To the astute observer, minor league baseball is not what it used to be. It used to be cheap tickets, small concession booths, copious ads on the outfield walls and the echoes of announcements from the press box. It was never supposed to feel cutting edge or modern — that is what the Major Leagues were for.
However, as each new minor league ballpark is constructed across the nation, it furthers itself from the smaller and older ballparks that used to be the norm across the numerous leagues. Small cities and even smaller stadiums have become obsolete.
The adventure has now become the distraction.
In Wilson, N.C., the only distraction may be waiting in line for your ticket at a single-man ticket booth or finding the right spot on the grass lot to park just far enough from a foul ball. For you see, Fleming Stadium is a true original that has been kedged in this town since 1939. And as it reaches its 75th anniversary, the place looks pristine enough to be here upon her centennial in 2039.
The Wilson Tobs of the Coastal Plain League have been calling Fleming Stadium home since the league’s inception in 1997 and have been paying homage to the city’s baseball past. The college wood bat league team dons the black and gold tobacco leaf on their caps and pays respects to former players from Jack McKeon, Rod Carew and Justin Verlander around the concourse. If you wanted more baseball nostalgia, the North Carolina Hall of Fame is conveniently located on the left field side of the ballpark, but just remember that there is no parking inside the stadium from 7 am to 6 pm.
The 3,000 seat covered grandstand served as home to minor league baseball in the old Class D Coastal Plain and Carolina Leagues for 28 seasons between 1939 and 1973 before becoming vacant until the current edition of the Tobs arrived in 1997. The ballpark is the original structure and looks sound enough to be among the elite of today’s Carolina, NY-Penn or Appalachian League cities, but what is lost on the minor leagues, is a welcome discovery to collegiate wood bat leagues.
Gregory Suire behaves more like a politician on the campaign trail collecting votes than a team owner, but his vigorous display of hospitality does not go undetected. He is an avid baseball fan, who fondly remembers the minor leagues the same way as anyone over the age of 40-years-old. He is quick to pose for a picture, ask a question or search the team offices for a larger shirt size for a customer.
“This is what the minor leagues used to be like twenty-years-ago,” Suire said with admiration. “There may be fancier ballparks in the state, but a beer will only cost you three bucks here”
In fact, the beer will cost you only half of that on Thursday nights in the beer garden located on the right field line. This is where the patrons of the stadium linger, and with nine beers on taps, there are not too many other ballparks of this size offering more options.
The Tobs have been hovering around 1,500 fans a night this season and will also host this year’s CPL All-Star Game. Nevertheless, the old stadium can be somewhat stubborn as in a recent game the scoreboard went dark for a couple of innings. Blame it on Gremlins or bad wiring, the scene was omnipresent to the likes of the lower minor leagues.
Suire would like to make a few more changes to the ballpark by replacing the fencing around the stadium in favor of built-in concession walls and would like to expand the hall of fame into the 3rd base concourse. For now, he relies on a small concession window behind the back stop, a table of impressive array of shirts and caps and two local entrepreneurs who sell deep fried pickles, Honey Buns and Oreo cookies for three dollars a serving.
The minor leagues have change in copious ways, but there are enough older facilities that keep the atmosphere at the ballpark very much the same as in the past. To many of us, it is a friendly reminder, a trip back in time or simply comfort food for our mind. The ambiance inside Fleming Stadium should be a welcoming site for any ballpark visitor, regardless of what decade or century they are living in.
Marc Viquez is a contributing author for Ballpark Business (www.ballparkbiz.com). A fan of baseball for most of his life, Marc has been traveling around the country writing about minor league baseball since 2001 for various websites and print publications. When he is not searching down a ballpark, he can be found teaching middle school in Indianapolis, Indiana.