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Bragan enjoying 'last dance' in Jacksonville

Longtime Suns owner plans museum, foundation after final season
May 22, 2015

Peter "Pedro" Bragan is sitting in front of his impossibly cluttered desk, which is jammed into the back right corner of his impossibly cluttered office. Maybe "office" isn't the word for it; it's more like a ramshackle baseball memorabilia museum within which he happens to do his work. He's wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of the Jacksonville Suns, a team that has become synonymous with the Bragan name.

2015 will mark Pedro's 31st and final season with the Suns, who were bought by his late father, Peter Bragan Sr., prior to the 1985 campaign. This past March, it was announced that Pedro had agreed to sell the Double-A Southern League franchise to Ken Babby. (Babby, 35, made his initial venture into Minor League Baseball in 2013, when he bought the Akron Aeros and remade them into the RubberDucks.)

There was one caveat to the deal, however: Pedro would remain at the head of the operation in 2015, handing the reigns to Babby only after he has enjoyed one final season as the Suns' boss.

This is Pedro's last dance.

Owning the Jacksonville Suns is all well and good, but it wasn't supposed to be like this.

"I was gonna be the left-handed first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals," said Bragan, his voice a thick southern drawl. "Stan Musial was my hero. And I played college ball. Junior college for two years, then went to South Alabama on a scholarship and played for Eddie Stanky. As the left-handers got tougher, my numbers went down. Big right-handed boys who could throw hard? I could knock the hell out of 'em."

Bragan's baseball aspirations weren't as far-fetched as they might seem, as four of his uncles -- Bobby, Jimmy, Frank and Lionel Bragan -- played professionally. Bobby made the biggest name for himself in the baseball world, playing and managing in the Major Leagues before going on to become the president of the Texas League.

Pedro took the long route to the baseball life. In his early 30s, when he was "divorced, out too late at night and running wild," he moved to Birmingham to work at his father's car dealership. Shortly thereafter, however, Peter Sr. sold the business. He was 60, had some money in the bank and wasn't quite ready to retire.

"Jimmy [Bragan] took us to lunch one day and said, 'You know, you ought to buy one of these baseball teams.' And once Jimmy said that, Daddy really got to thinking about it," said Bragan. "We went and looked at Chattanooga a few months later -- that's when [the Lookouts] were in Engel Park. It was so rundown, and downtown was all boarded up. So we passed on that and then [previous Suns owner] Mr. [Lou] Eliopulos had a heart attack back in the fall of '83. We came down the spring of '84 and made a handshake agreement, kind of like I did with Ken Babby, to close in September. Then we took over that fall."

When the Bragans assumed ownership of the team, the Suns were playing at Wolfson Park. Built in 1955, its best days were already in the rear view.

"Those first couple years at Wolfson Park, people didn't like to go because it was so rundown and this neighborhood was so different than it is now," said Bragan. "There was a drive-through liquor store down on the corner.… Anytime we'd get a big crowd, Saturday night, somebody'd come walking up in the fifth, sixth, seventh inning and say, 'They pried up my hood and stole my battery!' or 'My car is on cinder blocks and all of my wheels are gone!' It was that bad of a neighborhood. It was tough those first few years. I went to Wolfson Park every day for 18 seasons. Then this will be the 13th over here -- it's night and day, you know."

The Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, featuring a 360-degree concourse, grass berm and deluxe player amenities, opened in 2003 after years of negotiation with the city government.

• Read more about Ben's visit to Jacksonville on the Biz Blog »

"It took a long time, but because it took so long I got to look at [ballparks in] Round Rock, look at Memphis, look at Toledo," said Bragan. "I got a lot of that in, so when I sat down with HOK [architects] I told them I want big league clubhouses and big league dugouts and a big league feel. I want as good lights as we can get. I want all that player development stuff, and if the sky boxes don't end up so nice, it's not going to bother me… Then we'll never have the problem, like at Wolfson Park, when we were at the bottom of the list for affiliated teams."

Pedro is a familiar figure at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, sitting in his "Chairman's Box" on the concourse behind home plate and clanging his victory bell (re-purposed from a local railroad) after each Suns win. It is from this location that he will be savoring his final season.

"People coming by [the Chairman's Box] saying, 'Thank you for all you've done,' that's the biggest thing of all," said Bragan. "You know, Mr. Babby wanted to go in and finalize the deal this winter. I hadn't thought about selling until he came. But I started thinking about it. My health is not as good as it was. I'm too fat and old. It might be the time. But then, I've done it so long, I didn't want to quit and then that's it. This way I'm trying to, like they say, smell the roses."

Meanwhile, the Suns are marketing the entire season as "Pedro's Last Dance." Highlights of the promotional schedule include "Pedro's Last Dance" T-shirt and fedora giveaways, a bobblehead of his mother, Mary Frances "Madame Chairman" Bragan, and a "Used Car Night" in which three cars owned by members of the Bragan family will be given away.  

After all of that, the music fades and the lights go dim. The "Last Dance" comes to an end.  

"I told [Ken Babby], 'Next year I'll help you a lot in February and March, because that's when you'll need it. I'll come out to Opening Night, maybe throw out the first pitch," said Bragan. "Then the next morning me and my wife go to Hawaii for a week, and let him run the team. And I've said this for 31 years: 'When I get out of baseball, I'm going to the damn Kentucky Derby. Get me a hat, get me some mint juleps.'"

It won't be all Hawaii and horses for Bragan. He is currently at work on a memoir chronicling his three decades with the Suns, and plans to open a museum so that his overflowing storehouse of baseball memorabilia will have a proper home.

"I'm naturally kind of a pack rat," said Bragan. "Daddy would say, 'Get that [stuff] out of here, boy.' He kept his desk cleaner. But people love coming in here, so if I can find the right building in the right part of town, I could do a pretty neat little museum. Sort of have this office re-created or something. I envision having a batting cage in the back of it so it could be interactive. Kids come in and take a couple swings.

"We're going to start the Peter Bragan for Better Baseball Foundation," he continued. "Because we don't have kids and me and [wife] Nancy aren't going to be able to spend all of Mr. Babby's money before we're gone. I want to leave that foundation money to run the museum and pay for a full scholarship, but it's only good for a left-handed first baseman."

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.