On the Road: A Long Reign and a Long Rain in Jacksonville

To see all of my posts from this visit to the Jacksonville Suns (this is Part Two) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my April 2015 Florida trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

I arrived at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville hours before that evening’s Suns game was supposed to be played. Therefore, I was able to snag a primo parking place. A very long home run to left field could smash the windshield, but, hey, whatever, it’s a rental car. YOLO.

001 The area surrounding the ballpark is kind of schizophrenic. The Jacksonville Jaguars’ home of EverBank Field is located just down the street.

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While the far more modest, and antiquated, James E. Merrill House is located more or less next door.

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At the far left field corner of the stadium sits 134-year-old St. Andrew’s Church, which serves as the headquarters of the Jacksonville Historical Society.

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The brick facade of the church matches the brick facade of the ballpark itself. This is the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, built in 2003. It is not to be confused with the coffee grounds of Jacksonville, which should be composted if at all possible.

010Let’s take a closer look at that sign.

011Whoa, 20-game homestand! This monstrosity came about because the Biloxi Shuckers were forced to play their five-game “home” series against the Suns in Jacksonville, as a result of their stadium still being under construction.

Walk into the front office and cardboard Southpaw says “Hi.”

012You’ll notice that there are a lot of plaques and trophies and doohickeys and jibjabs and whatnot lined up behind Southpaw, but this array of baseball miscellany pales in comparison to what awaits around the corner.

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That’s Suns owner Peter “Pedro” Bragan Jr., who is in his 31st and final season with the team. Bragan has sold the team to Ken Babby — the man who put the “RubberDucks” in “Akron RubberDucks” — but Babby won’t assume control until after this season is complete.

This season, therefore, has been billed as “Pedro’s Last Dance;” I wrote a feature story about this on MiLB.com. Pedro’s got a story for every occasion and is a fun guy to talk to. He’s also got the most memorabilia-stuffed office in all of Minor League Baseball. It’s “Pedro’s Palace.”

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For the record, the 1956 Jacksonville Braves were sponsored by Star-Kist Tuna.

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“They still had the tuna boats coming in [to Jacksonville] then,” Pedro said. “So it was a natural fit.”

As I spoke with Pedro in his office, it started to rain. And when it rains, the tarp gets laid.

041The pregame rain delay meant that I had plenty of time to talk to the denizens of the Jacksonville press box.

This is official scorer Jason Eliopoulos, who is a direct link to a pre-Bragan era of Suns history. His grandfather, Lou, was the franchise’s previous owner.

039 Jason’s nickname is “Birdbrain,” and he has his own videoboard graphic. As you can see, he’s a fairly decent baseball player.

043I next spoke with public address announcer Wes Mitchell, who has been tasked with operating the pitch clock this season. (As you probably know, new pace of play rules have been implemented at the Double and Triple-A levels this season.)

Wes operates the pitch clock, which is displayed behind home plate, as well as on the videoboard, via the tablet computer sitting in front of him. Read all about it.

047Upon leaving the press box, I snapped this shot of the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. A “Guns ‘N Hoses” cops vs. firefighters boxing match was scheduled for that evening. The place was jumping.

048I then returned to the first level to see the Suns induct three new members into the “Legends of Jacksonville Hall of Fame.”

This ceremony, conducted in front of what could fairly be described as a “smattering” of fans, was emceed by Suns radio broadcaster Roger Hoover.

052Walker and Johnson couldn’t, or wouldn’t, attend on this evening. But John Shoemaker, Suns manager in 2001 and again from 2005-08, made the trip.

057Pedro Bragan told me that “Shoe was the best manager I saw in 31 years, and second place is way behind him. He’d stand out by the gates, sign balls and talk to fans.”

After the ceremony, I returned to the second level for a pregame interview with Hoover. As in, he interviewed me. Take a listen HERE; it’s the best interview I’ve done this season as regards succinctly explaining just what it is I do and why. Big thanks to Roger, whose interview skills are well-honed.

And, really, it’s not like we had much else to do.

Back down on the concourse and — yep — still raining.

064The rain delay wasn’t about to put a damper on legendary vendor Tommy Holston. No matter the weather, the man has programs to sell.

Tommy has been a Suns vendor for 11 years. He told me that he started wearing the hat as his own idiosyncratic tribute to members of the U.S. military fighting overseas. He occasionally adds new items to the hat, all of which he procures at the local Hobby Lobby.

“I wear it to honor the troops. I’ll keep the hat on until they all come home,” Tommy said.

IMG_1062Shortly after speaking with Tommy, a small miracle occurred.  Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention. The tarp is off the field.

070At this juncture, I realized it was gonna be a long night and that I better go back to the car and get my phone charger. The route back to my primo parking spot included some primo views.

IMG_1065As well as some flat-out odd views.

IMG_1067Finally, after a delay of one hour and 42 minutes, it was time for some Double-A Southern League baseball.

Suns vs. the Biscuits; both ready to rise.

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Jeez, it took me 1,000 words to write about a rain delay. I’m either very good at my job, or very bad. (My opinion on this subject changes by the hour.) At any rate, thus concludes Part Two of this Jacksonville Suns blog saga. Coming up next is — you guessed it — Part Three.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

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