Buck Showalter thought he’d hit the jackpot when the New York Yankees switched Double-A affiliates and relocated to Nashville in 1980.
A 23-year-old, left-handed hitting designated hitter, Showalter was awestruck by Greer Stadium, which had just been built in 1978.
“It was the Taj Mahal when I was there,” said Showalter, now the manager of the Baltimore Orioles. “It was probably the best facility in Double-A at that time. The attendance, I think we drew close to 500,000 that one year. They were roping off the warning track. It was a great time for baseball in Nashville at that time.”
It didn’t take long for views to change.
As the manager of the Milwaukee Brewers — the current parent club of the now Triple-A Nashville Sounds — Ron Roenicke doesn’t want to bite the hand that feeds him. But when he spent a year playing for the Sounds, he couldn’t ignore the obvious.
“They could have used a new stadium then,” the 56-year-old recalls about his stint in Nashville in 1988.
Last week, when Major League Baseball migrated to Nashville and Opryland Hotel for its annual Winter Meetings, a bevy of current big-league managers turned nostalgic. Along with Showalter and Roenicke, Don Mattingly (Los Angeles Dodgers), Bob Melvin (Oakland A’s), Dale Sveum (Chicago Cubs) and Robin Ventura (Chicago White Sox) all played at Greer Stadium for the Sounds.
Each echoed the same sentiment of many Nashville residents and baseball enthusiasts — the city needs a new baseball stadium. They also would hate to see Nashville lose baseball.
After studying the issue a year ago, Mayor Karl Dean’s administration has been silent on the issue of a new park.
Co-owner Frank Ward recently squashed an industry-wide rumor that the Sounds were up for sale. He also said the ownership group of MFP Baseball is pursuing adding minority shareholders.
“We believe in Nashville’s rich and colorful baseball history and believe the hard work of our staff over the past four seasons proves our commitment is long-term,” Ward said in a statement. “Despite the challenges of playing in the oldest ballpark in Triple-A baseball, we have elevated baseball’s relevance within the Nashville sporting scene.”
Ward was scheduled to meet with city officials last week to discuss extending Greer Stadium’s lease, which expires at the end of 2013. This meeting comes more than a year after the city identified three locations near downtown for a new stadium. Ward was not made available for further comment.
Back in September, the Brewers extended their affiliate agreement with the Sounds through the end of the 2014 season. In doing so, Brewers general manager Doug Melvin hinted that a future relationship might hinge on a new stadium.
“While the current facility and conditions are not totally satisfactory, we remain loyal and are very supportive of the ownership and Frank Ward in his continued efforts to get a much-needed new park,” Melvin said then. “As general manager of a major league franchise, I totally believe in this ownership, and if we can get the same support from the city, Nashville will be one of the most desirable franchises in minor league baseball.”
Several current skippers remember the days when Nashville was a destination city for aspiring big-league baseball players.
For Sveum, those days weren’t too long ago. At the end of a 13-year career that featured stops with seven big-league teams, he spent three months with the Sounds in 1999.
“It was nice coming to 8,000 to 10,000 people a night playing here,” he said. “It was a fun experience. We had a great team. So it was a lot of fun. It’s a great city. Obviously, we all know what kind of city it is, but definitely they need a new ballpark to keep up with the rest of the country.”
An aging venue without lavish amenities, Greer has struggled to draw fans. This past season the Sounds drew 321,042 for 72 home games (an average of 4,792 per game). It was the third lowest attendance total in the Pacific Coast League. Along with a hot June, the Sounds were hindered by five rainouts, forcing doubleheaders that saw smaller crowds.
It was the lowest attendance mark since only 305,434 came out in 2009 — the first year of the current ownership group. The Sounds last eclipsed the 400,000 mark in 2007.
Meanwhile, just down the road in Memphis, the Triple-A affiliate of the Cardinals has flourished. The Redbirds play downtown at sparkling AutoZone Park. The Redbirds drew 493,706 fans last year and have been among the league leaders in attendance since the park opened in 2000.
Showalter, who met his wife in Nashville and whose in-laws still live here, recently visited Memphis and marveled at the new Taj Mahal of Triple-A.
“There’s no reason why Nashville shouldn’t have that. It has been a constant. It is a great baseball city,” Showalter said. “I actually think they could support somebody at any level they wanted to. Football has done well. I think the hockey’s done well. I’m a little surprised there hasn’t been more talk about them during the expansion time.”