Brian’s At the Ballpark Archives

At the Ballpark – Grainger Stadium, Kinston, NC
April 24, 2011, 9:49 pm
Filed under: 2011, Reviews | Tags: , ,

Grainger Stadium, Kinston, NC - click photo for more photos of this visit

One can be forgiven if they confuse Kinston, North Carolina with somewhere else. This is not a bad thing, mind you – it’s just that a lot of the neighboring towns in eastern North Carolina tend to look alike. What cannot be mistaken, however, are a few common threads, including the charm, history and good people you most often see in a small town.

Kinston has a story much like a lot of the other sleepy towns in which this game is played. The home of professional baseball for over 100 years, a tremendous group of A-listers has called this place theirs for a summer. The legendary (Rick Ferrell), the dubious (Pete Rose, Jr.) and the mercurial (Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez) grace the list of former Kinston players.

Kinston’s current baseball facility, Grainger Stadium, opened its doors at the corner of East Grainger and Vernon in 1949, and 2011 may be the last hurrah for affiliated baseball in the city. The team will relocate to Zebulon, NC for the 2012 season, and become the Carolina Mudcats, while the current iteration of the Mudcats will move to Pensacola, FL to begin play in the Southern League for 2012. Six teams have graced Grainger Stadium with league championships during its existence, but how is the grand old park holding up in its possible final year? Let’s find out.

Concessions: A-

It’s pretty hard to complain about what is available at Grainger Stadium. There are a number of concession stands throughout the park (though, be aware that the stand behind the third base seats contains mostly beverages, causing the other two stands to pretty heavily back up at times), and there is a little of the expected and the unexpected from which to choose.

The prices are quite reasonable, and the portions are gigantic. The french fries, for instance, were $2.50, and the portion was much larger than expected. Pepsi products are available throughout the park, so if soda is your thing, expect a Pepsi. There are also a number of beers, if that is your preference. My recommendation for something for you to try, despite my lack of guts to do so, is the bologna sandwich. I have never seen a bologna sandwich in a park before, so if you’re more adventurous than I, give it a spin.

Atmosphere: B

There is something about a ballpark in a small Southern town. You’re surrounded by friends, so it’s not uncommon to see people hug, shake hands and share stories. Kinston is no different in this territory. The polite atmosphere, though, extends throughout much of the game. The ¾-full stands rarely made much noise, except when prompted to do so by the scoreboard. To be fair, though, there was not much reason to do so. More on that in a minute.

The focus is on the baseball in Kinston. There are a few between-innings promotions, but they are not intrusive and are mostly forgettable. The PA system was not very loud – in fact, I had to strain to hear it at times – but the music soundtrack was rather good, when audible. Some of the sound effects were a bit repetitive, however.

It should also be mentioned that a group of Star Wars characters was in attendance at the game, but was not announced.  They posed for pictures, signed baseballs (a Sith Lord signing a baseball? Seriously?) and were generally quite amusing.

Sight lines: B-

I was very excited to purchase tickets and find them in the front row of one of the seating areas behind the plate. Be warned, though, that this is not a good thing. The main concourse is between these seating areas and the “box seats” (an area with folding chairs inside metal gates), and between the late-arriving fans and those who cannot seem to find their seats, your view can be entirely blocked for large portions of the game. I finally grew tired of the steady stream of people (and the net in front of me), and walked down to the bleachers, which helped my experience.

Two other issues exist of which you should make yourself aware. First, the concession areas are mostly on the “outer” concourse, which runs behind the seating bowl. There is one concession area down the first base line within view (somewhat) of the field, but that stand remains busy, as could be expected. Also, the bullpens are tough to view. The home bullpen is on the third base side, and is mostly obscured unless you are in the bleachers or on the berm down the first base line. The visiting bullpen is past the right field corner, and is virtually invisible. This is bad for those who like to watch pitchers warm up.

Parking: A+

The parking situation at Grainger is about as perfect as one will find at a professional-level park. There is plentiful free parking within steps of the stadium, and despite the lack of a stop light at Grainger Avenue, which can make the left turn into the ballpark a bit tough, there is very little about which to complain. Egress from the park is quite easy, as well, as I had virtually no wait in leaving the lot and going on my way.

Be careful where you park your car, however, as much of the parking lot faces the plate, and a foul ball would not have to travel very far to find your vehicle. I parked in the back of the lot (only about four rows back), and was within a minute of my car from the front gates.

Quality of baseball: B

The grade in this category was considerably higher until the 7th inning. The game, which had been breezing along at a nice clip until this point, slowed to a halt as Myrtle Beach (Rangers high-A affiliate) put six runs on the board on five hits. Myrtle Beach sent 11 men to the plate in this frame, and it essentially cemented the end result. The visiting Pelicans scored 11 runs on 16 hits, with an alarming 22 at-bats with runners in scoring position.

The homestanding Indians put together only 2 runs on 7 hits, with both scores coming during a mini-rally in the 8th. Left fielder Bo Greenwell (yes, son of Mike) was the hitting star for Kinston, notching three of the team’s seven hits. Both teams displayed some outstanding defensive chops, with Myrtle Beach’s middle infielders (Leury Garcia and Santiago Chirino) proving themselves to be real defensive standouts. Myrtle Beach third baseman Mike Olt also made several unbelievable stops, but received an error on a throw when he threw wide of the bag on one of those stops. Pelicans right-hander Joe Wieland turned in a great effort, throwing seven shutout innings, while striking out six Indians batters against zero walks.

Overall grade: A-

As any regular reader knows, I grew up around Carolina League baseball, and Kinston is one of the few parks on the circuit I had not yet gotten the chance to see. The recommendations of several friends and the likelihood that this season would end Kinston’s run in the professional ranks hastened my trip. A visit to Kinston is like stepping into a time machine – in a good way. The city has done a great job with renovating the park when necessary so that it doesn’t “look old”, as it were, but the age of the park is still quite evident, as is the slower pace of the town.

If you consider yourself a true baseball fan and have the means to do so, Kinston is a necessary visit. In the new era of downtown parks, luxury boxes and corporate sponsorships, this park is a true jewel and a reminder of how the game – and the people who watched it – used to be.

How to get there:

Kinston is truly a “you can’t get there from here” type of town. Nestled an hour or so west of the Atlantic Ocean and North Carolina coast, the only major roads that access Kinston are US 70 and US 258. If coming from the Raleigh-Durham area (the closest “major” city to Kinston), take US 70 east (exit 309) from I-40, and continue along until you see the exit for US 13/70/117 toward Kinston. As US 70 joins US 258 heading into Kinston, signs for the stadium begin to appear. The stadium is directly off Vernon Avenue (US 70/US 258), and is on the left if coming in from the west. The team’s website also has detailed driving directions for any city from which you might approach.