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K-Tribe to leave Kinston after 2011 season

By sstorm Published: December 16, 2010

The Kinston Indians, the Cleveland Indians high Class-A affiliate since 1987, have just one more season together.

According to a Kinston Free Press story that ran in Thursday's papaer, one of the longest affiliations in minor league baseball will be over following the 2011 season.

Please find below staff writer David Hall's well-reported story:

Indians sold, moving to Zebulon
Deal part of three-city baseball shuffle
December 16, 2010 7:00 AM

David Hall, Staff Writer

KINSTON - The end of an era is upon the city of Kinston. The Kinston Indians — in their current form — will soon be no more.

The team has been sold and will move to Zebulon after the 2011 season, team chairman Cam McRae confirmed Wednesday. Terms of the transaction were not disclosed.

The sale is among deals involving three cities that send the Double-A Carolina Mudcats to Pensacola, Fla., and leave Kinston, a city whose professional baseball history dates back to the early 20th century, in search of a new franchise.

The Indians will operate normally under their current management for the 2011 season before the moves take place.

McRae, a general partner among the Indians’ nearly 70-member ownership group, cited “fiduciary responsibility” to the investors and a unique set of circumstances among the three cities as the factors that made the timing right to sell. He said he has already begun the process of trying to land a major league affiliate to replace the Indians in time for the 2012 season.

“We’re not out of the baseball business here,” McRae, a successful entrepreneur, said in his downtown office. “And if somebody’s got a predisposition about that, they shouldn’t, in my opinion.”

The Indians, who have been the high Class-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians since 1987 and under the same ownership since 1994, will announce the sale today.

The Pensacola club will compete in the Double-A Southern League, while the Mudcats will take Kinston’s spot in the Carolina League.

McRae, a passionate baseball fan who has helped keep the team in the city despite limited financial returns, said the decision to sell was tough.

“It’s an emotional thing for me,” he said. “But I have to take a deep breath, too. This is a great place, but nature runs its course here, I think. Now I have new challenges. I’ve got a new mission here to get out here and keep the ball rolling. And we have time. I think we have ample time here.

“I hope that people look at it as the cup’s half-full — more than half-full — rather than half-empty.”

While the move is sure to send shockwaves through Kinston’s tight-knit baseball community, it is hardly unusual.

Teams routinely change affiliations; the Lynchburg, Va., Carolina League club, for example, will be on its third affiliation in three seasons in 2011. Kinston’s relationship with the Cleveland Indians was one of the longest in all of minor league baseball.

The Indians have been in the Carolina League for a total of 49 years, and consecutively since 1978. Their long relationship with the parent club was mutually beneficial.

“We’ve had a great run over the past 25 years,” Cleveland Indians vice president for player development Ross Atkins said in a statement. “We’ve had a great relationship with Kinston.”

The wheels for the transaction were set in motion sometime around early October, McRae said, when Mudcats owner Steve Bryant called him to inquire about buying the Indians.

The Mudcats were being sold to Florida businessman Quint Studer, who owns a team in an independent league in Pensacola, opening the Mudcats’ 6,500-seat Five County Stadium for a new team.

The Pensacola News Journal reported last week that Studer was closing in on the purchase of a Double-A franchise, and sources with knowledge of the situation told The Free Press the Indians might be involved.

McRae confirmed the details in an exclusive interview, insisting that there was “not a for-sale sign” on the franchise and adding that the sale gives him an opportunity to restructure ownership of a potential new team.

McRae said he spent much of his time at baseball’s recent Winter Meetings in discussions, “most of which, quite frankly, dealt more with the future of baseball, and not so much this transaction. So more news at 11 on that.”

The Indians lease 61-year-old Grainger Stadium from the City of Kinston. City Manager Scott Stevens said he plans to help McRae secure a team for the 2012 season.

“Baseball is part of what makes Kinston a great place to live,” Stevens said. “We’ll do everything we can to keep baseball being played in Grainger Stadium.”

McRae, 61, partnered with former K-Tribe general manager North Johnson to lead the group of investors that acquired the Indians in 1994. Johnson, now the GM of the Atlanta Braves’ Triple-A affiliate in Gwinnett, Ga., remains a general partner with the K-Tribe.

He said movement is necessary for growth in baseball.

"You can understand why the ownership group in Zebulon found the Kinston franchise attractive,” Johnson said. “The Indians have done a great job in Kinston, and they became attractive to another market.”

Kinston is the smallest market in the nation with an affiliated baseball team. Over the past five seasons, the Indians have averaged 115,933 fans per season. They routinely finish at the bottom of the eight-team Carolina League in attendance.

McRae said he and Johnson were “pretty ambitious” when they originally acquired the franchise.

“We thought that we were going to get the attendance up over a couple hundred thousand and just have a little smidge of a reasonable return so somebody could pay taxes and this and that,” McRae said. “It never happened. But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to give up trying to make that happen.”

David Hall can be reached at (252) 559-1086 or at dhall@freedomenc.com.

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