There's Joy in Mudcatville

A minor league ball club with a Huck Finn attitude is the talk of the town in Zebulon, N.C.
August 11, 1991

For decades there were two kings among the 3,000 citizens in the tranquil farming town of Zebulon, N.C. "My brother Barker Kannon was the hot-dog king and my brother-in-law Elmo Tant was the pumpkin king," says Alma Kannon Farah. Alma is one of the three Kannon sisters who operate Kannon's Cafe in Zebulon, and they serve the best chili dogs in the Carolinas. Behind the counter at Kannon's are photographs of the kings: a black-and-white of Barker preparing his famous franks, and a color snapshot of Elmo surrounded by blazing orange pumpkins at the annual Pumpkin Festival. Barker passed away in 1979, and when Tant died in 1986, Zebulon was without a king.

There may soon be a new one. The fresh prince in town is a sloe-eyed, well-fed Raleigh businessman named Steve Bryant. He has just brought his Class AA Southern League baseball team from Georgia to Zebulon. After 20 years at Golden Park in Columbus, the reborn team made its Carolina debut last month at Five County Stadium on the outskirts of town. The Carolina Mudcats had been scheduled to open there on April 19, but a wet March slowed construction of the new ballpark, so the team had to play at an old, abandoned Class D field in nearby Wilson for a couple of months.

Five County is a 6,000-seat stadium built over one of Avon Privette's tobacco fields. It's a nice, modest, good-looking venue situated at the intersection of two country roads, Old U.S. 264 and North Carolina 39. This is as pretty a place as you can imagine. There are no houses in sight, only rolling meadows full of purple and yellow wildflowers, tobacco and soybean fields, and, just across the way, Avon Privette's cattle.

Bryant, 40, hastens to say that Five County Stadium won't be modest forever. He says he'll be finished constructing a large and fancy $11 million stadium by 1993. He says it'll have seats for 12,000, an exploding scoreboard and an enormous hydraulically powered catfish that will rise behind the centerfield fence to salute home runs. The two adjacent ponds will have bridges that children can walk out on so that they can feed bread crumbs to real mud cats.

Anyway, the current field fits in nicely at the corner of 264 and 39. How the 1993 behemoth will look remains to be seen.

Not only docs Bryant's team have a new setting in North Carolina, it also has a new crop of players. A Houston Astro farm team since 1970, the Mudcats are a Pittsburgh affiliate this year. The summer of '91 is a time of change and much excitement in Zebulon.

"I'd rather read a hardware magazine than go see a ball game, but that makes me unusual around here," says Jim Debnam, who with his father runs Debnam's Hardware. "Our customers are very excited about it."

One such customer is Don H. Perry, an accountant and part-time farmer, who sums up the local feeling: "If there is such a thing as a field of dreams, ours is it."

Zebulon looks exactly the way you would expect it to look, except that there are no hitching posts along North Arendell Avenue, the main drag. The town lies in the gentle Carolina hills, 16 miles east of Raleigh. There are just five stoplights in Zebulon and no movie theater. Two things the town doesn't lack for are weather-beaten barns and Southern hospitality, good news for visitors since Zebulon boasts neither a hotel nor a motel. Zebulon does have a McDonald's, and on Fridays you'll often find a Zebulon resident sipping his morning coffee there while reading the weekly Zebulon Record, reasonably hot off the press.

Of course, ever since the Mudcats appeared on the horizon, predictions of growth have abounded. "This'll be the opportunity to get maybe a hotel built and a nice restaurant," said town councilman Leonard Seawall when Bryant announced his move, in 1989, a year after purchasing the Georgia team for $950,000. "Something real nice. A family restaurant."

Some wonder if there will be any need. "I love baseball and I'm glad to have the Mudcats here, but I don't think they will be successful," says former town councilman Rom Moser. "If everything goes in favor, I give them three to five years."

"I don't know about the regional concept," says Tom Ham, sports editor of the Wilson Daily Times. "The admission and food prices are out of line with what people here are accustomed to."

The "regional concept" he speaks of means that any team in a town of 3,000 has to draw lots of fans from elsewhere, and for the Mudcats that means Raleigh. The prices he speaks of are $5.50 for a box-seat ticket—a "fishing license" in Carolina Mudcat parlance—or $3.50 for a spot in the bleachers. All grandstand seats at Five County have seat backs, and the box seats even have armrests, which isn't a usual thing in the bush leagues.

If the Carolina Mudcats draw well, pretty well or just fairly well, they'll be drawing better than the Columbus Mudcats were drawing. Columbus, a mill town on the banks of the" Chatahoochee River, is Georgia's second-largest city. It has been inspiring for some—novelist Carson McCullers was born there. But as far as baseball is concerned, the city has been apathetic for a long while. Columbus has been dipping into pro ball since 1885, but all its teams, from the Columbus Foxes of the turn-of-the-century South Atlantic League to the oxymoronically nicknamed Columbus "Confederate" Yankees of the 1960s Southern League, have either folded or moved elsewhere. The usual reason given was listless attendance. In 1988 a columnist for Baseball America, a fortnightly devoted mostly to minor league and amateur baseball, named Columbus one of America's 10 worst baseball towns. That same year, the Houston affiliate, then called the Astros, sold about 30,000 tickets, according to Bryant. "The first time I went to see the Astros play, maybe 50 people were there," he says. "Worse, a foul ball went into the stands and nobody went after it."

Bryant, who had made a bundle in outdoor advertising, saw an opportunity. He would buy the team and teach Columbus to love baseball. He would spruce up the stadium. He would hold promotional giveaways, like a car wash for the dirtiest car in the parking lot, or free pizza to the fans who cheered loudest. He would book celebrities, even The Chicken. He would stage a contest to rename the team.

He did all that in 1988, and by season's end he had a pile of entries for his name-the-team contest. Finalists included the River Rats, the Scrambled Dogs and, yes, the Mudcats. Bryant wanted to go with the Scrambled Dogs, after a local delicacy consisting of chopped-up hot dog, chili, mustard, coleslaw and cracker pieces packed into a hot-dog bun. Problem was, how to make a Scrambled Dog logo? With misgivings, Bryant selected the Mudcats, after the large, particularly ugly catfish that are found in great abundance near the bottom of the Chatahoochee. Next, Bryant decided upon black, gray, white and Georgia red for the team colors. For Opening Day in 1989, Bryant flew in Jim Grant from California. Grant, who was known as Mudcat during his 14 years as a major league pitcher, put on a Columbus uniform and sang the national anthem to a crowd of 5,312. For the year, 95,689 mostly red-clad people filed past the aquarium, which contained a live 14-inch, two-pound mud cat named Muddy, and into Golden Park. While Columbus's attendance was still low among Southern League teams, it was a vast improvement over what it had been. Bryant's initiatives seemed to be working.

Working best of all was that serendipitous choice of the name Mudcats. Mudcat apparel, especially the red baseball cap with a gray mud cat plunging through a white letter C, became a local and even national sensation. In 1989, Bryant sold $150,000 worth of merchandise. In 1990 receipts were $225,000. Muhammad Ali and Willard Scott each ordered a Cat cap. Rosalynn Carter bought one for Jimmy.

Bryant's Mudcats were, if not actually hot, getting hotter.

"He showed this city how to support baseball," says Sid Kaminsky, who works for Goodwill Industries in Columbus. "Then he took the Mudcats away. I won't wear my Mudcat clothing anymore. They can throw it in the Chatahoochee as far as I'm concerned."

Emory law professor Andrew Kull, who used to travel 109 miles from Atlanta to see the Mudcats, says, "The good people of Columbus have been betrayed by the weaselings of a Tarheel Tartuffe."

Maurice M. Shapiro, who had been going to games at Golden Park for 30 years and who still keeps a Mudcat seat cushion in his car, says, "Everybody misses the Mudcats. Nobody's even sure what happened to them."

What happened should have come as a surprise to no one, says Bryant. He says he never concealed his plan to move the team, although few people in Columbus remember his trumpeting it. They're bitter. Earlier this season at Golden Park, now the home of the Class A Columbus Indians, 1,011 attended Farewell to the Mudcats Night. They received a $3 discount on a box seat for tossing their Mudcat garb into a barrel on the way in.

Whether Bryant was coy about his intentions or not, the move seems in retrospect to have been inevitable. Bryant is a stuck-in-the-mud Carolinian. He grew up in Smithfield, N.C., and can bring tears to the eyes of a grizzled tobacco farmer when he waxes lyrical about the glory days of North Carolina minor league baseball. Back in 1950, the year of Bryant's birth, there were more than three dozen teams across the state, and Bryant talks about that time as if he had experienced it. "We've brought something back we'd lost," says Bryant, whose Mudcats bring the total of Carolina teams back to nine. "One of the greatest honors you can ever have is to have someone entrust this game under your direction. There is much responsibility in not desecrating the tradition baseball has."

Bryant originally envisioned his Mudcats playing in Raleigh, but Miles Wolff, owner of the Class A Durham Bulls, would have none of it. He exercised a rule that prohibits the establishment of a minor league franchise within a 35-mile radius of an existing one; Durham is only 20 miles from Raleigh. Bryant went to a map and found that the only hamlet in Wake County that was more than 35 miles from Durham was Zebulon, 37 miles off. So Zebulon it was. Wolff, wary of Bryant's marketing skills, sold his team during the off-season. "Two teams in one market won't make it," Wolff says. "Who wins Raleigh is who is going to make it. I sold because I thought Steve had a shot."

Whether Bryant's shot hits its mark is uncertain. In Zebulon, some have caught Mudcatmania, and some haven't. Privette, for instance, had serious reservations about giving one of his 12 fields over to baseball. "We had a real toss-up about having our farm area cluttered up," he says, "All that traffic, the lights, the noise. But we knew she would have wanted it. We figured she was shaking up there in heaven wondering what we were doing vacillating."

"She" was Privette's mother, Ernestine, the first child born in Zebulon after its founding in 1906. Ernestine was, rather incongruously, a huge New York Yankee fan. She used to amuse herself by listening to Yankee games on the radio, and she would write manager Casey Stengel long letters of advice. Although she never mailed the letters before dying in 1978, she was known in Zebulon as Stengel. Ernestine is, in a way, the matriarch of the Carolina Mudcats. Because of her, her son sold land to Bryant. And there is now a ballpark upon that land.

To that ballpark people come to see a freckled second baseman with pop in his bat, Terry Crowley Jr., son of Terry Sr., the former Baltimore Oriole outfielder. They come to see Kevin Young, a standout third baseman, and Greg Edge, a fine shortstop. They don't come because the Mudcats are doing anything special as a team. The Cats were 37-35 at midseason but promptly proceeded to suffer a nine-game losing streak in the second half.

Above all, the fans come to experience baseball a la Bryant, which is everywhere in evidence during a game. As the Mudcat players run to their positions, each is accompanied by three Little Leaguers. After the anthem is sung—live—27 high fives are exchanged on the field and the children scamper off. The fans, many of them in Mudcat-red wardrobes, settle back in their major league minor league seats and, between bites of catfish sandwiches from the concession stand, cheer on the team. They sing along as the public address announcer spins Patsy Cline's I Fall to Pieces to encourage the opposing pitcher's decline. They listen anxiously as the car-wash winner is announced. They shout loudly in hopes of winning free pizza during the Pizza Scream promo. They applaud wildly as the Suitcase Party winner is driven around the field in a limousine. This lucky fan and a guest were among those who brought a prepacked suitcase to the stadium tonight, and now, having prevailed in the raffle, the two of them are headed for Las Vegas, courtesy of Steve Bryant.

At game's end, despite another loss, the fans happily clap along as the loudspeaker blares a ditty that is becoming increasingly familiar in greater Zebulon:

Mudcat Mania, it's catching on fast
Muddy the Mudcat, he's makin' a splash
Baseball action that can't be beat
Mudcat Mania will get you on your feet.

PHOTOBOB DONNANMudcat games mix baseball and Barnum: The fans in the limo won a raffle and are headed for Vegas. PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONTop Cat Bryant left Georgia and now wears a Cheshire grin. PHOTOBOB DONNANThe coolest cats in greater Zebulon come to Five County Stadium to see and to be seen.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)