The update is really more of the same in Mississippi
Coming Tuesday on your local PBS station is what I, in my house, have been calling “The Update.”
The master at work is Ken Burns, who has decided to update his epic documentary “Baseball” to chronicle the developments since it first aired in 1994.
According to everything that I have read about it, while Burns and co-producer Lynn Novick don’t intend to bury their heads in the sand, it will be the excitement of the pursuit that will be focused on.
The pursuit by Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds of baseball’s hallowed home run records will be shown to us as we viewers as fans experienced them at the time.
But as the time draws closer, and I become more excited about the two-night event that my wife surely is geared up to give up TV control for, the thought has zoomed through my brain about minor league baseball during the same time frame.
If Burns were to place his microscope on Mississippi for an update, he would find an amazing roller coaster that has played out in nearly every corner of the state.
From Tupelo to Greenville and Biloxi to Meridian and Jackson, the last 15 years have wreaked havoc in supervisor and city council meetings across the state. Even one mayor has been blamed for the lack of downtown development because he failed to pull the trigger in bringing minor league baseball back to his town.
Certainly Jackson is the most notable of all of the ups and downs. The city saw its 25-year history with the Double-A Texas League vanish, which was followed by a string of vagabond, gypsy independent teams for five years before Pearl managed to land one of the biggest fish in the sea.
While Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson pondered the worth of bringing back affiliated baseball with a downtown stadium that certainly would have injected much-needed energy and money into the area, Pearl swooped in and pulled the trigger.
Five years later, the area around Trustmark Park (the home of the Double-A, Southern League Mississippi Braves) is teaming with restaurants, hotels and the other big catch — Bass Pro Shop.
Sure hindsight is 20-20, but you have to give credit to the Pearl city leaders for having the vision and the guts to make a calculated business move.
Meanwhile — after a four-year vacation — Johnson is back in office in Jackson, and his downtown is still lacking a pure centerpiece to build around.
Yes, downtown Jackson is on the uptick because of people like David Watkins and Ben Allen and the completion of the convention center 18 months ago is a major feather for the cap.
Still and yet, a Trustmark Park and baseball (high school, college and professional) as well as concerts and other events would have brought hundreds of thousands of folks from the suburbs to play on a regular basis in what would now be a near 100 percent revitalized downtown.
Winners and losers?
You make the call.
The rest of the state, meanwhile, seemed ready to jump at the chance that minor league baseball could harness energy and spending in their communities. The problem is almost all were dealing with independent leagues and mostly questionable business folks, who promised the stars and spun a good yarn, but, in most cases, never produced any kind of substantial business plan.
Tupelo spent thousands to upgrade a local Dixie Youth field to accommodate nearly 3,000 fans for the Tupelo Tornado. The Tornado were members of the Big South League for one full season in 1997. In ‘98 the Big South fell apart, the Tornadoes joined the Heartland League, but a few weeks in the team couldn’t pay its players.
The dream was dead.
That same scenario played out with city spending in many other towns, like Hattiesburg, Meridian and Greenville.
Somehow, however, through seven mosquito-filled summer nights in the Delta, the Greenville Bluesmen managed to draw crowds and keep a team going in the Big South and then the Texas-Louisiana League.
Through every one of the last 15 years, and even before, Gulf Coast native and former Jackson Met (circa 1984) Barry Lyons has been fighting to bring an affiliated, preferably Southern League franchise to his home. He says he has been close a couple of times, including just before Hurricane Katrina, but to no avail.
But here we stand, in 2010. The road is littered with minor league carcasses, one success story, a giant missed exit ramp and one hitchhiker. The story might not be what Burns is looking for, but the entire tale and its impact on spending in local communities could likely be a made-for-TV movie.
Contact Mississippi Business Journal editor Ross Reily at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 364-1018.