FIVE COUNTY STADIUM/ ZEBULONIt was somewhere around the seventh inning when the Carolina Mudcats mascot removed his head. To be clear, he did not publicly decapitate himself at Five County Stadium, as that would likely have sent children into relentless crying fits or have traumatized them into a permanent, stony silence. But in the privacy of the press box, populated only by peanut-popping reporters, Muddy the Mudcat could openly take off the upper part of his costume, maxillary barbels and all.

Aside from the sad realization that Muddy is not really a fish, Monday night was a beautiful night for baseball. Towering pink storm clouds had scuttled away from Zebulon toward the coast. The air was crisp and clean and carried the scent of hot dogs to the upper decks. It was the first home game of the season, which makes spring official and summer almost within reach.

So given the near-perfect circumstances, the Mudcats’ 12-3 rout of the Huntsville Stars seemed not only obligatory but cathartic:

The ‘Cats lost four straight to Mobile on the road-twice in lopsided scores-denting their respectable 3-2 start to the season.

But on Monday, the ‘Cats seemed to put their mid-April slump behind them, pounding Huntsville, the Double-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers, for 11 hits, including homers by Sean Henry and Juan Francisco, who also struck out three times. (It’s feast or famine with him.) First baseman Logan Parker had three RBIs and even starting pitcher Dallas Buck scored after reaching first base on a Huntsville error.

Buck was the ‘Cats go-to guy three weeks ago on opening day of the season, and in Monday night’s start, stymied the Stars over five innings. The former Oregon State standout faced no more than four batters each inning except for the third, when Buck gave up one run. He emerged relatively unscathed, thanks to a double play, one of five the ‘Cats turned, tying a franchise record.

A couple of sportswriters made the two-hour hike down from South Boston, Va., to see the Stars’ Jeremy Jeffress, a former star out of Halifax County (Va.) High School, near the North Carolina border, and the Brewers’ first-round draft pick in 2007. While he has a fierce fastball-98 mph if you trust the radar gun, 93 if you know the gun needs tuning-he occasionally struggles with control. Wide, tight, up, down: Jeffress couldn’t consistently find the pocket. To be fair, he had no earned runs despite the fact that the Mudcats’ appeared to be taking batting practice against him. Jeffress was hampered by his infield, as porous as cheesecloth, with the shortstop and third baseman each committing two errors.

This was my first Mudcats game at Five County Stadium, and the vibe and overall ballgame experience is much different-although neither better nor worse-than that at DBAP and with the Durham Bulls.

Plunked down in the middle of the city, the DBAP, of course, is louder and less laid-back. The skyline, including the jail, the Lucky Strike tower and the swanky Durham Performing Arts Center, is undoubtedly urban. The structure of the DBAP itself shields the public from the parks’ inner workings-the walled concourses funnel visitors to the food courts but you see little else, and unless you have the right ticket stub or become an umpire, you’re never going to have a view from behind home plate.

At Five County Stadium, the atmosphere is that of a picnic with 2,000 of your closest relatives. It’s a very populist setup. There are a few rows of seats behind home plate, but there are also dining tables and an open area behind them. Here, anyone can pause to watch the ball zoom toward the plate and tail away like a meteor.

In general, with the exception of Jimmy Buffett, Five County Stadium has better music than DBAP. (And except for a sack race-again, think picnic-there was no inter-inning “entertainment.”) I enjoyed the opening riffs of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio,” with its electric guitar as crunchy as dirt under your cleats. (However, admittedly one might question the wisdom of featuring a song about the National Guard massacring protesters at Kent State as a way to fire up the crowd.)

Five County Stadium, while officially in the Zebulon city limits, lies in the middle of nowhere. From the upper decks, you could see the countryside, although the tree line was illuminated by a nearby office park. A few semi trucks trundled down Highway 39, and as they turned west toward Raleigh, their tail-lights faded like dying stars.

The box score is here.