Formerly a farm team of the Montreal Expos, the Sand Gnats are now the single-A affiliate of the Expos buzzworthy new incarnation as the Washington Nationals, who begin their inaugural season in the nations capital this spring.
In addition, the 2005 season marks ten years of the Sand Gnats moniker for the team, which over the years has been called the Braves, the Cardinals, the Indians and the Pathfinders.
And lastly, Simmons comes to a city with a new mayor and a new expansive mode -- a city that maybe -- just maybe -- might be willing to play ball with him on funding upgrades to the historic but decrepit Grayson Stadium.
We spoke with Simmons within hours of his arrival in Savannah from his home in Illinois, fresh from getting full South Atlantic League (SAL) approval for the $6 million purchase.
Connect Savannah: This is your first ball club. What made you decide to take the plunge?
John Simmons: Well, its going to be fun. Im not saying Im the worlds greatest businessman or anything like that, and this isnt something youd necessarily want to depend on as a retirement vehicle. But Ive got kids, and thats going to be really great -- for example, my oldest son is seven. So on our first homestand were going to make him a batboy -- hell be batboy number 7. Most of all, we want to make this a real treat for the city.
Connect Savannah: Many baseball people insist that Savannah is still too small a market to support a minor league team. What about that school of thought?
John Simmons: A lot of small markets are actually doing very well. Theyre all different animals, really. It boils down to a lot of other factors, like competition for the entertainment dollar, things like that. The most important thing is, its got to be a great family experience.
Connect Savannah: Another thing you hear so much is that the key to minor league success isnt so much the baseball but the entertainment.
John Simmons: Well, the concerts we have planned are the big thing. I love music, and theres nothing like a good concert. We eventually want to get to a point where about ten percent of the home games have a post-game concert afterward.
Weve got Sammy Kirshaw coming in April 9. Then weve got the big Bob Dylan/Willie Nelson show in June. Thats not after a game, of course, but its part of our schedule at the stadium.
Then later on weve got the Wanda Mountain Boys, a great country gospel group, to perform after a Sunday game. One thing we really want to do is focus on church groups. Not just in town, either, but church groups all around the area.
One of our goals for 06 is to maybe announce the opening concert, but have all the others be a secret. Youll pay six bucks to come to a game, and there might be a concert afterwards. You dont know unless you come. And, boom, theres Alan Jackson or somebody like that coming out after the game.
But other than that, you know, you can go on the Internet and see what every other club is doing. Theres only so much you can do (laughs). Youve got the sumo suits, throwing the ball through the hoop, and everything else. Im not going to sit here and say were going to come up with a million new things.
Connect Savannah: There was some controversy sparked by reports in Illinois that you might be planning to move the Sand Gnats up there after the 2005 season.
John Simmons: Well, what happened was everyone knew I was working on a team deal in Southern Illinois. So naturally they assumed that meant I was thinking of bringing the Sand Gnats up there. No one could contemplate that what I was actually doing was considering buying a second team. Now, I dont blame anyone for thinking that. Its perfectly understandable. It was kind of a natural thing to think, in a way.
But Savannah is Savannah, and Grayson is Grayson, and baseball will be here.
Connect Savannah: So youre prepared to say point-blank that youll keep the Sand Gnats here beyond the 2005 season?
John Simmons: Yes, Im absolutely prepared to say that, and thats what Im saying.
Connect Savannah: Everyone, even the city, agrees something has got to be done about Grayson Stadium. What are some specific improvements youd like to see happen?
John Simmons: Weve already had architects give us some designs on some things we want to do in the 65 days before the season opens. Keep in mind I didnt get full SAL approval until this past Monday. The only major work is what we want to do to the concourse -- clean it up, make it nicer and friendlier. Its too late to do anything to the seating or anything like that.
There are really two things we want to do in those 65 days -- the concourse work, and fix the foul ball nets so there are no holes and you can see through it better.
Connect Savannah: The history at Grayson is unbelievable. Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron all played here, to name just a few.
John Simmons: Its an incredible story, it really is, and were going to try our best to get the word out. Id like to do more with the plaques that are in the concourse right now. Get them refurbished, and invite some of those players honored on the plaques to come down to some games and rededicate them. Then well put them in a different area where they can be displayed better.
Connect Savannah: How is the Nationals affiliation going to impact you locally?
John Simmons: Its going to be great. Really, other than the Braves theres no other affiliation that would be better for the Sand Gnats right now. Theres so much buzz around the Nationals now. Its also good because Washington isnt really all that far away -- certainly its a lot closer than Montreal (laughs).
Another plus is, the team is owned by all the owners of Major League Baseball, so in a sense theyll all want to help us out in some way. Everyone will have a stake in the Nationals success.
The Savannah Sand Gnats 2005 home opener is April 9 at Grayson Stadium.