By Stan Cole
BUIES CREEK, N.C. -- When Akeem Bostick threw the first pitch Thursday night at Jim Perry Stadium, it marked a culmination of a six-month process to bring professional baseball to the Campbell University campus.
The Buies Creek Astros met the Winston-Salem Dash to open the 2017 Carolina League (Class A) season and begin a two-year run for Houston's High-A farm team in Harnett County.
Last November, Astros President of Business Operations Reid Ryan announced that Buies Creek would be the temporary home for the team's Carolina League affiliate while a new stadium was being built in Fayetteville.
The fact that a Division I school with an on-campus undergraduate enrollment of about 3000 could host a full-season minor league franchise while also taking care of 21 varsity sports is a feat in of itself.
"When the president and two senior vice presidents of the Houston Astros come to your campus and not only deem your facilities over and above what they need, and they also have full confidence in signing off for you to run it, that's as good a compliment you can get," said Campbell Associate A.D. for External Affairs Ricky Ray, who has been the local point man for the operation. "That's a credit to (A.D.) Bob (Roller). He knew we had enough staff here, and a good enough staff, to handle this."
Once the announcement became official that Buies Creek and Campbell University would indeed serve as host to the Astros' Carolina League affiliate, Ray was able to call on nearly a decade of experience in minor league ball to help prepare for the April 6 opener.
Ray was quick to point out that the improvements made to the Campbell facilities since Roller took over as A.D. in 2011 were what first drew the Astros to Harnett County. Not only was Jim Perry Stadium dedicated in 2013, but the Jim and Daphne Perry Pavilion was also completed in time for Thursday's opener. In addition, the proximity of the John W. Pope Jr. Convocation Center, with its expansive weight room and locker room facilities that the Astros were able to access made the location desirable.
Campbell University fans were introduced to the Astros logo at a Nov. 18 press conference at Jim Perry Stadium. Buies Creek Astros merchandise first became available at two Campbell basketball games just before Christmas, and the entire first shipment of caps, t-shirts and hoodies sold out.
A new artificial turf surface was installed at Jim Perry Stadium in time for Campbell's season opener in February by ProGrass Turf. With a two-inch pile height and three different infill mixtures, the playing surface replicates a natural baseball field's look and playability.
While the Astros gathered in Florida for Spring Training, Campbell's athletics program was in full swing with both basketball teams advancing to post-season play, and members of the wrestling and indoor track and field programs earning All-America honors.
All the while, preparations continued in Buies Creek for the arrival of the Astros minor leagues in the first week of May. Players, coaches and support staff members moved into apartments or townhomes in the Buies Creek and surrounding areas, while uniforms, bats and gear were delivered to the Pope Convocation Center on campus.
"Some of the marketing folks from Radford came down just to visit and pick our brains about marketing, broadcasting, that kind of thing," said Ray. "I was explaining to them basically what we were doing (with the Buies Creek Astros). And they basically looked at me like I had four heads, because they couldn't believe how we find time for that."
Campbell's ticketing, marketing and operations staff handled much of the load to prepare for the season opener, while also seamlessly handling the overlap of basketball, wrestling, baseball, softball and lacrosse home events.
"We're staffed well enough that we're not missing a beat," said Ray. "Attendance is up at everything. The spring (football) game Saturday is going to be great. Everything's taking care of itself while we're doing this."
For someone who has fond memories of growing up as a fan of his hometown Carolina Mudcats, Ray is excited about playing a part in bringing minor league baseball to Buies Creek, even if it is only for two seasons.
"I'm happy this benefitted our baseball team at Campbell," said Ray. "I'm thrilled that our team gets to be around their guys and see how they go about their business. I'm thrilled the folks in the area have something to do this summer. I'm thrilled they're on our campus. The more you're on our campus; the better it is for everybody."
The fact that some players who compete in 2017 and 2018 at Jim Perry Stadium will likely one day appear in the Major League All-Star Game and perhaps be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame is an added bonus.