For a concentrated dose of true ballpark antiquity, it'd be hard to top the South Atlantic League's most venerable duo: Asheville's McCormick Field and Savannah's Grayson Stadium.
I took in a game at 89-year-old McCormick on a recent Saturday night, entering the field via zip line prior to watching the hometown Tourists -- a paradox if there ever was one -- slug their way to a 12-4 victory over Kannapolis. The following morning I got up bright and early (by the standards of a baseball writer, at least) and drove five hours southeast to Savannah. The mountainous environment of Asheville was now long gone; in its place the oppressive heat and sleepy, palmetto-strewn ambiance that can only be found in the Deep South.
Grayson Stadium, located on the grounds of a public park, is the home of the Sand Gnats (the Class A affiliate of the New York Mets). It was built in 1926, just two years after McCormick Field, and as such is the third-oldest ballpark in Minor League Baseball (Vermont's Centennial Field, home of the Lake Monsters, is the most aged). The ballgame I attended was a Mother's Day matinee, and the holiday only exacerbated the team's longstanding Sunday difficulties.
"Savannah's a church-going town," I was told more than once, and apparently these spiritual obligations extend far enough into the afternoon to preclude Minor League Baseball attendance. That made for a better atmosphere for me, however, leading to hours of unimpeded wandering as well as ample opportunity to ask questions of front-office staffers who might otherwise have been preoccupied. What follows are a few of my observations and experiences, with more to follow later in the week on Ben's Biz Blog.
Works (in) Progress Administration: A devastating hurricane ripped through Savannah in 1940, virtually leveling the ballpark that was then known by the no-frills moniker of Municipal Stadium. General William Grayson, a veteran of the Spanish-American War, soon spearheaded a fundraising effort to rebuild the facility. His initiative, combined with a crucial assist from the federally bankrolled Works Progress Administration, resulted in the necessary funds, and the stadium was soon named in his honor.
Grayson's efforts were crucial, but the rebuilding wasn't entirely completed when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. The construction workers rushed to enlist in the armed forces, leaving behind a jagged brick wall on the third base side of the stadium. This wall was finally completed during a round of renovations that came within the last decade in the wake of an ownership change. The "completion" of the wall ended its long run as an impromptu tribute to America's commitment to defending itself in the wake of Pearl Harbor.
This was all explained to me by Sand Gnats director of sales Jonathan Mercier, and as he was speaking I received yet another reminder that Southern baseball atmosphere is distinctly different than what I've become accustomed to in the Northeast: a small green lizard scampered across the brick wall, before disappearing into the ample flora surrounding it.
Unwanted guests: Lizards aren't the only living things adding to Grayson's Stadium distinct ambiance, which is to say the team is named Sand Gnats for a reason. These buzzing nuisances are ballpark mainstays, known for inundating the Savannah faithful on hot, muggy nights. To combat these intruders, the team has installed giant fans that hang from the covered grandstand.
"The fans really do keep the sand gnats away," said Mercier.
Hopefully the same statement isn't applicable when it comes to the relationship between the team's supporters and players.
Want S'more? Like most older stadiums, Grayson has limited concession space and points of sale in general. But the team has still found ways to expand its offerings beyond hot dogs and (this being Georgia) boiled peanuts. Perhaps most impressive is the S'more Panini.
"It's Italian Panini bread with Nutella, marshmallow fluff, crushed up graham crackers and powdered sugar," explained food and beverage intern Hank Garcia. "Then, after it's warmed up in a Panini press, chocolate syrup is added on top."
But Garcia was there to do more than explain this creation. Since my gluten-free diet prohibited me from consuming this dessert delicacy, he was there to do so on my behalf as a "designated eater."
"It's delicious, but you'll go into a food coma if you have too much. It's very, very rich," he said. "I'm not worried about losing my figure, though, since 80 percent of my job involves moving kegs around."