Almost Home

The Buies Creek Astros share Jim Perry Stadium with Campbell University, for now. (via Chris Gigley)

Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C., is the kind of place parents send their kids to keep them out of trouble. The campus is small, tidy and relatively sleepy on the weekends for a college town. It also feels pretty remote.

For at least the next two years, this is where the Houston Astros’ High-A Carolina League affiliate is playing as the Astros, who own the team, await a new ballpark to be built 45 minutes down the road in Fayetteville.

It’s a unique situation for everyone from the players to the front office workers and especially to Buies Creek Astros general manager David Lane. He has the same title with the rookie-level Greeneville Astros—more than 300 miles away in Tennessee.

“It’s been pretty easy so far,” said Lane about a month before Greeneville’s short-season opener. “It’s a five-hour trip back to Tennessee, but I spend most of the time here in Fayetteville. We opened an office downtown, and we’re starting the business from the ground up.”

That’s right. In addition to running two existing minor league baseball clubs, Lane is leading the launch of a third, the team Buies Creek will become when Fayetteville’s new ballpark should be ready. The Astros went all in on Fayetteville, signing a 30-year lease on the new digs back in December.

Like the Buies Creek Astros, Lane is in limbo, having already moved to Fayetteville but still having his old job in Greeneville.

“I’ll go back to Greeneville and make sure they’re doing okay there,” he said. “They send me emails daily. The closer we get to that season, I know I will spend more time there, but it looks like it’ll be a week at a time.”

According to the Fayetteville Observer, Fayetteville city officials want the new yard modeled after Spirit Communications Park, the $37 million home of the Columbia Fireflies, which started play there last summer. That park was designed by the architecture firm Populous, which is also designing Fayetteville’s stadium.

If local fans want to get an idea of what they’re in store for in a couple years, they need only drive a few hours south to South Carolina’s capital. The only differences are the Fayetteville stadium will be a little smaller and have a so-called “rocking chair corner,” which will be both literally and figuratively cool only if it includes shade.

This is what Lane has to work with as he makes his rounds in Fayetteville selling potential sponsors and advertisers on a team that only sort of exists. His lunch schedule, he said, is booked solid. Everyone in town wants to hear about the new team, whatever it may be called.

The Fayetteville team will not be the Astros. Lane said the plan is to have a name-the-team contest at some point this summer to give the community a sense of ownership in it. Then he and his staff will roll out the new identity this November.

“Usually, you wait until the team’s last game with the old identity to do the unveiling,” said Lane. “But with our situation we know it’s at least two years in Buies Creek, and we want to be able to start promoting the new branding in 2018.”

So the strange limbo of the franchise will only get stranger next year, when the small souvenir trailer on the concourse of Campbell’s Jim Perry Stadium will be crowded with the new stuff and Buies Creek Astros gear. Ever the promoter, Lane said fans should snap up the Buies Creek merchandise while they can. Those caps and shirts will be collectors’ items some day.

Judging from a survey of a recent Sunday afternoon crowd at the stadium, fans are buying Astros merchandise for one reason or another. Aside from a few people wearing Mets gear—and they are everywhere, mind you—many fans wore something from the souvenirs stand. There was even a guy in a Jose Altuve jersey (for the record, not available at the Buies Creek souvenir stand).

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The crowd also appeared to be pretty strong for a Sunday afternoon tilt, although the size of Jim Perry Stadium makes crowds look bigger than they are. It has just 630 seats and an overall capacity of about 1,000 people.

“It’s a very small ballpark but very unique,” said Lane. “The whole field is turf and [Campbell] just finished installing a new video board that is up and running now. There are a lot of good things going on here.”

Jim Perry Stadium is definitely a nice ballpark. The home of the Campbell University Fighting Camels is small and pristine, nestled into the east side of campus. Any surface that isn’t brick is washed in the Camels’ black-and-orange color scheme. Even a broad swath of the outfield turf is pained with a giant camel head. It really draws the eye.

There’s virtually nothing else to distract from it, either.

“It’s pure baseball,” said Lane when asked to described the atmosphere. “We have some PA announcements between innings but not a lot. We have one concession stand and don’t sell beer.”

As family-friendly as Minor League Baseball wants its product to be, beer is as much of a ballpark staple as hot dogs and peanuts, which are available in Buies Creek. Lane has had to deal with this issue before. The Greeneville Astros share Pioneer Park with Tusculum College, and it didn’t allow beer, either.

“Tusculum was dry when we started playing there, and we were able to get in with the local government to change that,” said Lane. “Campbell is a Baptist college, and there are strict southern Baptist rules against [alcohol]. When we started talking to them about playing there, they brought it up.”

Since the Astros will be there only through next season, barring construction delays, Lane said he doesn’t plan to push it with Campbell.

There is another significant difference between the Greeneville and Buies Creek affiliates. Tusculum students are gone for summer break when the Greeneville Astros begin play in late June. This year and next, however, Buies Creek players and staff have to deal with Campbell students for the first two months of the season.

Housing is an issue. Lane said several local host families stepped up to take in players, but most of the team is spread out among surrounding towns that are 20 to 25 minutes from the ballpark. The team faces challenges at the ballpark, too.

“Campbell has all the facilities we need, but we had to deal with the volleyball, basketball and baseball teams all still working out,” said Lane. “Scheduling was absolutely crucial, but the head baseball coach was very accommodating.”

None of it seemed to affect any of the Astros players this year. With Campbell finally empty for summer break, Buies Creek currently sits atop its division and likely headed to a first-half title and berth in the Carolina League playoffs.

“These players are pros, and they get it,” said Lane. “They know if they want to move up, they have to tune out distractions and perform on the field.”

Besides, things could have been much, much worse. The Astros could have been the 2016 Hartford Yard Goats, the Colorado Rockies Double-A affiliate that was promised Dunkin Donuts Park would be ready at the start of the season. It didn’t happen. They got the same promise in May, and that didn’t happen, either. The Goats finally got word in June that they wouldn’t be moving in until this year.

The Goats spent the entire season on the road, playing most of their “home” games at the stadiums of their Eastern League foes.

The Scranton-Wilkes Barre Railriders spent all of 2012 on the road, although they knew PNC Field would be under renovation for the entire season. Then there were the Danville 97s, the team named after a locomotive made famous by a train wreck in 1903. The derailment was so bad it inspired a whole string of semi-famous ballads.

In 1998, the High-A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves played its home games in Danville as the 97s, which was and still is home to the organization’s rookie ball club, the Braves. Legion Field opened in 1993 and seats about 2,500 fans. With the field pressed against a steep hillside and set on a shelf above the Dan River, Legion isn’t what anyone would call spacious.

The Durham Bulls ownership was undaunted. It needed a temporary place for the High-A team it swapped for the Triple-A franchise, and it picked Danville for its close proximity to Durham relative to other Braves affiliates.

Chaos ensued.

Current Danville Braves general manager Dave Cross worked in the Richmond Braves front office at the time, but that season was so legendary among the staff who went through it that he heard plenty of stories.

“I know there were well over 100 games played here that summer,” said Cross. “I also know that over the last 30 days of the season, there was at least one game a day here. Some days there were two.”

It’s no surprise that everyone from that Danville front office is gone. Sheer exhaustion from 1998 probably compelled them to try new careers.

“I just can’t imagine going through that,” said Cross. “They hardly had any days off for three to four months. And with the hours we put in, we need those days off.”

The situation wasn’t much better for the players. Not only did the practice schedules often overlap, team officials also had to add a row of temporary lockers to the already cozy clubhouse to accommodate both teams. Some days, players were better off going to the adjacent park just to get some room to breathe.

“We can have up to 35 players here on the rookie-ball team, and if you add another 25 from the high-A roster, that’s 60 people packed into that clubhouse,” said Cross. “I’m sure tempers flared, but somehow they made it work.”

And by making it work, Cross means they simply lived through it to tell the tale. On the field and at the gate, the 97s were, ahem, a train wreck. Their 58-82 record was worst in the Carolina League that season. So was their overall attendance of 74,737. According to Baseball-Reference, that mark was nearly 40,000 fewer fans than any other team in the league.

Buies Creek is on pace to post similar numbers at the gate, albeit mostly due to the size of Jim Perry Stadium. Through its first 10 home games, the ballpark has welcomed an average of just 678 fans a game, more than 1,000 fewer than the next-lowest average.

Lane, however, is an optimist, which is probably why the Astros gave him the job on top of his other one.

“There’s not a lot of marketing that went into this team,” he admitted. “It was all grassroots and social media and putting pocket schedules out in the area. Plenty of people from Fayetteville know this is their team. Several people in town have season tickets, so that’s promising for our operation here as we move forward.”

But Lane isn’t mailing it in at Buies Creek. He and his team run a good show at Campbell, and the fact that people from Fayetteville are regularly driving down for games shows they appreciate his work there.

As for the soon-to-be collectors’ items at the souvenir stand, Lane said you better get down to Buies Creek fast. Like the team, the caps and t-shirts won’t be there for long.

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Chris Gigley is a freelance writer who has written for a number of Major League team publications, as well as Baseball America and ESPN the Magazine. Follow him on Instagram @cgigley and Twitter @cgigley.
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