If the Savannah Sand Gnats move, will they be missed?
Savannah is a notoriously poor sports town. Aside from the Beach-Savannah basketball games and the Savannah Tire College Hockey Classic, sports events just don't draw. The Savannah Civic Center has been outdated for years. Few sporting events, aside from the college hockey matchups, are staged there, either. You get ice skating and some cultural festivals there. And that’s about the size of it.
Then there’s venerable Grayson Stadium, the 87-year-old home of minor league baseball and some football, which soon may lose its tenant to another city. And it wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened.
Savannah didn’t even have a franchise from 1963-67.
In perusing the great baseball resource that is baseball-referernce.com, there’s much to be gleaned of the history of Savannah professional baseball.
The Braves’ Sally League franchise has moved from Anderson (S.C.) to Sumter (S.C.) to Macon to Rome, all from 1981-2003. Columbia (S.C.) hasn’t had a team since 2004, when the Mets called it home for its SAL franchise. Columbus lost its team four years later. The South Atlantic League has been relatively stable the last four seasons, after the Bowling Green Hot Rods and Lake County Captains moved to the Midwest League.
Attendance at Grayson rose every year from 2004-11, almost doubling from 72,435 to 135,415. According to The State, the paper in Columbia, S.C., the Sand Gnats still have the third-lowest attendance in the South Atlantic League.
Grayson has undergone quite a facelift in the last few years in an effort to bring in more fan amenities. There’s Landshark Landing down the right-field line and there are more concessions windows open. A merchandise and fan store is a cooler respite during hot summer afternoons and nights.
From Savannah’s special purpose local option sales tax, Daffin Park and Grayson Stadiium received $7.5 million in improvements, including a new field, a roof over the grandstand, scoreboard and bleachers at Grayson.
The city of Savannah has projected nearly $2.2 million in improvements to the Civic Center over the next five years, according to the capital improvement program. That includes planning for a new arena while repairs and new touches are added to the existing Civic Center, which, frankly, needs more than repairs and touches.
But Grayson’s problems on the professional level are many. More modern ballparks have more room for players and larger spaces for trainers and the teams. The Sand Gnats’ offices are in portable buildings down the left-field line, meaning there’s more area below the stands, what there is of it, to devote to the teams and players.
Fans coming through the gates of Grayson over the years have enjoyed more than cheap beer and Cracker Jacks. Some big-leaguers have played as members of the home team at Grayson.
Glenn Hubbard, Bruce Benedict, Rafael Ramirez, Gerald Perry, Terry Harper, Milt Thompson, Brad Komminsk, Steve Bedrosian, Ken Dayley and Larry McWilliams were among the Savannah Braves of the late ‘70s and early 80s to make the big club. Dale Murphy, at the tender age of 20, played one year with the Savannah Braves.
Jim Bouton, author of the landmark inside-the-clubhouse book “Ball Four,” toiled for the Savannah Braves at 39 years old.
The Braves pulled up stakes for Greenville, S.C., after the 1983 season, and the Savannah Cardinals moved in the next year. Savannah went from being a Class AA town, where about the half the roster projects to make the majors, to being a low Single A destination, where the odds of making the major leagues is low.
From those early SavCards teams, the lone big leaguer of note was Bernard Gilkey. Later, they had Brad Beanblossom, a star at Oklahoma State, and Donovan Osborne. When the SavCards won the 1993 South Atlantic League championship, posting a 94-48 record, they had six regulars who were at least 23 years old and a pitching staff whose average age was 23, in a league where most players are barely out of Rookie ball.
The SavCards were gone after the 1995 season. The Sand Gnats got their start in 1996 as a Dodgers affiliate, bringing in Adrian Beltre, now with the Texas Rangers, as a 17-year-old. He hit 16 homers that year. They also had Luke Prokopec, Eric Stuckenschneider and Eric Gagne.
Eventually, Travis Hafner (now with the Yankees), Carlos Pena and Joaquin Benoit were on the Sand Gnats together as they became aligned with the Rangers in 1998. Hafner spent two years in Savannah, rare for a power-hitting prospect, and they also had Hank Blalock. C.J. Wilson, now with the Angels, and Toronto’s Edwin Encarnacion played together on the Gnats.
Then the Gnats became an Expos affiliate in 2003 and that transferred to the Nationals in 2005, where that Gnats team included current Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond and star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Savannah became a part of the Mets farm system in 2007.
If the Sand Gnats do pull up stakes, it’s likely to spell the end for one of two things — Grayson Stadium as a venue and minor league baseball in Savannah. If you can’t keep a low Single A franchise in your city, do you deserve another shot? Columbia suffered that fate before, but it appears it’s trying to get a second swing. It’s unlikely Savannah will, if it strikes out with the Gnats.