After two outstanding days watching the Durham Bulls at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, I set my sights on the small North Carolina town of Zebulon, home of the Carolina Mudcats, on June 28. This wouldn’t be a day that required a lot of travel — Durham and Zebulon are only 50 miles apart.
Instead of going straight to Zebulon, I first did a bit of baseball-themed sightseeing in Durham and Raleigh, making stops at three notable universities. My first stop was Duke University, which is located in Durham. My primary reason for visiting was to see the baseball field, but as soon as I got onto the campus, its picturesque nature quickly made me realize that I should stick around for a bit. I enjoyed driving around the tree-lined streets until I found a parking spot, and then took a long walk around the campus — concentrating on the area around the athletic facilities, of course.
My first stop was the baseball facility, Jack Coombs Field:
I arrived between games of a youth tournament, and took a few minutes to walk around the field before climbing up to the top of the grandstand to snap this panorama:
My next stop was just a short walk from the baseball facility, and it’s one that you’ll know if you’re a collegiate sports fan. Cameron Indoor Stadium, home of Duke basketball, is arguably the most famous NCAA basketball facility in the country. It’s beautiful from the exterior, but doesn’t exactly scream “sporting venue” — and if not for a couple of signs, I think I’d have likely missed it:
Cameron Indoor was absolutely outstanding. I’m not remotely a basketball fan, but this is a facility with a ton of history. It opened in 1940, and had a seriously historic vibe — wooden doors, narrow staircases, etc. As seemed to be the theme for my sports sightseeing, there was a youth event taking place, so I watched for a couple of minutes and then continued on my way:
Before I left the campus, I stopped to check out Duke University Chapel. At 210 feet tall, it’s a tough building to miss, and it’s also very close to Cameron Indoor Stadium. I didn’t bother going inside, but I was deeply impressed with the beauty of the exterior of this building:
My next stop was just 10 miles down the road, and served as the other half of one of college sports’ best rivalries — the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I quickly made my way to Boshamer Stadium …
… and went inside to look around. Once again, I’d arrived between games of a youth tournament, so the concourse was pretty crowded with players, parents and, I’m guessing, college recruiters. I walked along the concourse until I reached the upper edge of the seating bowl, and then snapped this photo of the pristine field:
Believe it or not, my NCAA baseball sightseeing wasn’t done just yet. While I was excited to get to Zebulon to see the Mudcats, I first made the short drive from Chapel Hill to Raleigh to check out North Carolina State University. It was another absolutely beautiful campus, and it wasn’t long before I found the athletic facilities. I hope you’re sitting down, but there was another youth sports tournament taking place, so Doak Field at Dail Park was full of action. Yet again, I arrived between games — don’t ask how I managed to keep doing this — and after snapping this shot of the exterior of the ballpark …
… I walked inside and took this panorama:
After a short walk around the NC State campus, I headed to my hotel in downtown Raleigh. There are places to stay in Zebulon, but many more choices in Raleigh, the capital city of North Carolina. I opted to stay in Raleigh because I wanted to do some sightseeing the following day, and Zebulon and Raleigh are only about 25 miles apart. Given all of the campus visits that I’d made, I only had time to check into my hotel — the outstanding Residence Inn Raleigh Downtown, which was easy to get to and put me in a beautiful and highly walkable part of Raleigh — and then head to Zebulon.
Five County Stadium opened in 1991 as the home of the Carolina Mudcats of the Southern League. That team existed from 1991 through 2011, before moving to Florida and becoming the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. The team that I was seeing shares the Mudcats name, but is a completely different franchise. It plays in the 10-team Carolina League (Class-A Advanced) and has been in existence in Zebulon since 2012. Got all that?
The first thing that I noticed as I approached Five County Stadium was the Mudcats water tower, which jutted well above the treeline:
What an impressive sight, right? This begs a question — do you know of any other MiLB teams that have their logos on water towers? I can’t think of one, so leave a comment below if you’ve seen one.
After parking my car, I walked around the ballpark to snap this photo of one of the home plate gate. Definitely some neat architecture, but I think this area could benefit from some Mudcats signage, don’t you?
Instead of entering right away, I proceeded along the driveway that wraps around the ballpark to check out other sights. As is often the case with 1990s-era parks, there wasn’t a lot of things to see and do around the park’s perimeter. I made my way toward the right field corner to see if I could take a lap around the park, but was greeted by a “No Trespassing” sign and this is as far as I got:
That was fine, though. After just a few minutes outside on this 90-degree day, I was more than ready to get inside and find some shade. I went back to the home plate gate, walked inside the park and went right down to field level behind home plate to snap this panorama:
Some parks of this era make the mistake of having enormous seating sections. The issue with this idea is that when then crowd is light, the park really looks dead because the empty seats are so visible. That wasn’t the case here, fortunately. I loved the small seating sections around home plate, consisting of just four rows, which is a concept that a lot of the newer small parks are adopting. In this sense, Five County Stadium was ahead of its time:
I watched batting practice for a few minutes in the shade, and then decided to start properly exploring the ballpark. My first stop was the left field corner, where I had this view of the field:
As you might suspect, this area was completely devoid of shade, and the heatwave that North Carolina was experiencing during my visit made any unsheltered area less than hospitable after a few minutes. While I was enjoying watching BP from this vantage point, I soon opted to return to the covered area behind home plate for a few minutes. I decided to head up to the upper deck next, where I took this shot:
You’ll notice not only the action on the field, but also the different seating options that Five County Stadium provides. In addition to the small field-level seating section, there’s a larger upper deck (red seats) and a separate seating deck down the line (green seats). Looking at the latter two seating sections in the same shot should give you an idea of just how steep the red upper deck seats are — something that is often another sign of a 1990s-era ballpark. Everyone has an opinion about steep seating decks, but I tend to like them because you always feel close to the action.
I stood in the shade provided by the suite level for a few minutes, and then descended back to the main concourse and took a walk down the first base line. Here’s a shot from the base of the general admission seats close to the foul pole, looking down the line toward home plate:
My next stop was once again the concourse behind home plate. The big knock on ballparks of this era is that they almost always have enclosed concourses. Virtually all new MiLB parks, of course, have open concourses so that you can always see the game as you walk around. Like the small seating sections, the concourse at Five County Stadium seems to have been a bit ahead of its time. While it’s indeed placed under the upper deck, there are pillars around its outer edge instead of a solid wall. This means that as you walk through the concourse, you can still mostly see the field of play:
Here’s another look at the concourse:
It’s a setup that really works, and that definitely differentiates Five County Stadium from other parks of its age. The natural light coming from the direction of the field (on the left of the image above), as well as the openings on the upper right really make the concourse bright and inviting.
After a walk through the entire concourse, I once again braved the sun by heading down the third base line to an elevated party deck in the corner:
I was really impressed with the bird’s-eye view of the field that this party deck provides. I’ve often found that party decks at smaller MiLB parks tend to be at field level, and while that can certainly be appealing, being elevated in this manner is pretty sweet, too. By the way, I’m seeing more and more of the team-logo metal seats across the minor leagues. It wasn’t too long ago that these seats were an anomaly, but I’m now seeing them almost everywhere I go. (Also, I majorly need to get my hands on a couple of these at some point!)
Since I’d now spent some time in each of the seating sections, my next stop was back behind home plate to watch batting practice for a bit. This is something that I always like to do, and while watching it from the field or from the outfield are my favorite spots, it was simply too hot on this day to be out in the open. I opted for this shaded spot from which I could clearly see the action in the cage:
When BP wrapped up, I once again returned to the upper deck — this time, to check out Cattails Restaurant, which is found above the first base line. It’s a climate-controlled environment (definitely a plus during my visit) with a sizable food and drink menu, as well as comfortable seating options. Here’s the view of the field from Cattails:
Suite-level restaurants are nothing new at MiLB parks, but it’s rare to see one of this size at a Class-A Advanced facility. Eateries of this nature are far more common at Triple-A parks; Syracuse’s NBT Bank Stadium comes to mind.
Remember how I mentioned that the upper deck at Five County Stadium is steep? Here’s photographic evidence, which I documented after leaving Cattails:
Instead of going back down to the concourse next, I made my way around to third base side, where I took this photo to show the position and size of Cattails:
Next, I headed toward the upper deck seats behind home plate. I not only wanted to photograph the view from this spot, but also grab a seat in the shade for a few minutes. The gates had opened by this point, but there wasn’t a single fan in the upper deck other than me. I found a seat from which I took this photo …
… and then relaxed in the shade for about 30 seconds before a family climbed up the steps to my left and made its way toward me. I asked if I was in the family’s seats; sure enough, I was. What are the odds?
I sheepishly got up and left the area, returning to the concourse and waiting for the players to come out. Soon enough, that’s exactly what happened, and I went down the first base line to the visitors bullpen area. There, I watched Potomac Nationals catcher Alex Dunlap perform some drills with Potomac’s pitching coach:
On my walks around the concourse earlier, I’d been checking out the concession stands to decide what I might want to eat. Much of the fare at Five County Stadium is standard — hot dogs, nachos, burgers, popcorn, and so on. As you know, I like to find something unique as often as I can, and that’s exactly what I encountered at a concession stand on the first base side. This is a catfish po’ boy sandwich, and it was absolutely delicious:
The breading was light and crispy, and didn’t have that old oil taste that is too common at ballparks. The fish was flaky and not too fishy. There was a semi-spicy sauce on the sandwich, but it didn’t overwhelm the taste of the fish. I had been allured not only by something unique to eat, but also the connection to the team name — the Mudcats moniker refers to catfish, so it was exciting to find a catfish dish on the menu. And it was good enough that if I hadn’t been so hot, I’d have been tempted to eat a second one.
Once I’d eaten, I went down to field level on the home side to watch the Mudcats warm up. This was a Copa de la Diversión night, so the home team was playing as the Pescados de Carolina. (This was my second Copa game of the season; you might remember that I saw the El Paso Margaritas in action back in May.) As is always the case with the Copa games, the team wore funky uniforms. Here’s starting pitcher Noah Zavolas in his Pescados jersey:
With the pregame ceremonies beginning, I went to the upper deck and found a spot to watch the exchange of the lineups, the anthem and the top of the first inning:
What a view! And did you notice the water tower beyond left field? So good.
In the first frame, a player on Potomac — I think it was second baseman Cole Freeman — hit a foul ball that soared over the suite level and out of the ballpark. I didn’t think about rushing out to look for it, given that there were still lots of fans trickling into the stadium and I figured there was a very good chance that it would be picked up. After the end of the first, however, curiosity got the better of me and I decided to go take a look for it. I left via the home plate entrance, took just a couple of dozen steps, and there was the ball sitting in an open area of the grass. I was very surprised to see it, especially given that there were fans passing by just a few yards away, but I was happy to grab it to add to my collection:
With the foul ball — the 15th foul ball that I’ve collected over the years, for the record — safely tucked in my backpack, I returned to the ballpark and took a spot down the first base line that offered this view:
I watched about an inning from this spot, and then took a walk through the concourse, visited the team shop and found a spot on the third base side to watch the remainder of the game. The evening was still warm, but the heat of the sun has subsided to some degree, making for a perfect night of baseball in a ballpark that is better than I expected it to be. There are certainly some ballparks that are flashier in North Carolina, but if you’re planning a visit to this state, don’t shy away from leaving yourself a day to go see the Mudcats.