How Baseball Returned to Montgomery (April 2004)
After more than 20 years, affiliated minor league baseball makes its return to Montgomery
As the era of Montgomery Biscuits baseball takes flight, excuse Charlie Jinright for catching his breath and taking a moment to absorb the reality of affiliated minor league baseball’s return to Montgomery.
Jinright, the President of the Montgomery City Council, has dreamed about the baseball team that eventually evolved into the Biscuits and a stadium like Montgomery’s Riverwalk Stadium for quite some time. To be exact, it was nine long years.
“For me, it’s a great sense of pride,” he said. “It has been a long process, but seeing the results now and what they will be in the future for the city of Montgomery will be the most rewarding component of this whole process for me.”
Having served on the Montgomery City Council for nine years, first as a city council member as now as the President, Jinright and his proponents struggled for years to get the right fit for baseball’s return. In his estimation, five or six failed attempts took place before the jackpot was struck in 2003, bringing the “AA” Orlando Rays of the Southern League from Florida to Alabama’s capital city.
While several factors came together to bring Montgomery a “home team” after 23 years of affiliated silence, it’s important to remember that minor league baseball is not a foreign concept to the city.
Montgomery fielded professional teams of a wide variety of competition along with a wide variety of time periods from 1916 to 1980. The teams had several different nicknames. Grays, Lions, Bombers and the most popular choice, Rebels, all affixed themselves to the home jerseys. The teams competed in the Southern Association, South Atlantic League, Class B Southeastern League, the Class D Alabama-Florida League and finally entrenching themselves in the “AA” Southern League in the mid-1960’s.
The Montgomery Rebels first stepped into the Southern League in 1965 as a Detroit Tigers affiliate and played their home games at Paterson Field, later a home for the Montgomery Wings, an independent league entry in the Southeastern League for parts of two seasons. As a Tigers affiliate, the Rebels put on some great baseball, capturing Southern League crowns in 1972, 1973, 1975, 1976, and 1977. The team’s five Southern League titles places them in a tie with the Birmingham franchise, one that has roots to Montgomery’s past, for the most in Southern League history.
Several future Tigers players, including their famous 1980’s double play combo of Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, wore a Rebels’ uniform in the 1970’s. The 1977 team, led by Trammell and Whitaker, helped the Rebels crush the rest of the Southern League. The team finished the season with a franchise-best record of 86-51 and captured their third straight league championship.
Over the next three seasons, however, the championship craze cooled off tremendously as the team suffered through three straight losing seasons. They also battled with waning attendance, something that minor league baseball as a whole was suffering from. The pressures of having a 1980’s “AA” facility, which Paterson Field was not, also got the best of the Rebels. Following the completion of the 1980 season, the team relocated 90 miles away, becoming the Birmingham Barons.
From the period of 1981 to 1994, some small efforts were made to bring back baseball to the Montgomery area, but they were so small that they never gained much momentum. In all, a general lack of interest at the pivotal points of local government quickly wiped out any efforts.
In 1995, Jinright was elected to the City Council for his first term of office. That same year, officials at Minor League baseball started to make a serious push to bring affiliated minor league baseball back to Montgomery. Their main objective was to bring baseball back to one of the few capital cities in America that did not field a team.
Jinright and his City Council counterparts started to engage in some studies about the Montgomery region and discovered that minor league baseball’s return to Montgomery, if under the right circumstances, could indeed be a viable solution for the city’s development.
In 1996, the City Council started to meet with different minor league teams about exactly what kind of an impact a minor league team could have on a town’s revitalization.
The Council discovered through these meetings that minor league baseball’s presence in these communities not only got at the heart of their sports fans in the area, but also created a boom in their entertainment options for their citizens.
“We noticed that businesses were expanding and the ballparks in these communities really had awoken some of the slumbering areas of these communities and had revitalized their downtown areas dramatically,” Jinright said.
Around this time, an attempt to bring a AA franchise in to Montgomery fell through, due primarily to a lack of the City Council having a firm background of all the elements of the project. Through failure, however, was a silver lining says Jinright.
“The AA team trying to come allowed us to do some studies at Auburn University of Montgomery and in my mind, that really helped us start to understand what we needed to do to bring a team in,” Jinright said.
These studies focused in on several areas of operating a minor league franchise, including two of the most vital components: economics and facility management.
A couple other attempts followed in the next couple of years, but it was more of the same for Jinright and the citizens of Montgomery. No baseball team was bound for the capital city.
When asked what one of the biggest difficulties was, Jinright cited the inability to find a great location to house a potential suitor.
“We along with the potential teams looked at several different locations in and around the area, but never could find the right fit in a timely manner,” he said.
One location was at the Auburn University at Montgomery campus area on the east side of town. Another option that was considered was renovations to Paterson Field, the old home of the Rebels, but scheduling conflicts deterred that.
Obligations to the NCAA Division II World Series along with games and tournaments between colleges and high schools filled up too many dates on the calendar, so Jinright and the City Council were forced to search elsewhere.
In 2000, current mayor Bobby Bright was elected into office, replacing longtime mayor Emory Folmar. He entered with an understanding that the lack of minor league baseball in Montgomery was an issue.
“I moved here just around the same time that the Rebels left,” Bright said. “I think it was fair to say that although people were disappointed that there was no team, there was still a great sense of being leery about bringing a new team in.”
When asked about his initial reaction to bringing baseball back, Bright openly admitted it was not a positive one.
“To be honest, I was very skeptical,” he said. “But as I did some more investigating and researched other cities that had minor league baseball, I realized that it just wasn’t about baseball.”
Bright noticed through his research that, much like the City Council had found, although the baseball had made a definite impact, there was an even greater impact being made by the entertainment that was popping up around the stadiums.
“There was also such a great revitalization in downtown entertainment options for families, and that even more than the sports aspect, really caught my attention,” he said.
It was after doing this research that Bright started to envision a revitalized downtown area for Montgomery, one that would provide good, clean quality family entertainment.
Bright started to put the elements in place, establishing the Riverfront Development Foundation in 2000 and started to assign task forces whose goal was to acquire essential financial data from select minor league communities. The Foundation’s members were selected and consisted of a cross-section of the community. Bankers, judges and builders were among the initial members of the task force.
The Riverfront Devlopment Foundation made complete studies of minor league towns, with an intense look at all aspects of the entertainment options in and around the ballparks. The Riverfront Development Foundation also sent out request for proposals, a form that indicates a community’s strong desires to get a team in, to approximately five or six locations across the country.
In 2001, a near miss took place when the Los Angeles Dodgers Class “A” affiliate in the South Atlantic League considered moving their team to Montgomery.
Minor League Baseball, according to Jinright, was heavily involved in the process. HOK Architects of Kansas City, the eventual designers of Riverwalk Stadium, came into Montgomery to construct plans for a stadium to be built.
Jinright says that while talks were very intensified, however, the city just was not far enough along in their general knowledge to make the relocation a reality.
“First and foremost there just wasn’t enough support, but as a city, we just did not feel like we were far enough along and much to the credit of Minor League Baseball, they had a certain timetable that we were unable to meet,” he stated.
After two decades without baseball, 2002 turned out to be the year that things started to finally get put into motion for making affiliated minor league baseball in Montgomery once again a reality.
Enter Tom Dickson and Sherrie Myers, two entrepreneurs from Chicago. Dickson and Myers had already staked their claim in the minor leagues with their development projects, starting first with the Class “A” Lansing (MI) Lugnuts of the Midwest League in 1996 and the Class “A” Charleston (WV) Alley Cats of the South Atlantic League in 2001.
One day in early January 2002 while sitting in his Chicago offices, Dickson decided to place a phone call to Bright. His goal that day: Present some concepts and gage interest of bringing minor league baseball back to Montgomery.
According to Bright, Dickson’s call wasn’t the first he received and he certainly didn’t expect it to be the last.
“To be honest, I had received calls from as far west as California and as far north as Canada,” he said. “I figured Tom was just another one of the mix, so I sent him towards Judge Mark Kennedy at the Riverfront Development Foundation.”
That simple phone call turned out to be the first step in a whirlwind sequence of events for both Dickson and Myers.
After touching base with Kennedy and submitting their request for proposal to Montgomery, a meeting between Dickson, Myers and Bright was established.
Bright feels that meeting was a significant turning point in what lead to his ultimate selection of Dickson and Myers as the right ownership group for Montgomery baseball.
“When we first met with them, that’s when I knew,” he said. “Of the five or six ownership groups that we had met with up to that point, they were the first that really had the city’s best interests at heart.”
And that above all, immediately impressed Bright.
“Others talked about the baseball, but Tom and Sherrie really had a wholesome, honest approach on what they could do for Montgomery as a community,” he said. “It was easily the most refreshing conversation that I had out of all the meeting I had in regards to the stadium issue.”
The task of selecting an ownership group to bring Montgomery’s next baseball team to town was one that was taken quite seriously.
In addition to Dickson and Myers group, two other ownership groups were considered strong candidates. The committee, including Jinright, flew to ballparks across the country to take in games at the various ownership groups other parks, analyzing and observing each operation.
Jinright remembers his visit to Lansing as one of his more positive stops on the tour.
“In talking with the mayor and some business owners, I could tell that the building of Lansing’s facility (Oldsmobile Park) had really had an impact on the change of opinion on the downtown area, “ he said.
“I remember a bicycle shop owner saying before the stadium was built, hardly anybody would even walk around town during the day, much less ride a bike,” Jinright recalled, “After the stadium opened, those same people who were staying away were now riding their bikes in the same area as late as midnight,” he said, “That really struck me.”
In the end, Dickson and Myers’ group proved victorious, above all because of what they had discussed with Bright on their initial visit to Montgomery.
“When I bring in businesses for the people of Montgomery, I have to really look at the people’s heart and integrity and see if they have my community’s best interests at heart,” Bright said. “Tom and Sherrie had that and a whole lot more.”
2003 turned out to be the year of the Biscuits.
In February, the Southern League Board of Directors unanimously approved the relocation of the league’s franchise in Orlando to Montgomery. That approval was the first of three that were required to make the move official. Approvals for relocation came next from the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (Minor League Baseball) and by Major League Baseball. Finally, minor league baseball was on its way back to Montgomery.
Many key people within the Southern League, including League President Don Mincher expressed their excitement about the decision.
“I am delighted and excited that the capital city of my home state will once again be home to a Southern League baseball club,” he said following the approval of the Southern League Board of Directors.
The rest of the calendar year was spent in establishing key moments in the newest member of the Southern League and the Montgomery community.
In March, ground was broken for Riverwalk Stadium at the corner of Coosa and Talapoosa Streets, just steps from the Alabama River.
In May, Dickson and Myers’ ownership group ended a Name The Team contest entered by more than 3,000 fans by announcing the winning entry of Biscuits, submitted by John Vickers, to a crowd of over 10,000 people at the Jubilee City Fest. The team’s mascot, Big Mo, a fuzzy orange beast who loves biscuits, was also introduced.
September brought the announcement of the inaugural season schedule and season tickets went on sale for the first time. In November, the uniforms were introduced and over the winter months of 2003, Riverwalk Stadium began to be constructed piece by piece. Early 2004 saw the installation of the first seats and the laying of the playing field.
Now as the first moments of Biscuits baseball are created on the field, all parties involved look forward to a bright future together.
“We really are intent to having a long lasting relationship in this community and really in a sense, to become a citizen of the community,” Dickson said.
Dickson and Myers will utilize there past experiences in both Lansing and Charleston to make sure that things run smoothly in Montgomery.
“There are things that you learn as you go along, but our basic principle is still going to remain to provide inexpensive, high-quality family entertainment,” Dickson said.
The top goals remain simple: A focus on outstanding customer service while providing the community of Montgomery with the best quality minor league operation.
Both Bright and Jinright see nothing but a sparkling future for Montgomery’s now thriving downtown Riverfront area.
“With the stadium, will we be bringing in around 300,000 people to our downtown area that otherwise would not have come,” Bright said, “And the addition of the amphitheater and the new riverwalk by the ballpark will help to ensure the successful steps we have already taken.”
Jinright agrees, pointing to the revitalization that has already started to take shape in and around Montgomery’s Riverwalk.
“Buildings that had been unoccupied for as many as 20 years are now showing signs of life,” he said, “People are making a return to the area, just like we had felt would take place.”
Stacy Long, a sports writer for the Montgomery Advertiser and first-ever beat writer for the Biscuits, feels that the economic impact on Montgomery could be even greater after year one.
“With what has already popped up in and around the stadium, more businesses could either expand or come into the area if they see a successful first season,” he said.
How excited are the fans of the inaugural Biscuits team?
Kent Rose, the individual season ticket coordinator and head concierge for the Biscuits, says several of his season ticket holders are just happy to have baseball back in the region.
“I heard something almost every day in the off season from fans that were just so happy to have a team to root for and follow once again,” he said.
Rose, who served as a batboy for the 1954 edition of the Montgomery Rebels, echoes the sentiments of Bright and Jinright.
“I think that baseball has always been a major component of Montgomery life,” he said, “Now that it is back I feel that it was have such a positive impact on our great community.”
But perhaps the greatest impact is that night after night, once again families will be part of Montgomery’s downtown area.
“The most rewarding part of this for me is going to be able to watch families going to the games, spending time together while participating in good, clean, quality entertainment right here in Montgomery,” Bright said, “The days of having to travel over 100 miles to achieve that is over with.”
“It will be like our own little treasure on the river,” Jinright added.
And for the people of Montgomery, that little treasure will be well worth its weight in gold.