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VOL. 39 | NO. 17 | Friday, April 24, 2015

Nashville Sounds owner, players marvel at new park

By Tom Wood

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Ten days before the Nashville Sounds’ scheduled home opener at their palatial new digs, First Tennessee Park in Germantown was still very much a work in progress.

Frank Ward, owner of the Class AAA Pacific League team, was strutting around like a proud father, all but ready to pass out cigars to an expectant media as workmen painted, pounded and pushed to make everything ready in preparation for opening of the 10,000-seat facility.

“Isn’t this beautiful? It’s about 95 percent ready and opening night is really going to be special,” Ward said that day, beaming as he stood near the third base line. “I just hope the citizens of Nashville come out and see it at least once.”

A new baseball era has arrived.

The Sounds are now the top minor league affiliate of the Oakland Athletics, so it was the Nashville media’s first close-up look at both the team and the field.

Manager Steve Scarsone and several players were effusive in their praises of the new stadium, but only pitcher Brad Mills can make comparisons to Greer Stadium.

Mills opened the 2014 season at Greer when the Sounds were affiliated with the Milwaukee Brewers, amassing a 4-2 record with a 1.56 earned run average before being traded to Oakland on June 17 for cash considerations.

“It’s awesome,” Mills says. “I’ve been watching it on webcam some, especially since I spent some time here last year. That’s the civil engineer in me. It piqued my interest.

“Everybody (on the team) is impressed. To hear the first game sold out in an hour, to know what kind of electric atmosphere there’s going to be … every player wants to play in a situation like that.

“For a Triple-A ballpark, this is state-of-the-art. It’s definitely luxurious. The thing about Greer, if you’re on the field in the game, it wasn’t that bad.

“Behind the scenes, it was old,’’ he explains. “The dugouts, the batting cages, the locker rooms. So for those times when we’re not on the field, that’s where we’re going to feel upgraded.”

Scarsone, who was with the Sacramento River Cats for the final series at Greer Stadium last season, agrees that First Tennessee Park is first-rate.

“This does take us to another level,” Scarsone explains. “This is arguably a miniature big-league stadium here. I mean, you go one more tier, and you’ve got the looks of something they’re building up there in the big boys.

“So these guys will get a great opportunity to play in a stadium and a city that will get them ready to play in the big leagues,” he adds.

“I know we’re all pretty jacked about finding out more about Nashville.’’

Three-time American League All-Star Barry Zito, trying to resuscitate his pitching career after sitting out last season, also seems impressed with the park.

“It reminds me of when I was last in Triple-A in 2000 in Sacramento,” Zito explains. “They were actually not as far along as we are here, so we had to spend the first six weeks on the road. It’s exciting; I’ve never been to Nashville.”

Zito likes what he’s seen so far of Music City and wouldn’t mind getting involved in the city’s music industry someday.

“There’s a lot of great songwriters in town. Being a performer, that’s a tough gig there. I would like to write; that’s my long-term goal, to be a songwriter.”

Music City on display

And so now, it is the public’s turn to be impressed with the facility. Those who have had early glimpses like what they see.

“This (isn’t) just any minor league ballpark,’’ says Nashville Mayor Karl Dean. “It’s going to be one of the best in the country, one that uniquely reflects who we are as Music City.

“It [has] picnic seating, great views of the Nashville skyline, interesting food concessions like hot chicken, a greenway and suites so close behind home plate that you’ll be able to see the dust fly off the catcher’s mitt.

“And of course we have the Sounds’ iconic guitar-shaped scoreboard. And this ballpark isn’t just about baseball, it’s about celebrating our history, it’s about adding to the economy of this part of our city.

Dean touts the past and envisions the future of baseball in Nashville.

“We’re building on the site of the Sulphur Dell, the original home of professional baseball in Nashville. Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio all played here. One day, maybe a player who threw 200 strikeouts or knocked in a hundred runs here at First Tennessee Park will get a chance to play in the majors and make the Hall of Fame.”

History lessons

As Mayor Dean points out, Sulphur Dell is a historic site in the annals of Nashville sports. And like a mythological Phoenix rising from the ashes, the original home site of professional baseball is once again alive.

“Nashville fans have deserved a new venue for their hometown Sounds; those who remember the demise of both Sulphur Dell and Herschel Greer Stadium will be the most proud of First Tennessee Park,” notes Skip Nipper, a local baseball historian.

“We’ve seen how bad it has been, and we knew how good it could be. This new ballpark will be the best in the minor leagues, and will give the fan the best baseball experience Nashville fans have ever known.”

Sulphur Dell was the Southern League home of the Nashville Vols from 1870 to 1963 before being demolished in 1969.

Minor league baseball returned to Nashville in 1978 with Larry Schmittou’s Class AA Sounds playing at Herschel Greer Stadium near Fort Negley. Several previous attempts at getting a new stadium to replace aging Greer failed as a thermal plant proposal fell apart and Mayor Karl Dean began pushing for the historic Sulpher Dell site.

Owner Ward at first refused to consider the site, but is now glad he listened.

The deal was agreed upon in November 2013 and construction on the $75 million project began on Jan. 27, 2014. Excavation started March 3 of that year.

“It has been a very rewarding partnership between ourselves and the city, and I am very thrilled with that,” Ward explains. “I think this will be the finest Triple A ballpark in this country. It’s a unique facility. We have picnic areas, we have group areas, we have dugout suites that are very unique to only three or four clubs. That includes major and Triple A facilities.

“Our club area, or lounge, is also a very nice area for Nashville that will be used not only for games, but will be able to be used by citizens throughout the year.”

Special features

The area in right field that Ward is talking about is called the Band Box, a 4,000 square-foot outdoor bar and restaurant developed by Strategic Hospitality – the parent company of Merchants Restaurant, The Patterson House, The Catbird Seat and Pinewood Social, among others.

Brothers Benjamin and Max Goldberg own the company and have brought a very cool concept to the stadium, Ward adds.

“I wanted something that is designed for the average fan, but really is something that will appeal to the younger market, the ones who may not always care that there’s a ballgame going on, just out to have a good time,” Ward says.

It’s understandable why fans may not have time for the game, which they can see on televisions in the bar area. Also drawing their attention will be games of ping-pong, cornhole, table hockey and shuffleboard along with the primary backdrop of the Sounds playing on the new field. Televisions will surround the bar area for additional entertainment.

The full-service bar and food menu will just add to the fun atmosphere the Sounds wanted to create.

Is it affordable?

As Mills notes, the opening game sold out in the first hour that tickets went on sale and other inaugural home stand ticket sales were brisk.

But this is a $75 million project, some $10 million more than the original estimates. It’s fair to say some costs are being passed down to the fans.

If you haven’t yet been, here’s the lowdown on tickets. Some are very pricey, but there are also very family-friendly, affordable tickets.

“Suites are $42,500,” Ward says. “The least expensive seats, in advance, will be $9, which is cheaper than Greer, and the high end (club) is $30,” Ward says. “Not counting the berm, which is even cheaper. I think it’s $7.

“That’s what it was designed for. Triple A baseball is always for the family, and we’re going to try and keep that.

“I love the whole facility. I think we’re going to have something for every citizen in every age group.”

The grassy berm in left field should prove popular with fans this summer, seating 1,500 while the other 8,500 are fixed seats.

Fans also will want to take note of the statues and greenway as they approach the stadium.

And of course, the guitar-shaped scoreboard, which was built following an outcry from longtime fans that loved the iconic one at Greer Stadium.

This is not that one, but a new and improved version with LED boards.

Ticket information: 615-690-HITS615-690-HITS.

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