BY CAROLYN LaWELL
JACKSONVILLE, Florida | Just as the final notes of the “Star-Spangled Banner” were sung, a P-3 Navy plane crossed center field and, as fast at it appeared, disappeared behind Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville. It was synched just as Peter Bragan Jr. said.
As much as a club prepares for opening day, there are always last-minute details to finalize, last-minute fires to put out, before the gates open and baseball is played. By now, on his 28th opening day, Bragan, president and owner of the Jacksonville Suns Baseball Club, knows not everything goes as planned. But four hours before the first pitch, he knocked on the hard wood of his desk – the weather will cooperate, the timing will be right.
“That’s big leagueish,” he says of the flyover.
Twenty-eight years ago the gates opened for Jacksonville baseball under new management. During that offseason, Peter Bragan Sr. moved his family from Birmingham, Alabama, to Jacksonville. Then a 60-year-old car salesman, Bragan was looking to spend his twilight years in baseball, and while Birmingham wasn’t for sale, Jacksonville was.
"For opening day we had this huge crowd. We filled the place up to the rim. That next night there wasn’t a thousand people. I was just like, ‘It’s not going to be full like that every night?’ That’s how greenhorn I was at that time." — Peter Bragan Jr.
“The first year my dad bought the team, I didn’t know nothin’ about it much, about runnin’ a minor league team,” says Bragan, who was 32 at the time. “I was pretty green and that whole winter we were trying to sell people and do promotions. We arranged to have the Chicken for opening night, and it was hot in the ´80s. We had the Chicken, and we had a sellout. The famous San Diego Chicken was the biggest thing at that time, and for opening day we had this huge crowd. We filled the place up to the rim. Back then, I think we were opening on like a Tuesday ’cause it wasn’t like the next night was a Friday, the next night was like a Wednesday. And that next night there wasn’t a thousand people. I was just like, ‘Oh, no, why isn’t it full like it was. It’s not going to be full like that every night?’ That’s how greenhorn I was at that time. I was so crushed following that second game.”
Ten years ago, opening day christened the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville. The team moved from rundown Wolfson Park, which was later demolished to make way for the Jacksonville Jaguars’ practice field that sits just past center field. Other cities, like Birmingham, built new ballparks and Jacksonville had trouble attracting suburbanites to the rundown downtown stadium. Seasoned in Jacksonville politics, the Bragans lobbied for a new stadium. “I said, ‘It’s too old and rundown, the clubhouses are terrible for the players, the big-league affiliates don’t like it, don’t want to be here, you are not a choice plum,’” Bragan says. It took the Jaguars hosting the 2005 Super Bowl and thousands of out-of-towners descending on Jacksonville for the city to invest in, among other infrastructure, a new park.
“The crowd for the opening day of this ballpark was 12,000-something,” Bragan says. “My most fond memory for opening day was that day. We’re down behind home plate and my dad and the mayor of Jacksonville go through the gate to go out to throw the ceremonial first pitch. And the fire marshal is standing there saying, ‘If you don’t tell them to open those gates out there on the back fence’ – which was idiotic but they’re code – ‘those gates have to be open or I’m going to arrest you, Mr. Bragan.’ So I’m getting threatened to be arrested by the fire marshal. I’m about 20 steps from the mayor. I wanted to run out there, hide behind the mayor. It was a crazy thing. I did tell the head usher to open the gates and just stand there, make sure nobody sneaks in the gates. … That was a wild memory.”
Opening day is special. It’s special for the fans, the players, the clubs. There are few opening days Bragan doesn’t remember. Just three years ago, to celebrate his family owning the team for 25 years, five Jacksonville mayors, Minor League Baseball President Pat O’Conner and others from the league office were in Jacksonville to open the season. It was a cold night. Bragan wore his black leather jacket and black-and-white checkered britches.
What Bragan takes away from this opening night is yet unknown. But before the fans showed up, before the flyover and before the first pitch, he started opening day with his annual tradition. He sat in a skybox along the third-base line and smoked a cigar with his dad, who is 88 and in fading health.
“It’s been my whole life, minor league baseball. It is my life. It consumes me,” Bragan says. “I’m worried what I’m gonna do when my dad passes. I know I’m probably gonna wanna get away from it, from this office without him here. I’ll be wanting to go down the hall and ask him something. I’m worried. I love the game. It’s been my whole life. But I know my dad’s not gonna live a whole lot longer – he may not make the rest of this season, it’s hard to say. But he’s coming tonight.”
Even Bragan doesn’t know how many more opening days he wants to be around the park. But when that day comes and the season opens under new management, if he has it his way, Bragan won’t be anywhere near Jacksonville.
“Me and my wife, neither one of us has ever been to Hawaii,” he says. “I always say, when I sell the ball club that first year, I’m gonna go to Hawaii and be gone all of April and May, so that people won’t go, ‘Oh, how would Bragan have done it? Let’s go ask Bragan how he would do it.’ My wife and I, I used to say $10,000, but now I probably have to say $25,000, we’ll go to Maui, go to the Maui Marriott and see how far $10,000 can go. Back then I thought it was at least a month, now it’s probably $25,000 a month.”
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