The first time the Biloxi Shuckers saw the ballpark they would call home, they were five days into the 2015 season and sporting hard hats after an April 14 "Meet the Team" event at a Biloxi casino. The next time they saw it, they created a moment Biloxi won't forget.
The Shuckers opened 2015 on the road for 54 straight games as Biloxi tried feverishly to finish the Minor Leagues' newest ballpark. The wait was worth it. When the Double-A club christened its new facility on June 6 against Mobile, they did so in style with a dramatic walk-off win in the 14th inning on the way to a first-half Southern League South Division title. The thriller swept staff and fan voting to earn the 2015 MiLBY nod as Game of the Year.
"I've been managing for 15 years, been doing player development for 17, and that's definitely a moment that you won't forget," Biloxi manager Carlos Subero said.
The Shuckers could have been forgiven if they had let the weight and exhaustion of a two-month road trip hit them once they finally got home, but Biloxi never used that odyssey as an excuse -- a directive from the top.
"Coming out of Spring Training, we said at first with the staff and then translated to the players was not to ever use this moment, this unique moment, as an excuse for performance," Subero said. "I told them, 'As a staff, we don't want to hear -- ever -- that we're not winning ballgames because we are on the road for so many days. The situation is what it is and it's not going to be changed. Why don't we put it on the other side and have a story to tell our grandkids and our kids about how great and how special these two-and-a-half months can be in our lives?'"
What followed was a modern classic. Mobile scored the first run in MGM Park's history in the top of the first inning on an RBI groundout by Rudy Flores and rallied to tie the game in the ninth on Mitch Haniger's run-scoring single to force extra frames. After spending over a third of the season away from home on a late spring Opening Night on the Mississippi Gulf, the happy culmination of the road trip didn't come easily.
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Biloxi radio voice Chris Harris didn't get much sleep during the first two months of his first season in Mississippi. As one member of skeletal staff to put on Shuckers "home" games in cities such as Jacksonville, Pearl and the Biloxi franchise's former home in Huntsville, Harris' work was never done.
The Shuckers operated like a food truck for April and May, attempting put out a quality product in a format on wheels. A Penske truck served as Biloxi's mobile clubhouse, following the team to and from series openers and finales with clubhouse attendants aboard. The Shuckers rarely spent more than a week in the same place, and in addition to his broadcasting duties, Harris managed a six-station Shuckers Radio Network, handled certain travel arrangements and more. MGM Park's first game doesn't stand out to Harris in specifics. It stands out in the overriding emotion it produced.
"For everybody involved, that night is just an absolute blur just because of the leadup, the preparation, the uncertainty," he said. 'I don't even remember a lot of what happened in that game, to be honest with you."
After enduring four scoreless extra frames, the BayBears broke through in the top of the 14th when Haniger drove in another pivotal run with an RBI single. Not even midway into a season in which they'd already seen just about everything, the Shuckers weren't worried.
"When you spend 54 games on the road and come home, and it's your first game ever in Biloxi, they scored that run in inning No. 14 to take the lead, 4-3, and you're thinking, 'Man. This would be a perfect script if we're able to walk it off.'" Subero said.
Paging Francis Ford Coppola.
Biloxi got after Mobile reliever Adam Miller quickly. Top Brewers prospect Orlando Arcia reached on an infield single to second base and moved to third when Nick Ramirez got aboard courtesy of a fielding error by Mobile second baseman Brandon Drury. Subero put his team in motion immediately.
"[Pinch-hitter Parker] Berberet had a safety squeeze -- first and third, a 98 mile-per-hour fastball chest high, and he was able to put it down to tie the ballgame," Subero said.
In order to get more speed on the basepaths after Arcia scored, Subero went to his bench and summoned an unlikely candidate -- relief pitcher Brent Suter who replaced Ramirez as a pinch-runner at second base. Nick Shaw made sure Suter wouldn't be on the basepaths long. Shaw drove a single into right and Suter, despite an exceptionally wide turn around third, raced home with the walk-off run.
"Suter was going right behind me," Subero said. "He's going right behind me and I'm running with him. I didn't know what he was going to do. It's a pitcher running. I'm making sure he scores."
"I just remember pure excitement when that ball was hit," Harris added. "I could've sworn Brent was going to run over Carlos Subero, our manager. He took such a wide turn at third base. … It wasn't really a close play. He scored standing, and it was just chaos."
The Shuckers dugout exploded onto the field, and for the first time, their hometown fans got to join in the celebration.
"Of the 6,000 who were there, there were probably 5,700 who were still there in the 14th inning of a game that's four hours long, which was unbelievable," Harris said. "I've never seen anything like it. These fans had been waiting forever for a baseball team, and of course they had to wait five extra innings, but they get to see a walk-off win like that."
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Subero's team rode its wild first half to a 43-25 record and a division title before the All-Star Break. After the homecoming, the Shuckers fed off the intense passion of their new fan base, rolling to a Southern League Championship Series appearance.
"I think a lot of it had to do with Katrina going through there 10 years ago," Subero said. "Now they've got their little baby. They really felt ownership of their team. I'm eating in Red Lobster and you've got people approaching you, 'Hey, can I have your autograph, Coach?' I'm like, 'What? This is happening in the Minor Leagues?'
"You go to Gulfport, like 15 miles away, you've got people with a Shuckers shirt. You go to Ocean Springs, people with a Shuckers hat. In Biloxi, it was crazy."
"You had fans riding on every single pitch, not only on Opening Night, but for the rest of the year, knowing guys by name," Harris echoed. "[The team] fed off of it. It was a tiring first two-and-a-half months of the year, and they fed off that positive energy. The fans down here kept up with everything [during the road trip]. They knew the team was playing well. When they finally moved in here, they were familiar with the team."
In just a few short months, the Shuckers gave their city a baseball identity; one that was forged on the roads of the Southern League.
"The biggest thing was the team's character," Subero said. "There's no doubt that you cannot do this with every team. We were blessed to have a team that had character. They never looked back."
With a full offseason underway, Harris and the Shuckers staff are anxious to make next year even bigger. Relationships with clients and the community are booming, and no one in Biloxi will forget the one night that made everything seem possible.
"I kind of look at 2015 like it was our soft opening," Harris said. "Now 2016, that'll be our grand opening."