When the Biloxi City Council voted in October to build a minor league ballpark across the highway from the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino, one major question was left unanswered. No one would say where a team would be found to fill the proposed 6,000-seat stadium.
As reported in Lagniappe at that time, among the clubs being mentioned were the Mobile BayBears. Despite a good amount on success on the field, the team has remained near the bottom of the Southern League in attendance figures.
Team president Bill Shanahan stepped up and declared, “The BayBears are firmly planted in Mobile.” It turns out he was correct.
On Jan. 10, Southern League officials announced the Huntsville Stars would move to Biloxi. This was not a major surprise, as reports out of the winter baseball meetings in Orlando, in December had suggested the Stars would leave North Alabama at the conclusion of the 2014 season.
The organizers who worked to bring a team to the Mississippi Gulf Coast had experience in these matters. In 2004, they convinced the Atlanta Braves to transfer its Class AA team from Greenville, S.C., to Pearl, Miss., a suburb of Jackson.
Biloxi’s bid to join the world of minor league baseball has not come without some controversy. While the city council plans a $21 million bond issue for the project, Gov. Phil Bryant will chip in with an extra $15 million from the BP settlement. Some environmental groups were unhappy about the oil spill funds being spent in this manner.
Another issue involved a large number of oak trees located on the current employee parking lot — site of the new ballpark — that Beau Rivage officials will lease to the city for $1 a year.
“We had a tree hearing by our planning commission,” Kenny Glavan, a city councilman in Biloxi, told Lagniappe a few days before the official announcement. “We will relocate as many as possible, while others will be removed. But we agreed that nothing will be touched before we have a team committed to playing here.”
Prior to the Southern League’s news release, Huntsville’s mayor was already saying his city would seek another team after the Stars depart. The chances of that are uncertain, since Huntsville’s Joe W. Davis Stadium is the oldest in the Southern League and the second oldest in all of Class AA baseball.
The Stars — a farm club of the Milwaukee Brewers — were last in the league with an average attendance of 1,877. The team has been in Huntsville since 1985, and has not made the playoffs since 2009.
Biloxi officials are expecting a much greater turnout for its baseball facility. A study examined minor league parks throughout the United States, with the best aspects from each going into the new stadium.
“We have gone up to Pearl, and they have done a tremendous job up there,” Glavan said. “It is not just a ballpark. They have got a Bass Pro Shop, an outlet mall and hotels.
“We also looked at Pensacola. They have a beautiful ballpark on the bay. It is very close to what we want here in Biloxi.”
This will also mean more competition for the BayBears’s facility. Hank Aaron Stadium opened in 1997, and also has a capacity of 6,000.
“Mobile has an older stadium, and it probably could use some upgrades,” Glavan said. “I just remember the sound system needing some work.”
Even with that, Glavan envisions a fantastic rivalry being born with a team moving to Biloxi.
“This is going to be great for the fans in Mobile,” Glavan said. “It will be a competitive landscape that everyone can enjoy. I am talking about Biloxi, Mobile and Pensacola, along with Pearl and Jacksonville.”
But baseball is not the only item Biloxi officials have in mind for their new facility.
“We want to host outdoor concerts and other festivals,” Glavan said. “Eventually, we would like to turn the whole area near the stadium into an entertainment district.
“I am just so excited about the future of this ballpark. With our location near the beach and the casinos, it will be one of the better ones in the Southern League.”