Being the general manager of one minor league team is hard enough, a job that demands long hours and a team-first commitment. Taking on two teams would appear to be baseball’s equivalent of a fool’s errand.
But that is exactly the role being played by Buck Rogers, the veteran minor league executive who has spent the past six years as GM of the Huntsville Stars (Southern). Rogers will move south with the team next season into a new ballpark in Biloxi, Miss. In the meantime, the former Army infantry squad leader is pulling double-duty, overseeing the final months of Huntsville’s franchise while preparing for a new day in Biloxi.
The combination can make for a long commute. “I put over 5,000 miles on my jeep in May,” Rogers said of the 415-mile drive between Huntsville and Biloxi that he now does regularly.
He brought a few members of his staff with him in early June to begin taking reservations and deposits for season tickets in the $36 million downtown ballpark being built across the street from the Gulf of Mexico and adjacent to a casino.
“We’re going Mach 1 with our hair on fire,” the equally fast-talking Rogers said of his team’s work schedule. “And like every minor league team, we wouldn’t want it any other way.”
The hours and miles are worth it for Rogers, because opening a brand-new ballpark can be a once-in-a-career opportunity. He should know, because after 17 years and four teams in the minors, he’s never done it.
Rogers is the front-office equivalent of a minor league grinder who finally gets his big break. He has made a career of running past-their-prime ballparks that rarely fill up with fans, from Fayetteville, N.C., to Florida State League outposts in Daytona and Brevard County, to crumbling Joe Davis Stadium in Huntsville.
So, for Rogers, the chance to launch a franchise at a state-of-the-art ballpark in a community eager to embrace a minor league team is like, well . . .
“It’s like Christmas morning, New Year’s Eve and Mardi Gras all rolled into one,” Rogers said. “Don’t think I’m taking that for granted.”
When that party will officially get started in Biloxi is unclear. The goal is to be ready for Opening Day 2015, but construction is already running behind schedule and the city fired its project management team in early May. Architects told Biloxi officials during a May city council meeting that the ballpark, being funded in part with BP oil spill settlement money, won’t be completed until mid-May 2015. That date, of course, would be roughly five weeks after the start of the season.
Team officials aren’t panicking and believe the ballpark can be done, or at least done enough, to open on time. Co-owner Tim Bennett compares the Biloxi project to the opening of the Mississippi Braves’ Trustmark Park in Pearl he oversaw 10 years ago. That project was significantly more grandiose—it had 22 suites compared to the planned 15 in Biloxi and required significantly more infrastructure development—and was finished in 11 months, Bennett said.
“Given all those factors, we should be able to get this ballpark done relatively quickly, and if not, then look to play first few weeks on the road,” Bennett said. “I feel confident we can get it done . . . We’re progressing as if the stadium is going to be done in the second week of April, ready for us to play ball. We are moving forward very optimistically.”
Bennett believes that even if the park isn’t completed, it should be far enough along to get a “temporary certificate of occupancy.”
“We can paint while they’re on the road,” he said.
Neither Bennett nor Rogers would comment on whether the team would open the season back in Huntsville if the ballpark is not ready to go. Majority owner Ken Young, who owns four other minor league teams, was not available for comment. However, a home field alternative would be required if the Biloxi stadium is not ready, because it is unlikely that Minor League Baseball or the Milwaukee Brewers (Huntsville’s current big league affiliate) would allow the team to spend the first five weeks of the season on the road.
The El Paso Chihuahuas (Pacific Coast) faced a similar situation this season when it spent three weeks on the road and played its first home series in Tucson, where the team had spent the previous three seasons, because its ballpark was not done on time.
And speaking of the Chihuahuas, Biloxi is looking to make a similar splash with its name. The team narrowed down 4,000 fan suggestions to six finalists for a name the team contest. Fans can vote for their favorite online at BaseballBiloxi.com. The results will be released later this year.
The finalists, with descriptions provided by the team, are listed below:
• Biloxi Beacon: A symbol of resilience, the “Biloxi Beacon” honors the Biloxi beach lighthouse, which has weathered nature’s mightiest storms since 1848. Beacon embodies Biloxi’s can-do attitude, shared by Coastians throughout the region.
• Biloxi Black Jacks: Combining the fun of Minor League Baseball with casino and seafood industries, the Biloxi Black Jacks pays homage to the rare black-colored gulf coast Jack fish.
• Biloxi Mullets: A tribute to Biloxi bacon and the popular Biloxi fish, the Biloxi Mullets falls in line with the Lugnuts, Biscuits and other wacky names Minor League Baseball is known for.
• Biloxi Schooners: The Biloxi Schooners celebrates the legendary Biloxi-built boats known for their speed and windward ability. This workhorse became a way of life for fishermen along the Mississippi Coast.
• Biloxi Shrimpers: The Gulf Coast shrimp gave birth to Biloxi’s famous seafood industry in the 1920s and 1930s. The name Biloxi Shrimpers embodies Biloxi’s reputation as the hub of the Gulf’s shrimping industry.
• Biloxi Shuckers: The Biloxi Shuckers celebrates Biloxi’s legacy as the original “Seafood Capital of the World.” Raw, fried, steamed, or broiled—shucking oysters has been synonymous with Biloxi for generations.
• The New Britain Rock Cats took a page out of the Atlanta Braves’ playbook in early June with the surprise announcement that the Eastern League franchise has worked out a deal to move to a new ballpark down the road in downtown Hartford.
Negotiations had taken place for over a year before Rock Cats managing partner Josh Solomon and Hartford mayor Pedro Sagarra made the announcement on the steps of city hall. The plan calls for the city to fund the $60 million ballpark through bonds and for the Rock Cats to ink a 25-year lease at roughly $500,000 annually. The project still requires approval from the city council, but Sagarra told reporters that he already has the necessary votes lined up.
“We explored our opportunities, and the ability to bring baseball to the capital city was just a tremendous opportunity that we couldn’t pass on,” Solomon said, according to the Hartford Courant. “The ability to provide our fans with a state-of-the-art facility at the junction of two major highways in downtown Hartford was something that we couldn’t pass up.”
The Rock Cats have been a solid draw over the years. The team’s average attendance dipped 8 percent during a cold and wet 2013 but New Britain still ranked sixth in the 12-team league.
The ballpark is slated to open in 2016, after the team’s lease expires at New Britain Stadium. The news came as a surprise to New Britain mayor Erin Stewart, who told the Courant that she was feeling “betrayal, hurt and anger” after learning of the team’s secret negotiations. However, she remains confident that she’ll be able to keep the Rock Cats in New Britain.
“I question the city of Hartford’s ability to finance the project,” she told the Courant. “Like many other cities and towns across the state, Hartford is struggling, just as New Britain is, with deficits and budget problems. How they can justify this in such difficult times?”