10 Years at Smokies Park
As the sun began to set on the Knoxville Smokies' 1999 season and a 44-year marriage between the Smokies and Bill Meyer Stadium, then-Clubhouse Manager Bryan Webster could only laugh as he reflected on his first few days at the ol' ballpark in downtown Knoxville.
"I recalled by first "desk" at the old stadium," Webster says. "It consisted of a small portion of counter space in the ticket office. I had one file box with my name on it and that was it. Those were some rough times."
Assistant General Manager Jeff Shoaf, who is entered his 15th year in the Smokies front office in 2009, also recalled some of the very best Bill Meyer Stadium had to offer.
"When I came on-board in 1995 we had to get an office trailer and place it in the entranceway. Brian's (Cox) office was basically a hallway and our radio guy's office was in the safe," Shoaf recalled. "I was the only staff member to have a window, so I got to see KPD (Knoxville Police Department) bust quite a few people on the streets."
Fast forward to 2009. Gone were the days of dirt lots, bleacher seating and the "Bill Meyer smell", as Webster puts it. The first nine seasons at Smokies Park were a renaissance of sorts for the Tennessee Smokies organization. A tremendous sense of pride was seen and felt by those who opened up the ballpark gates for the first time on April 20, 2000. Smokies General Manager Brian Cox, Assistant General Manager Jeff Shoaf, Director of Stadium Operations Bryan Webster, Director of Community Relations Lauren Chesney and Director of Stadium Maintenance Doug Ballard were on-hand to witness the transition first-hand, and are still here to tell all.
So how did the team get to its 10th season at Smokies Park. It all started back in the mid-'90s. Following a banner year for attendance in 1993, when over 147,000 Smokies fans came to see a star-studded home roster consisting of Carlos Delgado and Shawn Green, among others, attendance figures began to dwindle. When Don Beaver purchased the team before the 1994 season, the rumblings began about the need for a new stadium.
"We started thinking about a new stadium in Knoxville right after Don Beaver took over ownership of the team in 1994. The work that was put in on dozens of sites and proposals was astronomical. We spent five years looking for a new home because Bill Meyer Stadium had outlived its usefulness as a Double-A facility. We had so many electrical and structural issues at Bill Meyer, along with not having enough parking or clear access from a main street. It was definitely time."
As the '90s progressed, the stadium situation at Bill Meyer Stadium did not. It was becoming more and more apparent that the stadium conditions were worsening at a drastic rate. "Bill Meyer Stadium was a great place to watch a ballgame from a fan's perspective, but from an operational standpoint it was a struggle," recalls Shoaf. "We had five or six power delays during the '99 season due to the stadium not being configured when built for popcorn poppers, computers, scoreboards...stuff like that. Some of the field lights would go out and we would have to wait 20-30 minutes for them to come back on. It was rough."
A bevy of locations were considered for a new stadium, including a location where the Knoxville Convention Center now sits, and a few in West Knoxville. After exhausting all options though to keep the team in Knoxville, it would be the City of Sevierville that would step up to the plate and approve a brand new, state-of-the-art facility in 1999. The $19.4 million price tag would ensure the new stadium came complete with all the bells and whistles, including some much needed desk space in the new front office.
"I had only worked at Bill Meyer with the team for two days before making the move to the new stadium," says Director of Community Relations, Lauren Chesney. "Looking back at those two days I realized how precious a desk with a phone was. Anytime I would leave my "spot" at the old stadium to deliver a message, it would always be taken when I came back. It was much better once we made the move."
Leading up to Opening Night 2000 on April 20, the Smokies had a lot of work to do. The early months of the new millennium meant long days and even longer nights for the Smokies front office staff, which grew tremendously to prepare for the historic season. Staff members worked their usual hours in getting ready for the season, and spent nights getting used to the words "Ryder" and "U-Haul." The team only made the move to the new stadium less than a week before the opener.
"Our days never ended when they normally would for any other season," Webster states. "At about 6:00 p.m. every night we would start loading the U-Haul truck and run back and forth between the stadiums. And it wasn't like we were only trying to fit a ton of stuff into already-completed storage rooms. Parts of the stadium we still incomplete, which meant we would move things into one part of the stadium first, then to another area later. Heck, our ticket director's first office wasn't in the ticket office, but in the visiting clubhouse manager's office."
All the hard work and preparation finally paid off though for the Smokies as the team took the field for the first time on April 20, 2000. Anyone who's an alumna of a minor league baseball front office usually remembers each season's Opening Night. But this one was special.
Cox recalls, "After working toward a new stadium for over six years and to finally see it carried through was the highlight of my baseball career. Most people thought this team would never stay in East Tennessee with us having such a tough time in Knoxville getting a stadium built."
The night was a success for the home team, as the Smokies downed the Chattanooga Lookouts, 10-7. But it didn't look very rosy early on for the new tenants.
"I remember the leadoff hitter for Chattanooga was Gookie Dawkins," says Shoaf. "After the first pitch, our (Smokies) catcher Brian Loyd tossed me the ball so we could keep it for prosperity sake. Gookie then drilled the second pitch over the left-field wall for a home run."
It was also a success for the team at the gates, as attendance more than doubled from the final year at Bill Meyer Stadium, from 119,571 to 256,149 fans. The next three years saw increases as well, with an all-time high set in 2002 of over 268,000 guests. And the 2004 season provided the Smokies with its first-ever Southern League championship at Smokies Park (they split the title with Mobile after Hurricane Ivan prevented the two teams from meeting in the league championship series).
The first nine seasons at Smokies Park are memorable for this Smokies quintet. While all of them seemed to be in a bit of disbelief that it was 10 seasons since moving to the new ballpark, each of them had a unique take on their own experience.
"We have been very lucky to have seen so much baseball talent come through East Tennessee," Shoaf mentions. "Since being here as well, it's amazing to have seen all the changes outside the ballpark. I look at the entire Exit 407 area and am amazed at all the building that has taken place. When the stadium was built, we were it. That's not the case anymore."
Webster agrees about the players. "The number of great players who've been through here has been amazing. (Michael) Young, (Roy) Halladay, (Orlando) Hudson, (Chris) Carpenter...you could make an All-Star team. And not just former Smokies. (John) Smoltz, (Jake) Peavy, (Dontrelle) Willis, (Miguel) Cabrera...it's pretty awesome!"
The ballpark experience and fan interaction are two things that Chesney has taken away the most from the past nine seasons at Smokies Park. "Working for the Smokies in the new ballpark has been a great experience," she says. "We have all said it at some point...we get to come work in a ballpark every day! And it's always fun in April when the season starts to see new faces, and those I've come to treasure over the years."
While the Smokies' tenure at Smokies Park accounts for less than one-tenth of the team's history in the East Tennessee region, the first 10 years at Smokies Park have had a tremendous impact on the region, those players who have passed through Exit 407 and those in the front office who have "lived the dream." The vision set almost 15 years ago by Beaver and the Smokies has been realized by millions (almost 2.5 million to be exact), an experience that brings families and friends together. One that promotes fun and good times, while bringing fans one great entertainment value.
And one, of course, that just so happens to showcase a little baseball!