On the Road: The Shucking Begins in Biloxi
To see all posts from my July 29-30, 2015 visit to the Biloxi Shuckers (this is Part One) click HERE. To see all of the posts from my July/August 2015 trip through the Deep South, click HERE. To see ALL of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.
2015 “On the Road” landing page HERE!
Remember last year when I visited Joe Davis Stadium, so that I could see a Huntsville Stars game during what would be their final season? The game got rained out and the whole visit turned out to be a whole lot of not much, but, still, it was a worthwhile endeavor. I’m glad I got the chance to say goodbye.
After the 2014 season, the Stars relocated to Biloxi, Mississippi and rechristened themselves with the bivalve curious moniker of Shuckers. The Shuckers play at MGM Park, a new ballpark located on land owned by MGM and overshadowed by the gambling conglomerate’s Beau Rivage hotel and casino. This would be where I spent my time on the evenings of July 29 and 30.
— Biloxi Shuckers (@BiloxiShuckers) July 27, 2015
The above paragraph oversimplified the circumstances of the Shuckers’ 2015 season, as their relocation from Huntsville was anything but smooth. I’ve written about these circumstances ad nauseum, most recently for a piece that ran late last month on MiLB.com:
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.
MGM Park, while open for business, is not a finished product. For proof of this assertion, please view this curated collection of short video images.
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) July 30, 2015
Only one entrance to the stadium is currently functional, and much of the exterior perimeter is surrounded by dirt, barricades and divers and sundry construction vehicles. (Sorry, I’ve been reading Don Quixote lately and have been looking for an excuse to incorporate “divers and sundry” into a blog post. It’s just an archaic, and therefore pretentious, way to say “various.”)
This soon-to-be entrance is located directly behind and below the batter’s eye.
Finally, (the royal) we arrive at the main entrance. The stairs lead up and onto the left field side of the concourse.
While I was admiring this impressive elevation into a new baseball reality, I ran into former Mobile BayBears assistant general manager Mike Callahan. He was accompanied by his daughter, Brittany, who writes the “Talk Baseball to Me” blog (click HERE to read her interview with Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner). Photos were taken, social media was utilized.
— Mike Callahan (@GMCallahanJr) July 29, 2015
I would have loved to join the Callahans for a pre-game daiquiri, as this seemed like a fitting prelude to a ballgame in Biloxi (daiquiri bars are numerous in the city). But I’m a professional (I kept telling myself), and must forgo tropical drinks until after (or maybe during) the ballgame. Therefore, I entered MGM Park in a state of pristine sobriety and it was in this state that I met the one and only Buck Rogers.
Buck’s the general manager of the Shuckers, which is the same position he held with the Huntsville Stars. In the above photo he’s wearing his tarp clothes (including a Stars shirt), as it had rained earlier in the afternoon and the forecast was less-than-ideal going forward. Of course, the inclement weather was my fault because it always is. Even the radio guys are piling on now.
I blame the rain today undoubtedly on @bensbiz.
— Chris Harris (@CHarris731) July 29, 2015
Buck expressed optimism that the show would go on.
“There are eight inches of sand underneath, this is the best-draining field I’ve ever had,” he said. “It’s a real-life lifesaver.”
But at the moment in which I met Buck, the skies were clear and drainage an abstract concern. We immediately proceeded on what he dubbed the “nickel tour” of the ballpark, presumably named as such because it appeals to the “five cents-es.” We began in the murky depths of the facility, where the rubberized flooring hasn’t yet been permanently installed.
It’s all a work in progress.
A service road wraps around the ballpark, which, of course, is highly beneficial from an operational standpoint. Buck pointed out that the three trailers located at the end of the road are currently used as fireworks transportation devices.
“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,” said Buck.
And work, it (usually) does.
An unfortunate necessity of ballpark construction was the removal of 19 live oak trees from the property (though many were rotting and diseased). But survivors remain.
The area seen above is the domain of groundskeeper Jamie Hill, a one-time Stars groundskeeper who Buck persuaded to make the move to Biloxi. Buck called Hill the “Sodfather” as well as “the Duke of Dirt.”
“I’ve got an All-Star staff,” said Buck. “I just stay out of the way.”
Rushed construction sometimes results in interesting bloopers, such as this: A foul pole installed in front of the wall.
But, hey, there are no bloopers to be seen in this direction. Only a beautiful baseball field, enveloped in a grandstand’s warm embrace.
We then moved on to the upper level, where netting had to be installed in some places as a means to protect cars driving by on interstate 110. (Or was that 90? The ballpark is flanked by these two major roads.)
“The net wasn’t originally in the plans, but the interstate is right by and so that cost an additional $25,000,” said Buck, before resorting to tautology. “It is what it is.”
This building, located across from the stadium, is the horticultural office of the Beau Rivage. Once construction is complete, the denizens of this office will also be responsible for beautifying the perimeter of the stadium.
“This is the way back from Katrina, 10 years later,” said Buck. “There are so many kinds of people here — Yugoslavian, Slovenian, Vietnamese — and they’re as hard-working and honest as the day is long. I’m proud to be a part of this community.”
Moving indoors, this is the Mercedes Benz Club. It fits over 100 people and is available to rent on a year-round basis.
Bon Voyage, Benz. Bonjour, Beau Rivage.
Game time was approaching, which meant that it was time for me to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. I threw out the first first pitch, more accurately. The headliner was Bello Nock, the world’s greatest daredevil clown and a regular performer at the Beau Rivage.
Of course, Bello’s first pitch was far more theatrical. His appearance on the mound was preceded by a videoboard presentation of one of his most memorable stunts, in which he hangs from a helicopter with only one foot. Bello then hammed it up on the mound for a bit, before throwing a perfect strike.
It was fitting that a daredevil was in attendance on this evening, as Bello’s presence served as a fortuitous throwback to the first time I visited the Huntsville Stars. The year was 2009, the stadium was Joe Davis, the general manager was Buck Rogers. Following a rainout, sword swallower Dan Meyer still went ahead and performed for a crowd of about a dozen people. This performance was capped by Buck and bullwhip.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Stay tuned for much more from my evening(s) with the Shuckers.