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Official Review by Brian Wilmer, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
North Carolina baseball is loaded with baseball history and interesting parks (so much so that there's a book — Mark Cryan's "Cradle of the Game" — about it), and Five County Stadium is no exception. This stadium emerged from an old tobacco field upon the birth of the Mudcats franchise in the early 1990s. The otherwise-tiny town of Zebulon came to host the Mudcats because of territorial rights in the Raleigh and Durham markets.
The Mudcats were themselves a relocated team, having moved from Columbus, Georgia. The 2012 season brought more relocation to Five County Stadium, as the Southern League (AA) version of the Mudcats were sold and became the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, while Kinston, North Carolina's Indians moved north and became the Indians' entry in the advanced-A Carolina League.
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You'll find most of the normal ballpark staples at Five County, but there's not a lot on the menu that truly stands out. The popcorn costs quite a bit considering what you get ($3.50 for a regular, $4.50 for a large), and was moderately stale. The park offers cheeseburgers, but they seemed to be a pre-cooked and reheated type of offering.
There were sausages, brats, peanuts, and pizza available, among other things. Ice cream is also available, though expensive ($4.50 for a five ounce cup, $6.50 for eight ounces). The typical batting helmet is also available for $7.50. Drinks are also a bit much here, as bottled sodas and waters are $3.50 each, with Powerade at $4. Beer is $5 for a bottle or $7 for a 24 ounce cup, for those who drink at games.
As mentioned above, this stadium is in a former tobacco field. This gives it at least a unique history, if nothing else. As this is a former double-A park, there is plenty of seating and a relatively comfortable environment throughout. There is not an overload of silly between-innings shenanigans, though most of what is done can be found in several other parks, including kids putting on comically-oversized uniforms, the mascot race, and the like. One downfall, though, is that the music that helped give the park its sense of location (James Taylor's "Carolina In My Mind", local favorite The Embers and more) has since been replaced with a more generic (though good) soundtrack.
One of the real visual limitations in this park is the netting, as the nets cover virtually the entire seating area from line to line, and you have to go to the upper few rows of general admission to avoid it. This gives you the impression of watching a game in a cage, and detracts from the experience a bit.
Zebulon itself certainly does not earn this rating, as its population is just under 4,500. The main draws in Zebulon proper are the Cattails restaurant located in the stadium and Smithfield's Chicken 'N Bar-B-Q three miles down the road. There are a few other eateries in town, but there is no abundance of post-game activity near the park.
Fans searching for nightlife need to head back toward Raleigh (35 miles or so west), as there is every type of restaurant imaginable. There are also plenty of spots to get a drink or catch live music, with NC State in Raleigh and Duke and North Carolina just to the west.
I have to admit that the fans really surprised me. The park is, as I mentioned, somewhat in the middle of nowhere. The 4000-plus in attendance on this night, though, were loud and involved. They were also not scared off by a rain delay during the game. Though they ran for cover when the rains came, they were still in full voice cheering on their team to the final pitch. Both teams featured good pitching, defense, and hitting, which made fan interest a lot easier. I have seen literally hundreds of Carolina League games, having grown up in a Carolina League city, and this was one of the best games I've seen played at this level. This helped draw me in as a fan, as well.
This grade honestly teetered on the edge of a 5. Despite the somewhat long trek to Zebulon, the stadium is literally feet from U.S. Route 264 on North Carolina Highway 39. There is parking on either side of NC 39, with egress being especially easy on nights when team employees help guide traffic. I was able to get back on US 264 headed toward Raleigh in under two minutes from the time I started my car, and that really is tough to beat.
I was nonplussed by the fact that both lots are gravel, and there is a $5 charge to park on said gravel lots. The charge is softened a bit by the fact that you can show your parking pass for a free program once you get into the park, but more and more parks are giving out programs free anyway. I would love to see some of the parking fees reinvested into paving the lot, if for nothing else than the health of my tires.
Parking fees aside, the value for the dollar in Zebulon is really quite good. The tickets range from $6 for general admission to $11 for the best actual seats in the house. There are also skybox seats in Cattails for a quite reasonable $12.50. The concessions were a bit disappointing, but the baseball was certainly not disappointing in the least. The Mudcats know how to put a great product on the field and some fun in the stands. The only real negative was that the video board stopped working after the rain delay. It seemed somewhat pointless to have the video board there if a simple rain could knock it out. This kept fans from getting information about players throughout the game, which would have been helpful.
I have to give some credit to the super-nice lady on the phone who printed my tickets and left them in will-call for me. This saved me an extra trip and was a tremendously nice touch. An extra point was also given for the free program (though, as I mentioned, free programs are more the rule than the exception now), and one for the Mudcats offering their fans a free general admission ticket to the next day's game as a show of goodwill. It seemed to be a bit of a hollow gesture, however, as it seemed relatively obvious that the game would be rained out, and the team repeatedly emphasized that the offer was good for that day only. The Mudcats did at least take that step, though, so a tip of the hat to them.
If you like your baseball in the forefront without a lot of excess distractions, Five County Stadium is your kind of place. There is no question you're watching the game in a small town, and the people in the park live up to that. Everyone is really nice and the focus is on the fan. Go with the box seats and avoid the elements - this was extremely helpful on a rainy night - while enjoying the view just feet from the field. Durham has a tremendous facility (look no further than our list of AAA ballparks for proof of this), but if your travels lead you to the area, take the trip out to Zebulon and enjoy this great place.
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