The drive always seems longer than it should be.
You might, on your first or even fifth time humming along the route, check your GPS during that final stretch of N.C. 39 off U.S. 64 in far-eastern Wake County, just to make sure you aren't being led astray, to a different patch of rural land, to a place without a pop-up baseball field.
But keep driving past the lake, the magnolias, the drive-up houses, the stop signs, and eventually you'll see the water tower with the baseball seams, and from the trees and green-stretched land, Five County Stadium will appear, carved out on a stretch of land in the town of Zebulon, population 5,159—home, for the last twenty-seven years, to the not-quite-world-famous Carolina Mudcats.
The stadium's grounds were sold to then-Mudcats owner Steve Bryant in 1990 by Avon Privette, whose mother loved the Yankees and used to sit among those tobacco fields on sultry summer nights, listening to her team on the radio. Zebulon wasn't Bryant's first choice for the minor league team he'd purchased two years earlier. According to legend, Bryant wanted to relocate the team from Columbus, Georgia, to Raleigh, where PNC Arena is now. But the Durham Bulls, a mighty force in the wake of Bull Durham's release, put the kibosh on those plans.
Then-Bulls owner Miles Wolff invoked a rule requiring minor league teams to locate no less than thirty-five miles apart from one another. Where Bryant wanted to build was about half that distance to downtown Durham, so he had to keep going. He and current general manager Joe Kremer, who's been with the team since day one, got a map, drew a circle around Durham Athletic Park's home plate and measured every inch of those thirty-five miles (technically, 37.8 miles) until they had a plot of land in sight.
They cut a deal with Privette, and construction began in 1990. Five County Stadium opened midway through the 1991 Double-A Southern League season. The team came equipped with the kind of offbeat name and outré logo (a grayish catfish squished inside an orange letter C) commonplace in today's minor league ball but viewed then—when names and logos trickled down from major league affiliates—as cutting-edge.
Today's Mudcats have a new league—they moved to the High-A Carolina League in 2012—and a new owner, the Milwaukee Brewers, which purchased the team from Bryant in October 2017, ending three decades of independent ownership. But the endearing mascot is the same. So is the sales pitch: Come enjoy a hassle-free night of wholesome family fun.
Of course, the Triangle's other minor-league, the one 37.8 miles away, the one featured in a big-time Hollywood flick, the one capitalizing on a booming downtown in a thriving city, is making much the same pitch—except with craft beer and Stranger Things theme nights and a ten-thousand-seat stadium that is usually near capacity.
How do the Mudcats hope to keep up?
In short, they don't. It's not a fair fight. One team plays toward the bottom rung of the minor league hierarchy and the other is one step below the majors. One is owned by Capitol Broadcasting, while the other, until last year, was independent and cash-strapped. ("Steve Bryant would joke that he was a thousand-aire," says Greg Young, the Mudcats' broadcaster and director of media relations. "And then [Capitol Broadcasting CEO James] Goodmon, he's a millionaire, there's a huge difference between the two.")
- Photo by Caitlin Penna
- Muddy the Mudcat wrestles a challenger during an in-game skit.
But that's not to say the Mudcats haven't enjoyed success or been iconic in their own right. Their team name and logo, the product of a contest in Columbus in 1989, was at the forefront of the weird-name movement that has spawned the likes of the Akron Rubberducks, the Hartford Yardgoats, the Midland RockHounds, the El Paso Chihuahuas, and the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp.
In the beginning, the team's merch sold like gangbusters. Muhammed Ali and Jimmy Carter got their own Mudcats caps. The team had a cameo in Space Jam and was once featured in a glowing Sports Illustrated article. (Apropos of nothing, the Mudcats also gave up Michael Jordan's first home run as a minor leaguer, and at Five County, no less.)
"The Mudcats did quirky minor league baseball better than anybody else, first," says Evan Moesta, the team's multimedia manager. Moesta grew up in Raleigh, and his family had a mini-season ticket package to both the Mudcats and the Bulls.
Adds Kremer: "We were the first people to go out away from the norm. People around the country just loved it."
In recent years, however, that quirky luster has faded. Average attendance at the 6,500-seat stadium has dipped from 3,821 in 2005 to 2,700 so far this year. There are several factors at play: the league change, perhaps; or the Bulls' growing dominance of the local baseball market; or Bryant's insufficiently deep pockets, which hindered marketing efforts; or even Zebulon's failure to grow along with the rest of Wake.
With attendance fading along with the ballpark's sun-splotched red seats, the Mudcats have found themselves at a crossroads. It's one thing to define yourself as a different entity than the beloved Bulls; it's another to gently slip out of the Triangle's consciousness altogether.
For years, there's been a need to adapt, and a failure to do so. What can pull the team from Zebulon, the team you've maybe forgotten exists, out of the mud?
One thing hasn't changed, and never will. The Mudcats sell themselves as the mom-and-dad-and-kids experience. Consider Five County's tagline: "The Family Place." The parking is easy, and a child won't be at liberty to wander off, like in, say, a downtown setting.
Inside, there's an open, breezy concourse with concessions and beer stands. There are no ushers asking for seat numbers, just employees looking to help. The bullpens are nestled along the sides of the foul lines, pressed right up against the third and first baselines' front row seats, optimal for small fans seeking autographs.
As is typical in the minors, there's plenty of on-field entertainment throughout the game. Multiple fan cams are projected on the jumbo screen. After the first inning, Muddy the Mudcat drives around the stadium on an ATV, culminating each time in a pedal-to-the-metal jump over the visitors' bullpen mound. And between innings, there's Hayes Permar, the Mudcats' eccentric PA announcer since 2015, dressed in a blazer and baseball pants, trying to catch T-shirts from Muddy's cannon with a big fishing net.
In that regard, this year has been good to him.
"My first year, we caught it seven times in a season," Permar says. "Past couple years, Muddy lost his gun skills. This is the third Muddy I've worked with—he's really good. I've caught it now four or five times already."
But before he was handling the catfish net and bursting out of the press box to sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," Permar was a heckler looking for a good time at Five County Stadium.
"At the Durham Bulls now—and I'm not knocking that—but it's almost a major league experience, which is a credit to them, but it's also missing a little bit of what I think small-town America thinks of when it thinks of minor league baseball," he says. "The Durham Bulls are basically the thirty-first major league team, and the Mudcats for me became that minor league team, where you can go, buy tickets anywhere, sit anywhere, sit near the players, and get a ticket and a beer and a dog and still get out of there having spent fifteen dollars."
- Photo by Caitlin Penna
- Fans watch the Mudcats play.
Last year, Permar coined the term "The Most Interesting Team in Baseball." It's perhaps a subtle dig at the Bulls, and originated amid an uncanny stretch of Mudcat virality. In the span of one week in May, a military homecoming, a patient hidden-ball trick, a well-executed on-field proposal, and a miraculous beer cup catch all blew up online, and were featured on SportsCenter, Around the Horn, The Today Show, MLB.com, and every sports-aggregating website imaginable.
"It went boom, boom, boom, boom," says Moesta. "It was almost like: What's going to happen today?"
This year, a walk-up song featuring a dub-stepped version of the yodeling Walmart kid made the rounds, and there's always the steady presence of Vincent Stio, the mini umpire who takes the field for pregame warmups and calls the game from behind the screen.
Those things might not bring the masses back, but, hey, they're a start.
"It does help when you have moments like that, to get ourselves back out there again to remind people that we're here," Young says. "Sometimes people forget because they don't come this way."
What could bring the masses back is a nearly doubled marketing budget.
Under the Brewers' ownership, and with the pro team's money behind them, the Mudcats have made a renewed push to get back into public view—on the radio, on TV, promotions on social media. When the sale went through last year, the Mudcats brought on five new people, four of whom were in sales, hired to peddle tickets to corporate groups.
So far, there's not much to show for these efforts. Attendance has actually ticked down a hair since last year. But this is a long game. The team hopes to see attendance back up where it was a decade ago within three years—an additional thousand people per game. And, as was the case when Bryant first moved the Mudcats to Zebulon, they'll keep waiting for the estimated 250,000 people expected to move into Wake County and along the U.S. 64 corridor over the next decade.
"We've got an ownership group that wants to make things go," Kremer says. "I'm getting older now. I want to see it like it will be and can be."
Time will tell how that pans out. Right now, though, the team is struggling, while their baseball neighbors, the organization that pushed them way out to Zebulon all those years ago, are thriving in a hotbed of hops and hipsterdom.
But magic still happens in Five County Stadium. It resounds longer than the fleeting moments of internet fame. It happens in the charming way that only minor league baseball can conjure.
On June 18, hours before the Carolina League All-Star Game, kids in baseball caps and gloves showed up looking for autographs. On July 4, with the Mudcats players wearing jerseys showing George Washington crossing the Delaware River, attendance was a season-high 6,478.
But perhaps the most counterintuitively magical moment came on July 20. That night, a Friday, the Mudcats did not wow the crowd with a rousing on-field performance. They did not impress with a well-spun double play or a grand slam to win a once-doomed contest. Instead, they lost 17–0, in the process allowing a franchise record twenty-three hits.
A crowd of 3,783 showed up. They were there before the game started. They stayed for the end. They clapped when the game was over. They watched the fireworks after.
And they found what they were looking for in a night out at the ballpark.
"We're losing seventeen-zero, and there they are, parents smiling with their kids. The fireworks show was great," Moesta says. "You would never know the final score was seventeen-zero. That's what minor league baseball strives for."