Quick – look at a map of North Carolina and point to Zebulon. Time’s up. This impossible-to-find burg is the recipient of a baseball club due to territorial constraints.
Zebulon is the home of a franchise that relocated from Columbus, GA in the early 90s. The Durham Bulls owned (and still do) the rights to the entire Durham and Raleigh territory, so the Carolina Mudcats were born about a half-hour to the east of Raleigh. Most of what I read about the park before my visit stated that it was in the middle of nowhere – and it is – but that didn’t stop me or a few other patrons from making the trip. Is the trip to a ballpark in a former tobacco field worth it? Let’s find out.
I didn’t honestly know what to expect from the concessions at Five County, since there was very little information available on the web. What I found was a really good selection of items, and surprisingly low prices for a double-A park. Some offerings were disappointing (I’ve grown weary of seeing Papa John’s Pizza in ballparks), but the concessions are worthy on the whole.
Two quick recommendations – try the fresh-squeezed orangeade and the ice cream. There are a couple of ice cream stands in the park that are run by a local dairy, and the portions are huge and reasonably priced. A cup of ice cream is just $3.50, with a souvenir helmet just a couple of dollars more. The funnel cakes, which I didn’t try, looked to be kept in a warmer. As long as you choose carefully, you should enjoy your food and drink here.
One of the biggest complaints about a lot of ballparks is that they could literally be anywhere. There is not a real sense of location, and the emphasis is more on a generic setting. The Mudcats do a good job of taking a park that was built in a field and reminding you that your seat is in eastern North Carolina. The between-innings musical selections (local favorite The Embers, for instance) helped to emphasize the location. James Taylor’s “Carolina In My Mind” was played as everyone exited the ballpark, which was another nice touch.
The between-innings entertainment was fairly standard, with the sack race, the mascot race, the tricycle race and a number of things I’ve seen done 25 other times in 25 other parks. They did have an interesting take on the usual sumo wrestling contest held among fans. Two members of the grounds crew dressed up as sumo wrestlers and tried to make baskets past the two Mudcat mascots. This was amusing, particularly when one of the mascots hit one of the grounds crew members over the head with a trash can to end the contest.
The only real annoyance is that the team uses the video board to run some commercials between innings, and I have never been a fan of this. If fans want commercials, they can go home and turn on their television.
Sight lines: C
The seating itself at Five County Stadium is excellent. None of the seats are really far from the action, and the park is built for the fan’s enjoyment. There are, however, a few downfalls.
The major problem with the seating area is the net that stretches from bullpen to bullpen. This is seemingly to protect the fans in the lower levels, but it ends up obstructing the view of a good portion of the seats. I never have liked nets in ballparks, and this net, as well as the support structure that holds it, creates sight issues from foul pole to foul pole.
There is also a cutout area down the right field line called Catfish Corner, which is inventive and a nice feature, but blocks the view of the right field corner to the seats on the first base side of the field. Because of these issues, it is recommended that you choose seats in the general admission sections (most of the seats in both sections are inexpensive and above the level of the net) or in the picnic areas down the left field line. The metal risers housing the picnic areas still experience a few sight line issues (the supports for the net and the gate around the second level of the risers), but this is still a nice area to watch the game.
Parking is close to the stadium, and ingress and egress is made easy by the parking attendants. This is about all there is to say that is good about the parking situation.
Parking is on a gravel lot, and there is a $4 charge to park on the lot. There was an announcement during the game that a driver’s tire was going flat. It was impossible to tell if this was due to the surface of the lot, but it certainly could not have helped. A gravel lot that has this kind of charge to park in it is inexcusable, and was one of the worst parts of the visit.
Quality of baseball: B
This was a very well-pitched game on both sides. Alex Smit of Carolina (Reds AA) and Jose Ortegano of Mississippi (Braves AA) both pitched deep into the game and limited the respective opposing offenses. Mississippi led 2-0 until the bottom of the 8th, where Carolina tied the game. The Mudcats would eventually win 3-2 in the bottom of the 9th on a single by Logan Parker.
Overall grade: B
I have seen a lot of the Southern League parks, and Carolina ranks near the top of the league. The staff was tremendous, including one who invited me to the front of the seating area to take photos of the park. There’s a lot to like about Five County Stadium, and the feel of the park matches the feel of the town. I wish the Mudcats could take the revenue they collect from parking and pave the lot, assuming that there is a need to continue charging for the privilege. Come prepared for small-town charm, because this is certainly featured at Five County Stadium.
How to get there:
Take I-440 around Raleigh to US 264/US 64 East. Travel approximately 20 miles east on 264 (past the 64 split) to Zebulon. Take the exit for NC Highway 39 and turn right at the end of the ramp. The stadium will be just ahead on the right. There are signs leading the way to the stadium for the final portion of the drive.
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