As baseball begins across the country, some fans look up at the owner’s box or see that individual on television or in the stadium and wonder what it’s like.
To find out, I went to Jacksonville Florida’s Landing with my family for a pep rally for the Jacksonville Suns, the night before Opening Day for the minor league franchise against the Huntsville Stars. Citizens of Florida’s “First Coast” turned out for the ceremony, merchandise, and to get autographs of some potential future major leaguers.
I interviewed Peter Bragan, Jr., the owner of the Double A League Suns, who has won awards for his leadership in the front office, to get some insight into what it’s like to run a minor league franchise, what works, and what doesn’t.
“It’s important to have a good connection to the major league franchise,” Bragan explained. “If you can get them to play some exhibition games in your town, that’s great. It also helps if they bring in some pretty talented players.”
The Jacksonville Suns are currently connected with the Miami Marlins, and have held that relationship for the last five years. “We had Mike Stanton (now Giancarlo Stanton) hitting home runs here; that was great.”
He also praised Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna, two other minor league stars at the next level. I asked if they had Jose Fernandez, the outstanding new pitcher for the Marlins. “He was with us on the team, but they promoted him pretty quickly to the Marlins. Would have liked to have had him longer.” But he seemed pleased with the relationship.
Bragan cited the ties the Suns used to have with the Los Angeles Dodgers. “We had Chad Billingsley on the mound, Jonathan Broxton as a reliever, Matt Kemp in the outfield, James Loney at first…we won a lot of games with them.”
But it isn’t always easy to keep good ties with the major league team. The Suns used to be with the Detroit Tigers when I went to my last Jacksonville baseball game. I asked what happened with that connection.
“When the Tigers built the new pitcher-friendly ballpark (Comerica Park), they went out and signed Juan Gonzalez from the Texas Rangers, who turned out to be a juicer,” Bragan reminisced. “I questioned the signing of him, and the Detroit ownership didn’t like that I said that.”
Bragan also listed having a good manager as the second key to having a successful Minor League franchise. He had good things to say about his current manager, Andy Barkett, but noted examples of other franchises with a poor quality of manager.
As he spoke, the Landing area filled up with fans to get autographs of the players, coaches, and even the owner himself. And why not? The field is named for his father, Peter Bragan Sr., who purchased the Jacksonville franchise when they were affiliated with the Montreal Expos.
Over the last 30 years, the team has seen a slew of sluggers, like Alex Rodriguez, Andres Galarraga, Larry Walker, Gabe Kapler, and Stanton. Hurlers Randy Johnson, Clayton Kershaw, Billingsley and Broxton have taken the mound for the Suns over the past three decades. Who knows how many players signing for the fans will have their names in such good company?
The field was renamed for Peter Bragan Sr., who passed away in 2012, in honor of the family contributions to the community. And if Opening Day excitement was any barometer, the city is set for more years of top-notch minor league baseball.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.