Smokies open their home

Apr. 10, 2014 @ 05:54 PM

 Dick Davis took a long glance out over Smokies Stadium on Wednesday morning.

Workers were sprinkled throughout the park, working on signage here, painting a desk there, vacuuming the clubhouse shop and mowing the grass. Hours later, the Tennessee Smokies, the Double-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, would make their 2014 home debut.

“It doesn’t look like it’ll be ready, does it?” Davis said.

The 70-something Davis had come by to check on the progress. He’d been working at the park this spring, and would be back after the game with Chattanooga to clean up. 

Twenty minutes later, Davis had been recruited upstairs to take a leaf blower to the outdoor seats on the suite level.

You’ve got to be willing to step forward and just do what needs to be done,” said Smokies general manager Brian Cox. “It’s a different mindset. Not everybody can do that. This is an industry that you’re doing it because you love it, not because you’re going to get rich.”

Cox should know. He’s practically a Smokies lifer in his 13th year as GM. Respected by local baseball coaches for helping bring high school teams to Smokies Stadium since 2001, Cox got a laugh out of Sevier County coach Casey Taylor the week before when Taylor saw him operating a man lift at the stadium. Cox said he was getting his hand dirty this week, too, spreading rubber mulch on Tuesday and helping hook up a radar gun on Wednesday.

The finish line was the opener, a 3-1 victory over the Lookouts. It was the end of what Cox called a “difficult” offseason marked by major renovations at the park, including a complete reconstruction of the field. Work began in the fall and head groundskeeperAnthony DeFeo joked the field wasn’t truly finished until Wednesday. Its first real test was just a week earlier when high school and college teams played games there.

But those games were played in the midst of a park still getting a facelift. Everything had to be perfect by Wednesday.

“Quite frankly, we’re opening our home tonight,” said marketing director Craig Jenkins. “And we have 7,000 people coming. You want to look your best, you know what I’m saying? First impressions being everything.”

Jenkins is the kind of enthusiastic ball of energy every good marketing man needs to be. Wednesday’s game wasn’t a baseball game, but an event, and Jenkins had the media blitz to prove it, from a morning radio show to interviews and live shots on the field. By mid-day, he was stalking the concourse, barking into a set of headphones attached to a smartphone that Storm Davis, theSmokies’ World Series-winning pitching coach, was booked for a Knoxville radio show.

Later in the afternoon, the clock ticking towards first pitch, Jenkins was on the field greeting and catching up with local television crews. He has water and food and stories to tell. 

By now, the teams are taking batting practice in the afternoon sunshine. Inflatables are going up by the playground beyond the right-field foul pole and the final bits of signage are being posted.

“No matter what, 5:30, no matter what we do, the gates are going to open for season-ticket holders,” said director of media relations Andrew Green. “No matter what, at 6 o’clock, our regular people come in. No matter what, at 7:15  unless it rains  first pitch.

 I’ll tell you one thing, the easiest part is just knowing that we’ll have baseball here. That’s what drives all of us, knowing in a few hours we’ll have fans here.”

Those fans  4,899 of them  would show up, many of them to see the star prospect that causes Green to pause mid-stride on the concourse during batting practice.

“You know what surprised me the most about him yesterday?” Green said, staring toward the batting cage. “ How tall he is.”

“He” is Kris Bryant, the 22-year-old first-round draft pick out of the University of San Diego who signed with the Cubs for more than $6 million. Bryant is the biggest chip Green and Jenkins have in their bag of promotions. 

A day earlier the young slugger, who had two homers in his first six at-bats with the team, charmed his way through interviews with the local media. While manager Buddy Bailey was asked about the high expectations already swirling around Bryant, the third baseman, with his All-American smile, was happy to talk about spending the summer in East Tennessee.

“It sure does look like a great place to play,” Bryant said. “We’re very excited about the first game tomorrow. I actually played in Nashville in college against Vanderbilt. Tennessee’s an awesome state and I’m looking forward to the summer here.”

Bryant’s smile was back on Wednesday, breaking out during infield practice. The young man and his teammates seemed not to notice what Cox called the “finishing touches” going up all around them. 

Vendors had arrived and tablecloths covered folding tables on the concourse. Concession windows had lifted open and the pallets that had held essentials, like boxes of peanuts, were quietly hauled out of sight. The final signs were up, forklifts put away and thepre-game show stage was ready to go, its thick cables across the concourse covered by small carpets.

The small crises of the day  like a press box devoid of soft drinks and where to put team logos on the player photos bound for the video board  were solved. The crowd began to gather outside the gate and Cox assembled his ushers for some final instructions.

In a few hours, it would all be over  at least until everyone came back and did it again Thursday morning. 

“Coming to a ball game is a fun thing,” Cox said. “It’s not like they’re dredging to the doctor or dentist. This is to come out and have fun. By the end of those nights, you feel pretty good. People are leaving. They have smiles on their faces. 

That’s what we do. We’re an entertainment business.”