandable given the season ends in late May). The game yet again was thrilling as the Pirates tied it in the 8th and won it on a single in the 10th. Man, I’ve been fortunate to see some great games! I didn’t get video on that one, but Pirate Radio TV did.
Four hours and 60 ounces of water later, I was very happy to get into the air conditioning of my car and crank up the setting to #4 for awhile. The journey from Greenville to Cary featured a darkening sky and I feared it was going to be a double dose of suffering on this day (heat and then storms). Indeed, lightning and heavy rain was going to push the start to the North Carolina FC game at least an hour later. That did give me time for a pre-game meal and right down the street from WakeMed Soccer Park is a tiny little shack called Ole Time Barbeque. What a slice of heaven and this is exactly what I was looking for when I’m in an area known for ‘Que. Here in Carolina, it’s Pulled Pork that they specialize in and it’s done one of two ways depending on if you are in the West or East. Being in the latter part of the state, it’s a vinegar-based sauce and this place hit the spot. I had a sweetheart of a waitress who was great with everyone and made the experience even better.
After dinner, the storms cleared and we had a new start time as I looked forward to the final game of the weekend. I’m not a fan of North Carolina FC as too many things irritate me: The name (yet another generic rebrand), $15(!) parking, no email response to questions, blocking off the upper deck and stupid prohibited items that you can’t bring in. No umbrellas, even though the stadium is 90% empty. No camera cases even though the ground is wet. It’s also sad how little support there is for the team. Yes, I understand it’s third division (or “minor-league”), but here you have a huge population to draw from in the Triangle, plus a hotbed of youth soccer and NCFC struggles to get 1,000 people and 20 Oak City Supporters. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the match as I got an up-close look at quality soccer and a pretty good game. Plus, one of my favorite soccer people, John Harkes was managing Greenville. NCFC hung on for the 1-0 win as the home side went undefeated on this trip. Incredibly, I have yet to see the home team lose in 2022! To cut an hour off the long drive the next day, I stayed in Henderson, NC and have to give the Sleep Inn there props. That was probably the most comfortable bed I have ever slept in and it was completely unexpected. Such a pleasant surprise to lay down after a long day and have one of those “ooooo” moments. The drive back to NJ was tame and I was thrilled to have unintentionally plan a stop for lunch when the second half of the Premier League’s final day was ongoing. The thrilling events in the City and Liverpool game more than made up for the crap BLT sandwich at PJ Whelihan’s in Harrisburg. Look for detailed reviews to get posted in the coming weeks!