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Can the metro market sustain two professional baseball teams?

Play ball: Braves vs. Senators

Here’s the wind-up and the pitch: When baseball season opens later this month, will area residents root for the Mississippi Braves or the Jackson Senators?

“For me, I can’t get enough of baseball,” said Jackson attorney Cal Wells, spokesperson for the investor group that owns the Jackson Senators. “We believe there are people who love baseball enough to see both teams.”

Steve DeSalvo, general manager of the Mississippi Braves, agrees.

“Mississippians love baseball,” he said. “That’s one reason why we’re here. When we were searching for a new home, Mississippi stepped up to the plate.”

Getting men on base

The Mississippi Braves, Atlanta’s Class AA team that relocated from Greenville, South Carolina, has already sold all reserved seats for the April 18 opening day of its 70-game season, a robust 2,500 season tickets, and all but two $35,000-per-year luxury boxes. Trustmark Corporation acquired the naming rights for the team’s new $25-million sports complex, which closely resembles Turner Field in Atlanta.

Cellular South will sponsor opening week for the four-game stretch against the Montgomery Biscuits, the AA team of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

“We’re thrilled the Mississippi Braves inaugural season is here, and we’re especially proud to be sponsoring the opening week and also the Cellular South Café, which is a year-round full service restaurant,” said Jim Richmond, director of corporate sales. “There will be over 20,000 foam tomahawks and magnetic schedules given out during opening week. And we’ve seen a sneak peak of the Cellular South Café menu and it looks great. Our hats are off to the Mississippi Braves staff and all the hard work they are doing to get ready for this season opener.”

WLBT-TV, the NBC affiliate in Jackson, will televise live the April 18 game and an August 27 game from Montgomery.
Other big-name companies inking contracts with the Mississippi Braves: Alltel, BellSouth, Cellular South, Gray-Daniels Motor Group, Mid-South Ford Dealers and U.S. Food Service. Hampton Inn has signed an agreement to house players, umpires and other league personnel, at its Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn Express and Best Western properties.

“We fortunately have a very long list of solid sponsors,” said DeSalvo. “Several are multi-year deals.”

RBI for the Jackson Senators

Entergy Mississippi, the primary sponsor for the locally owned Jackson Senators, is also a Mississippi Braves sponsor. The Braves’ lead sponsor, Trustmark, is also a Jackson Senators sponsor. Other corporations backing the Central Baseball League (CBL) team: BankPlus, Luvel Dairy, Pepsi-Cola, Pizza Hut and Puckett Machinery.

“We’ve not been told we’re spending money with the other guy and not you,” said Craig Brasfield, vice president and general manager of the Jackson Senators. “The City of Jackson is not a traditional sponsor, but city leaders have been supportive and deserve recognition for the improvements they’ve made and everything they continue to do.”

The Jackson Senators will kick off the team’s 46-game season at home against the Pensacola Pelicans May 5. The eight-team league plays as one division, and playoffs will be determined among the top four teams. Only 11 home games go head-to-head against the Mississippi Braves’ home schedule; four of those dates are on the weekend.

“I think people realize that independent baseball is a less expensive form of entertainment,” said Brasfield, who is celebrating his 19th year in professional baseball, and was the first manager the CBL, then known as the Texas-Louisiana League, hired when it was formed 12 years ago.

“Our ticket prices are going to be much more affordable, with no parking charge, at a very convenient location in a historic ballpark,” he said. “This is old school baseball. Dads who were dropped off as kids to see a game are now dropping off their sons. They see our place as a comfort zone.”

Jackson-area investors bought the Jackson Senators roughly two months before the Mississippi Braves announced its relocation to Pearl.

“We bought the team from a civic standpoint because we believed if someone didn’t, there might not be baseball in Mississippi, and we wanted to do something good for the community,” said Wells. “Sure, it’s going to be tough because there’s a lot of excitement over there, but we hope that a lot of our loyal fans will continue to come out.”

Con Maloney, who owned the Jackson Mets from 1981 to 2000, and is part owner of the Jackson Senators, said if he’d known the Braves were coming to Mississippi, the investors might not have bought the local team.

“But that wouldn’t have been good for Jackson,” he said. “Now, Smith-Wills is a multi-purpose stadium for soccer, football, tennis and baseball. I doubt the city would have made such a bold move making improvements if the Braves weren’t coming in. On our new Sprinturf surface, you can play ball 30 minutes after a three-inch rain. Now children have an expanded play area. Plus, you can come to a Senators game, get a ticket, plus something to eat, a drink and cotton candy for five bucks.”

Tickets for the Mississippi Braves games begin at $8.

Showcasing Mississippi talent

The Mississippi Braves signed Meridian native and former Mississippi State star Jay Powell to a minor league contract for 2005. The right-handed pitcher is a 10-year Major League Baseball veteran. The 33-year-old had season-ending ligament transplant surgery last July. He is expected to join the AA team in May, where he will continue his rehabilitation work in an injury rehabilitation assignment.

Other baseball players with a Mississippi connection that may join the team within the next few years: Greenwood native and outfielder Mike Rosamond, Jackson native and Mississippi State graduate Jacob Blakeney and Ole Miss graduate and Madison resident Alexander “Xan” Barksdale.

The Jackson Senators, dubbed “Your Hometown Team,” are also capitalizing on Mississippi’s talent on the diamond.

“Watching the Braves, you’ll see ballplayers on the way up that you might see in the Majors one day, but watching the Senators, you’ll sense a strong Mississippi flavor, different from years past when there were out-of-state managers and no Mississippi players,” said Maloney.

The naming of Bay Springs native Hill Denson as Jackson Senators’ field manager last fall created much buzz around town. Denson, the former head baseball coach at Southern Miss and the current Belhaven College coach, with more than 30 years of high school and collegiate coaching experience, led the Belhaven squad in 2004 to a Gulf Coast Athletic Conference Tournament Championship and earned a trip to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Region XIII Tournament, the first post-season appearance for the Blazers in a decade.

“Hill’s a hometown guy managing a hometown team,” said Brasfield. “He’ll add tremendous credibility with baseball background and collegiate ties because we’re trying to sign as many Mississippi and Southern players as possible that our fans can identify with. Hill knows these people, and is stepping across the lines of professional ranks, which will be new to him. But it’s still 60 feet, six inches to the mound, 90 feet to first base, strikes and outs, and it’s just a different flavor of the game with a wooden bat instead of an aluminum bat. Hill should do extremely well, and we’re excited to have him as our leader.”

Play ball!

DeSalvo admitted there have been some nervous moments along the way, but said everything will be ready for opening night at the 7,219-seat stadium, which will employ 18 full-time and 350 part-time personnel.

“There will be a spot or two that needs extra paint, and a doorknob might open the wrong way, but we’ll have a punch list until 2006, which is typical for any construction project,” he said. “There will be an ongoing process of tweaking things.”

DeSalvo also realizes the brand new team will have a honeymoon period, and is looking ahead to “doing as well in year 15 as in years one, two and three,” he said. “We’re building the program right, and are ahead of the curve with room for expansion.”

Will the Jackson Senators survive against the Mississippi Braves?

“Only time — and the fans — will tell,” said Maloney. “The Senators are going to be an alternative to the Braves, and the Braves are the number one draw. There’s no question about that. But the Braves could be very good for the Senators, and might generate excitement and enthusiasm for baseball in general.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.


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