- The Washington Times - Friday, May 20, 2005

SAVANNAH, Ga. — Red brick covers the outside of the ballpark, but it is no facade. It is the real deal.

The concrete bleachers at Grayson Stadium were part of the original ballpark built in 1926, and the seating bowl was rebuilt in 1941 after a devastating hurricane blew through this coastal Georgia city the year before.

There are no seats down the third-base line, though they were intended to be there. Workers were rebuilding the ballpark the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and they essentially dropped their tools and stopped work to enlist. There remains a jagged brick wall that shows where they quit their work.

And they still play baseball there today.

The Savannah Sand Gnats are the Washington Nationals’ Class A South Atlantic League farm club, but the stars of this team are not the players. The star is the ballpark.

Grayson Stadium — or, as it is referred to in advertisements and most publications, “Historic Grayson Stadium” — is the oldest working minor league ballpark in America, and it fits right in with this quirky, tradition-rich Southern town.

“People in Savannah treasure their history, and this is an old ballpark where so much has happened,” said Sand Gnats spokesman Kevin Gray. “There is a sentiment in Savannah to preserve history.”

Mickey Mantle played an exhibition game at Grayson Stadium and hit two home runs. Jackie Robinson stole home in an exhibition game. But the ballpark’s history has greater significance than the brief appearances of great players on its grounds.

The first South Atlantic League game played with both black and white players took place at Grayson Stadium on April 14, 1953. The hometown Savannah Indians (a Philadelphia Athletics affiliate) played host to the Jacksonville Braves (a Milwaukee Braves affiliate), a team that included a young outfielder named Hank Aaron.

In an era in which dozens of old, quaint minor league ballparks around the country have been replaced by facilities with skyboxes and first-class amenities, Grayson Stadium survives as a relic. And, in Savannah, relics not only survive, they are embraced.

After all, this is the land of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the novel set in Savannah that only added to the city’s history and charm — and to its bank accounts: Tourism rose about 25 percent after the book was published more than a decade ago. Ghost walks and walking tours of stately Southern mansions are a cottage industry.

Some of those mansions line Victory Drive on the route to Grayson Stadium, a beautiful lane bordered by oak trees that form a tunnel over the street.

Now, not everyone is enamored with Grayson Stadium, the facility named for William L. Grayson, a former U.S. Army general who spearheaded the rebuilding of the ballpark after the 1940 hurricane.

Adam Wogan, the Nationals’ director of player development, has a perspective different from that of a baseball fan who wants to watch the game in a nostalgic setting. He is looking at the facilities the ballpark provides for player development, and he said last season those were a serious problem.

“There were some issues last year,” Wogan said. “Cleanliness issues in the clubhouse. It flooded, and several players got sick. Also, [third baseman] Kory Casto got hit in the eye socket with a ground ball, and we think the field contributed to it.”

Yet Wogan was willing to sign another two-year affiliation deal with the Sand Gnats this year, in large part because of the team’s new owner, lawyer John Simmons.

Simmons promised — and delivered — improvements to the ballpark, even though the facility is owned by the city of Savannah and not the club. Simmons replaced the carpets in the old clubhouse and hired a cleaning service to come in on a regular basis. He also provided a covered batting cage area for the players to get work.

“They are working hard to improve it,” Wogan said.

Daryl Thompson, a 19-year-old right-handed pitcher from La Plata, Md., said it was pretty bad in the clubhouse last year.

“A lot of stuff went wrong,” he said. “We had players get sick and didn’t have a good clubbie [clubhouse manager]. A lot of the players didn’t really get along. But this year is a whole lot better than last year. The field is in much better shape. We have a new clubbie, and he is real good. We’re not having any problems.”

The Sand Gnats have embraced the Expos’ move to Washington and their new connection to the nation’s capital.

The public address announcer gives the crowd — the team drew 117,000 last year, averaging 1,858 fans a game, and attendance this season so far is up about 500 a game — a daily Washington Nationals game report “from one Gnat to another.”

Sand Gnats co-general manager Bradley Dodson said Simmons, a former U.S. Army combat engineer who had been stationed in Savannah for several years, is committed to improving the ballpark and preserving its historic status. He has put on at least one concert at the facility and has Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson scheduled for a show early next month.

“He loves the ballpark,” Dodson said. “Remember, this is someone who went back to his hometown and bought and reopened an old steel mill there. He has an appreciation for tradition.”

Not all traditions are worth preserving, though all are worth remembering — even the bad ones.

Willie Smith, a retired produce manager, has been attending games at Grayson since he was 6 years old. Smith remembers sitting with his father in the one bleacher section in which blacks were allowed until the early 1960s.

“It was something that was done, but everyone still enjoyed the game,” Smith said. “They didn’t talk much about it during my father’s time. We still had a lot of fun there. My daddy still loved coming here.”

Smith said he used to sneak into the ballpark and watch the players practice.

“I would ride my bicycle out here,” he said. “I would put it up against the brick wall, climb on the seat and climb over the wall. I met a lot of the players, and they were good to me.”

Those players, though, were all white — until one day Aaron took the field. “I saw Hank Aaron play, but I didn’t like that he played for Jacksonville,” Smith said. “They were our enemy.”

Smith, 66, now can sit anyplace in Grayson Stadium he wants, but he has one spot in particular he likes. He has his own designated seat: No. 23 in the grandstand, about 20 rows up from the box seats.

“I like the view here,” he said. “I get to see all my boys better.”

Most, if not all of the Sand Gnats know Smith and wave to him when they take the field and he yells their names. Some of his boys in the past included future major leaguers Ryan Klesko and Glenn Hubbard, who played in Savannah when the franchise was an Atlanta Braves affiliate.

“I love the game,” he said. “I get a kick out of seeing these players and meeting them before they move on.”

Smith has seen players from the Savannah Indians, Braves and Cardinals during his time at Grayson Stadium. The New York Giants, Philadelphia Athletics, Kansas City Athletics, and, yes, even the Washington Senators have had teams in the city over the years.

When the St. Louis Cardinals changed affiliates in 1996, the team owners sought a name more connected with the community. A contest was held, and “Sand Gnats” emerged the winner.

What is a sand gnat? It is an insect that sucks blood from people for the development of their eggs. And, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, how do they do this?

“Sand gnats don’t just puncture your skin like mosquitos do. Instead they rip it open using sharp cutting teeth. … After inserting two sharp, sword-like blades into the skin as anchors, the sand gnat uses the cutting teeth to rip up the skin and get the blood flowing. As if that weren’t enough, the gnat then squirts a chemical into the open wound to inhibit blood clotting.”

Hardly an endearing moniker, but sand gnats are a Savannah tradition, as is baseball at Grayson Stadium. And they love their tradition.

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