During the first half of the 2015 Southern League season, no team posted a better home record than the Biloxi Shuckers' mark of 22-13. This was more than a little improbable, given that the Shuckers didn't play a game in Biloxi until June 6.
Up until that point, the Shuckers, Double-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers, had played 55 games in locales other than Biloxi. Their "home" games, such as they were, took place in the visiting teams' ballparks as well as the franchise's former abode of Joe Davis Stadium in Huntsville, Alabama.
But on June 6, that all changed, and it changed in a big way. After myriad budgetary negotiations and corresponding construction delays, MGM Park opened its doors to a crowd of just over 5,000 fans. This marked the first time in some 107 years that Biloxi had hosted a Minor League Baseball team, a void that had persisted since the Biloxi-Gulfport Sand Crabs played their one and only season in 1908.
The Sand Crabs are long forgotten, but Biloxi's proclivity to promote its Gulf Coast proximity persists. Shuckers, of course, is an oyster reference. And this is a team that is just coming out of its shell.
MGM Park, while open for business, is far from a finished product. As I walked to the stadium on Wednesday evening, I navigated past a jumble of sidewalk barricades, chain link fences, and vast swaths of dirt crisscrossed with heavy-duty vehicle track marks. In other words, this is still an active construction site.
The above photo depicts what will soon be a ballpark entrance, located directly behind and below the outfield batter's eye. Fans taking this route will then proceed up a flight of stairs, emerging onto a concourse walkway on the first-base side of the stadium.
For now, however, entrance and exiting egress is exclusively provided via this third-base-side location.
The steep staircase leading up to the MGM Park entrance gate is a practical consideration, as the entire facility is elevated to offer storm protection. Nearly 10 years ago, Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of Biloxi; the Gulf of Mexico is just two blocks from the ballpark.
Land for the ballpark, located at the intersection of Routes 90 and 110 in the heart of Biloxi's casino district, was made available by MGM (hence the resultant stadium naming rights deal). MGM is the parent company of the Beau Rivage casino, which dominates the stadium skyline.
Soon after arriving at MGM Park, I rendezvoused with Shuckers general manager Buck Rogers so that we could embark on what he called "the 50-cent tour." (Yes, a 50-cent tour from a guy named Buck).
Rogers and his wife Babs, a Mississippi Gulf Coast native who serves as the Shuckers' retail manager, relocated along with the franchise from its old home of Huntsville, where the team was known as the Stars. This move occurred after an ownership group headed by Ken Young and Tim Bennett bought the Stars with the intent to move to Biloxi. Young is a veteran Minor League operator (his portfolio includes the Albuquerque Isotopes and Norfolk Tides) as well as the founder of Ovations Food Services.
Bennett, president of Overtime Sports, has spent the better part of the last decade working behind the scenes with Biloxi government officials and business leaders to make MGM Park a reality.
The Huntsville Stars' home of Joe Davis Stadium was supremely run-down and attendance was sparse, to the point where the team even sold this irreverent, self-deprecating t-shirt at the team store (modeled by ballpark traveler Charlie O'Brien of CharliesBallparks.com).
"This ain't Montgomery and we ain't perfect," the shirt reads in part. "Our ballpark is a train wreck. We have a skunk for a mascot. Our videoboard is shot. But ya know what? We don't care!"
These days, Rogers' operating problems are of a quite different variety. In Huntsville, he was dealing with stadium equipment and structures that used to work and no longer did; in Biloxi, he's trying to get everything to work for the first time. This has sometimes been difficult, thanks to the rushed construction schedule and overall lack of room in which to operate.
• Read more about Ben's visit to Biloxi on the Biz Blog »
Rogers describes MGM Park as a hybrid between two Southern League parks built in the past decade: Trustmark Park (home of the Mississippi Braves, below left) and Pensacola Bayfront Stadium (home of the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, below right).
"It's a tight footprint, so we have to make use of everything," said Rogers. "Everybody in the stadium has to be a Tetris expert."
An improvised approach is evident throughout. Babs Rogers, for example, has situated her office in a storage room that holds the team's excess merchandise. While outside the ballpark, just off of a service road that runs along the perimeter, one finds three trailers parked neatly in a row.
"Those are our fireworks trailers," said Rogers. "We load 'em up, hook 'em together, put 'em on a tractor, bring 'em out to the field and start shooting fireworks right from the field. It just has to work."
"It just has to work" could very well be the motto of the Shuckers' 2015 season. The accelerated construction timeline resulted in, on occasion, some less-than-ideal decision-making by the construction crews. In the right field corner, Rogers points to a most unorthodox foul pole.
"I don't think they understood that we wanted the pole behind the wall," he said. "We said, 'Just leave it, we'll pad it, and we'll make the other one the same way.'"
And so it was. Sometimes two wrongs do make a right.
One thing the Shuckers are most definitely doing right is the food. Concessions are handled by Ovations (a given, considering that Ovations president Ken Young heads the ownership group) and overseen by Mike Brulator.
Brulator had previously worked for the Memphis Redbirds, whose signature item was BBQ Nachos. He's brought a modified version of this iconic item to MGM Park, partnering with local barbecue purveyor The Shed to create "Shuckers BBQ Nachos."
This features chips and Shed-made smoked pork smothered in Memphis-made jalapeno cheese sauce, a sweet barbecue sauce, shake seasoning and peppers.
Shed co-founder Brad Orrison and his three little shed-heads. (Ben Hill/MiLB.com)
And, lest we forget, this is a team named for those who open oyster shells. So of course there is an array of local Gulf Coast seafood options. These were highlighted, at least in my mind, by the grilled oysters available at the "Aw Shucks" seafood kiosk. Topped with garlic butter and parmesan, these beauteous bivalves are served with a hunk of French bread (not pictured) and atop a team-logo Frisbee.
The inclusion of the Frisbee means that the Shuckers are serving their oysters "on the fly." This phrase applies to just about the entire Shuckers operation during this, their abbreviated first season at MGM Park. But both on the field and operationally, they seem to be getting it right more often than not. The Shuckers are setting the template for a sustained period of Minor League Baseball success in Biloxi, something that those long-forgotten Biloxi-Gulfport Sand Crabs were unable to do. 107 years later, the city is hoping that the second time's the charm.
And after all this, you're shuckin' right that I'm going to end with a seafood joke. I hope you have enjoyed this virtual ballpark oys-tour, and had a shell of a good time reading about it.
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.