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03/23/2006 7:38 AM ET
Stadiums mix, match for fan appeal
Traditional charm, new amenities raise interest in Southern League parks
Fans can lounge around and watch from the berm at Jacksonville's Baseball Grounds. (Jacksonville Suns)

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The Southern League mixes and matches novel concepts with traditional displays to appeal to fans across five states.

Florida's lone contribution is the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville. In fact, Suns general manager Kirk Goodman enjoys the fact that the stadium is the first to use the "Grounds" moniker since the famed New York Giants' Polo Grounds.

Other distinctions Goodman points out: At 420 feet, the stadium boasts the longest center field in the league, one of the largest roofs in all of Minor League Baseball, a Rookie Card statue beyond the center-field wall, dual batting tunnels by the home clubhouse and a five-camera replay and closed circuit system.

Suns owner Peter Bragan Sr. has the best seats in the house -- a leather sofa on the main concourse. A large bell stands next to the couch, ready to be tolled for a home run. On July 4, fans will help pay tribute to Bragan on his 83rd birthday.

Baseball isn't the only experience fans can have at the ballpark. "They have a knuckle outside left field," Southern League intern Lauren Thigpen said. "It is a small mound where kids can play king of the mountain, etc. There is a putting green in the stadium."

Additionally, the Grounds are part of a sports complex that includes Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena and Alltel Stadium (home of the Jaguars). The area played host to fan activities during Super Bowl XXXIX. St. Andrews Church, which doubles as the Jacksonville Historical Society, also borders the northwest corner of the ballpark lot.

Chattanooga developed a unique way of marking the long ball, namely a choo-choo that chugs, blows smoke and circles BellSouth Park's outfield wall after every blast by the Lookouts.

A special area known as "Jeep Seats" enables fans to sit in a Jeep Wrangler -- of course with air conditioning -- to watch the game. And the park's perch on top of the hill offers scenic views of downtown Chattanooga and the Tennessee River.

Speaking of location, Montgomery boasts one of the most unique spots in all of baseball. "The stadium was built into a former train depot that was also a Confederate prison during the Civil War," Thigpen said.

Hank Aaron Stadium isn't a hard sell for the Mobile BayBears. Named after Mobile's own Hall of Famer, his presence is felt the minute you drive up to the stadium, Thigpen said. A silhouette of Aaron and monuments for all five Mobile representatives in the Hall mark the way to the stadium.

The BayBears are distinguished inside the ballpark as well. Theirs were the first stadium in the country with field-level suites. Their next project: a driving range.

If you've already been to Birmingham to see the Barons, you'll be needing another trip that way. Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, which opened in 1988, is undergoing the first renovations in its history. Among the upgrades are photo-screened murals brightening up the walls of the main concourse.

"They're images of former players and some team photos, too," said Jeff Duggan, the Barons' director of media relations. "Most of the photos are of the Birmingham Barons, but some of them feature the (former Negro League team) Birmingham Black Barons."

Duggan and Thigpen also enjoy the non-baseball events that take place at the Hoover Met. Among the primary attractions, perennial national prep powerhouse Hoover High School's home football games, pro beach volleyball and high-stepping marching band competitions.

"Owned by the city of Hoover, Ala., (it's) used for a variety of different events throughout the year," Thigpen said. "The stadium is completely turned over into a high school football stadium every home game during football season."

Attending a Tennessee game at Smokies Park is akin to camping out. From the grass berm extending from one foul pole to the other to the 360-degree concourse to the KOA Campground just over the wall, there's a natural feel about the stadium, Thigpen said. The Great Smoky Mountain Visitor Center located on stadium grounds services more than 350,000 people a year -- with good reason, since that parkway exit is considered the Gateway to the Smokies.

The Braves' Trustmark Park tosses in as many amenities as possible, Mississippi PR manager Nicholas Skinner says. The stadium also has a 360-degree concourse, a full-service restaurant called the Cellular South Café open year-round, a 16-foot-by-21-foot Daktronics video scoreboard, two party decks, a picnic pavilion that can accommodate 300 people and a Family Fun Zone (complete with inflatable slide, speed pitch and other interactive games) in the outfield.

Visiting Huntsville's Joe W. Davis Stadium will have you seeing Stars and stars, Thigpen said. "The outfield television displays are in the shape of stars." The park itself was named after Joe W. Davis, who served as the city's mayor for two decades (1968-1988).

Meanwhile, the Diamond Jaxx's Pringles Park leaves batters seeing little birdies. "In its eight-year history, only three players have ever hit .300 or better for a season," Thigpen said.

Don't want to miss out on the great food when you hit Southern League ballparks. Among the prime attractions are fried bologna sandwiches in West Tenn and the full-service restaurant Cattails on the first-base side of the Carolina's Five County Stadium concourse.

Paige Schector is a staff writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.