July 2008

Play Ball! A Trip to See the Savannah Sandgnats

Author: Paul deVere | Photographer: John Brackett

What is it about baseball? At historic Grayson Stadium in Savannah, it’s everything: hotdogs, burgers, beer, soft drinks… laughing with fellow fans whom you met a moment ago or decades back. Most often, and in the finest sense, it is a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. A trip to Grayson is a journey into Savannah’s past and present, all at the same time.

The present is the team, the Sand Gnats, a single-A farm team for the New York Mets. The players are young hopefuls (ages 18-23) from all over the U.S. and countries like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. Some are right out of college; others jumped from high school ball right into the minors. While they are not yet ready for the big time, it’s worth every moment to watch “the boys of summer” play ball. And it is definitely worth the $7-10 admission to watch little kids run the bases trying to beat (they always do) Gnate the Gnat, the team’s mascot, to home plate. Then, at the end of a home game on Friday night, you’ll see those same small faces look in awe at the fireworks show. It’s summer. It’s baseball. It’s the real deal.

Sitting in the dugout prior to game time (Sand Gnats vs. Augusta Green Jackets), the Gnats’ new manager, Donovan Mitchell, reflected on his job. “I found out for the first time this year it’s a lot more than managing a baseball team; it’s helping these guys to adjust to being on their own and learn how to be professionals,” Mitchell said. “At this level, there’s lot of teaching of baseball, but it’s also a lot of teaching of everyday life and how to deal with playing a full season and managing your free time, making sure you’re eating right,” he said.

One of the ways they learn is by playing 140 games every season, which runs from the first part of April until, this year, September 1. Seventy at home, 70 away. They get about two days off a month, but often that’s spent in travel.

Then there is the past, which is Grayson Stadium itself. Stories—and memories—abound. One longtime fan remembers, when he was a kid, seeing Babe Ruth there. Mickey Mantle, Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron also rounded the bases at Grayson. In 1953, the Savannah Indians broke the Minor League race barrier when Izzy Israel and Junior Reedy took to the field, six years after Jackie Robinson broke it in the majors.

Originally built in 1926, a hurricane in August, 1940, tore through Savannah and left only two sections of bleachers standing. A Spanish American War veteran and Savannah politician, General William L. Grayson, led the charge to get what was then called Municipal Stadium rebuilt. Baseball continued through 1941 as the rebuilding was taking place. The idea was to have the brick facade continue out and down the left field base line. Everything was looking good for finishing the job before the 1942 season began.

Then December 7, 1941 happened. When word reached the brick masons about the attack on Pearl Harbor, the story goes that they all dropped their trowels and enlisted. As an eerie reminder of that fateful day, the brick wall remains incomplete. The unfinished course of bricks juts out unevenly, just as it was about to make the turn. On that Friday night when the Gnats bested the Green Jackets, another longtime fan looked at the brickwork and said, “I knew some of them boys. They never came back. Ever.”

General Manager Bradley Dodson, who is charged with the business side of the Sand Gnats, said, “We’ve more than doubled our attendance in the last three years and we are well ahead of where we were last year. A lot of that has to do with this very old, historic ballpark. It’s got a lot of charm.” In some respects, Grayson Stadium is the Wrigley Field of the “Sally League” (South Atlantic League). Of the 16 ball parks where the Sand Gnats play, Grayson is the grandfather of them all.

But there have been renovations in the past few years. For over three decades, Grayson served double duty as a football field, the site of the spirited Thanksgiving rivalry between Savannah High School and Benedictine Military Academy. The left field bleachers are gone. The playing surface has been reconditioned, and a new message board with a giant video screen installed. The board also shows pitch speed and temperature.

You can buy tickets online at www.sandgnats.com. Season tickets for the box seats get wait service (someone will bring your hot dog and beer to you) and special parking. And while the box seats are the best in the house, there really isn’t a bad seat at Grayson.

As the fans started piling into their seats at Grayson Stadium, Donovan Mitchell looked out at the field and said, “It was a little rough at the beginning (of the season). But every day somebody steps up. We’re coming together. We’re a young team, an aggressive team. We may not win every night, but we come to play every night.”

That evening, the Gnats beat the Green Jackets 3-2 in 11 innings.

Go Gnats!

If you Go
Directions to historic Grayson Stadium: From Hilton Head Island, take U.S. 278 to the intersection of SC 170 on right (just prior to Sun City). Turn left. Follow to traffic circle at junction of SC 46. Exit first right. Follow SC 46/170 to U.S. 17; turn left. Just over Talmadge Memorial Bridge, take Oglethorpe Avenue (first right) to Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., turn right. Go to Victory Drive; turn left. Grayson Stadium is to the right off Victory Drive at the end of Daffin Park.

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