Pearl Lands A Gem
New ballpark woos Braves to move to Mississippi
By J.J. Cooper
After five years of trying, Tim Bennett was down to his last chance, a final all-in bet to keep his dream alive.
He and a group of local officials were pulling their second straight all-nighter, trying to work out the final details on an agreement to bring the Braves’ Southern League team to Pearl, Miss.
His siblings and his mother had asked him for years if it wasn’t time for Bennett to get a regular job, just like everyone else. His girlfriend had left him, saying that it was baseball or her. His earlier attempts to bring baseball to Jackson, Miss., had ended in failure and more than a little animosity.
But Bennett, who had no money to bring to the deal and no governmental authority to sign any papers, had become an integral part of the quest to bring Braves baseball to Mississippi by the force of his personality and skill as a coalition builder. If this didn’t work, he knew his days in baseball were done.
So he finally gave in. Maybe everyone else had a point. Maybe it was crazy for a man who had never played the game and had no college education to think he could bring together a deal that would bring affiliated baseball back to Mississippi.
If he couldn’t get the Braves to agree to come to Pearl, a suburb of Jackson, Bennett would listen to reason. He’d pick up and move, likely to go back to laying tile for a living.
Around midnight as the deadline arrived, Bennett had reason to start polishing his resume. After learning that some of the details of the deal had changed at the last minute, the Braves balked.
“Around midnight, the deal was off. The Braves said, ‘We’ll have to lick our wounds and go back to Greenville, but this isn’t working,’ ” Bennett says now.
Three hours later, after a few tweaks to the agreement, the deal was back on. In that moment near 3 a.m. on April 1, 2004, as Bennett and Pearl mayor Jimmy Foster sat around a speakerphone, the Braves made the effort worthwhile.
These days, Bennett, 35, doesn’t lay tile unless he’s doing a favor for a friend. And he’s busy working to bring baseball to Biloxi, Miss., the city that hired him after seeing his success as a broker in Pearl. While he was scrapping to find anyone to believe in his dream a couple of years ago, now others come to him with their dreams.
“I guess my stubbornness and ignorance was rewarded,” Bennett says.
Foster and Pearl’s persistence also paid off. The Pearl mayor can’t walk down the street now without someone coming up and talking to him about the Mississippi Braves. The team had sold roughly 3,000 season tickets with Opening Day a month away. And the retail development, which was anchored around a giant Bass Pro Shops store and the stadium, has lined up 1,000,000 square feet in stores, hotels and restaurants.
The Braves, who had to initially ask “Where’s that?” when contacted by Bennett about moving to Pearl, are now thrilled to be moving into a state-of-the-art $25 million stadium, one that offers amenities for the players and fans that Greenville’s 21-year-old Municipal Stadium couldn’t approach.
“(Bennett) had to sell us on coming out there. We wanted to stay in Greenville. That was our first, second and third choice,” Braves vice president Chip Moore says. “It didn’t work out, and we’re now tickled it didn’t work out.”
When Foster first met Bennett, it was a matter of good timing. Foster didn’t have long to lament his city’s failure to build a new arena so it could bring minor league hockey to the city. Just as that deal fell apart, in walked Bennett, a man with a dream who needed a city to believe in it.
Foster wanted to bring affiliated baseball to the Jackson area, a goal Bennett had been working toward for two years. But he hadn’t made much headway. He had heard countless times that Jackson wasn’t suited for affiliated baseball and was lucky to have an independent team.
When nearby Pearl showed interest, Bennett saw a second chance. He also saw it as a sign of a new era in the state. Mississippi still battles the memories of the racial discrimination and intimidation of the segregated South of the past. When people saw Bennett, who is black, and Foster, who is white, working together, some did a double-take. Especially after Bennett had an acrimonious falling out with the black mayor in Jackson.
“(Foster) and I have the running joke. No one would expect that we would put a deal together and we do,” Bennett says.
Foster pegged the odds of landing a team, any team, at 10 percent. It was a hope that carried some risk but a big reward.
“Without a doubt it was a longshot,” Foster says. “I really didn’t think initially we could put it together. I had a first impression that Tim was an honest guy and very dedicated. But I knew he didn’t have the means to put together what we were trying to do. But I believed he had the ties within baseball.”
Bennett had built some baseball ties, though it was hard to explain how, except for his sheer will. Bennett spent several years moving around the world building Freedom Halls for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He returned to Auburndale, Fla., in 1995 when his father died to take over the family’s lawn-cutting business.
Just a few months later, Bennett, who was also laying tile at night for a second job, fell asleep while driving, apparently pressing the gas pedal to the floor in his sleep. His minivan rear-ended a dump truck at more than 100 miles an hour. He managed to drag himself out of the wreck before his minivan exploded, but he was admitted to the hospital partially paralyzed, with massive facial injuries.
He was on a liquid diet with his jaw wired shut for weeks, bedridden for nearly a month, and he spent several more months going through plastic surgery and rehab to recover.
Bennett still keeps the hospital reports from his accident as a reminder of what almost happened and how far he’s come. But his sister, Felicia Rollins, noticed something else. He left the hospital with a new approach and new resolve.
“After that, he seemed to think he was invincible,” she says.
When a couple of Expos players who knew a friend of Bennett’s approached him later about drawing up plans for a minor league stadium (he had taken drafting in high school), he quickly sketched out plans. And before long, he was moving to Mississippi. Working in baseball involved hustle, effort and vision. It seemed a lot more exciting and promising than cutting grass.
He tried to help a team in Meridian but it quickly fell apart. When it did, Bennett was hired by the nearby Jackson DiamondKats as an assistant general manager. When the team was unable to find a full-time general manager, Bennett got the job.
He wasn’t exactly qualified. Running a lawn-care business isn’t the same as running and promoting a ballclub. The team lasted one year before leaving, with few fans bemoaning their departure. Bennett was known as the public face of a failed team.
“I admit, I suck as a general manager,” Bennett says. “I tried it and failed; I won’t do it again. But if you ask to go get it started, crank it up and then hand it over to someone, I can do that.”
Bennett grants that a wise man would have packed up and moved on at that point. But he says that he didn’t want to leave Jackson as a failure. And he wanted to prove the area could support baseball, if it was done right. He won a contract to manage the city’s Smith-Wills Stadium, but he quickly was at odds with city government. Bennett wanted to bring affiliated baseball to the city by developing a new stadium. The city wanted to go with the lower-risk approach of bringing independent baseball to the current ballpark. When his contract was up, Bennett was out of a job and the independent Jackson Senators settled in.
Bennett picked up and moved five miles away in Pearl. When he started working with Foster and the city, he was barely making ends meet, working on the stadium project by day and just about anything else at night.
“I was laying tile at night, doing odd jobs,” Bennett says. “I was doing whatever it took to keep the lights on at that point. I was sleeping on the floor, literally, in an apartment. Hand to mouth, month to month. That was the way I did it until we got close to landing the deal.”
The hunger made Bennett a motivated seller. And in a matter of good timing for him, Atlanta was about to become interested.
The Braves were looking for a new stadium, preferably in Greenville. They had been proclaiming their need for a new ballpark for a number of years, with little movement from the city. When Bennett, Foster and the city of Pearl came calling, the Braves were at least willing to listen, not that they expected anything to come from it. They later admitted to Bennett that the first meeting was planned to tell him no, just to get him to stop calling.
But after their first visit to Pearl, the Braves regarded it as a nice fallback plan. The area got a big boost from the arrival of a Nissan plant, providing the well-paying jobs that create fans with disposable income. A plan to bring in a Bass Pro Shop, a huge outdoors and fishing store, would provide tax money to pay for a new stadium. The city and the state were willing to hash out a deal to give the Braves the stadium they were looking for, but they were a hard sell on the feasibility of the market.
“In my market studies, I noticed how markets get accustomed to the team being there. They don’t see the effects of losing the team,” Bennett says. “Looking at the North Carolina and South Carolina regions and how many teams there were within 300 miles, you have a saturated market. You have Triple-A, Double-A and Class A teams all fighting for the market. (In Mississippi) they would be the only team in the state. They have a complete market to themselves. And it’s a Braves territory. People are driving from Mississippi to watch the Braves. That was hard to fight.”
It was clear the state was willing to get behind the project. Mississippi governor Haley Barbour took the time for a breakfast meeting with Braves officials during the state’s legislative session, which did not go unnoticed by the team.
So with no movement in Greenville, Braves vice presidents Moore and Mike Plant set up a meeting for Bennett with general manager John Schuerholz at the 2003 Winter Meetings. Bennett was told he had 10 minutes.
More than 30 minutes later, Bennett was finally ushered out. That night, he went out with some of the Braves officials. For the first time, he and Foster could start to believe that they might pull it off.
But that didn’t mean Pearl had any reason to get excited—yet. The Braves agreed they would give Greenville until March 31 to put together a deal. If not, they’d give Pearl a decision by April 1.
Once it became clear Pearl was a viable option, Greenville got moving on a new stadium offer of its own. But in the end, the details on Greenville’s $18 million stadium couldn’t compare with Mississippi’s $25 million offer. Thanks to tax money and a $1 ticket surcharge on Mississippi Braves tickets, the stadium will be paid off without any contribution from the Braves’ operating revenue. The Braves will also get to keep all concession and ticket revenues.
And finally, Bennett doesn’t have to worry about how he’ll pay the rent. The day the papers were signed to bring the Braves to Mississippi, he became a millionaire, thanks to a broker’s fee of more than $1 million he received for bringing the parties together. His Overtime Sports company also landed a 20-year contract to manage non-Braves events at the new stadium.
After years of worrying about bills, he went out and bought an H2 Hummer as his reward, replacing his beat-up Volkswagen Passat with the leaky sunroof.
And he lived up to a promise. Before the Braves announced their move, he told people around town that he would take whoever wanted to go to an Atlanta Braves game if they decided to bring Double-A baseball to Mississippi. Bennett chartered eight buses to take kids from the local Boys and Girls Club, local college baseball players and anyone else—more than 380 people in all—to a Braves-Marlins game. Schuerholz and Plant met with the group before the game to talk about the Mississippi Braves, making the trip one to remember for the fans.
But Bennett expects to remember the April 18 Opening Day in Pearl even more. It’s finally becoming real as he wanders around spring training at the Braves’ complex in Kissimmee, Fla.
“Right now, I’m taking it all in. When I was at the field, a lot of the players were talking about Mississippi, hearing coaches say we’re going to Mississippi,” he says. “Now it’s sinking in that it’s all happening. It’s not a dream anymore.”