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Pearl's Pearl of a Park
Baseball fans in the Jackson, Mississippi area know how it feels to lose your team to a new ballpark in another city. The Jackson Senators, members of the Texas League from 1975 through 1999, were whisked away to Texas to become Nolan Ryan's Round Rock Express.
|First game: April 18, 2005|
|Capacity: 7,319 (5,800 permanent seats, the rest are General Admission)|
|Architect: Dale and Associates, assisted by HOK|
|Price: $28 million|
|Home dugout: 3B side|
|Field points: East by northeast|
|Playing surface: grass|
|Betcha didn't know: Even if the Braves can draw 300,000 fans a season, it will pale in comparison to the 2.1 million shoppers that are expected at the Bass Pro Shop each year.|
Jumping in to fill the void were independent-league teams -- and in fact, one still plays in Jackson today.
But this market wanted more, and only a new ballpark was going to get the area back into affiliated baseball. That's where Bloomfield Equities comes into the picture. They envisioned a large mixed-use development first in Jackson, then in Pearl. They felt that a minor-league ballpark would help anchor this area of shops, restaurants, hotels and residences. Using its own money, Bloomfield built a $28-million dream of a park. It is situated across the parking lot from the building that will be anchoring the retail aspect of this project: the 130,000-square-foot Bass Pro.
It strikes me as interesting that a ballpark -- especially one as significant as this -- is playing a supporting role to the Bass Pro, even though these stores have numerous fans. Of course, the crowds have flocked to Trustmark Park even before the huge outdoor store has opened for business, which is scheduled for November, 2005.
Anyway, once the project was announced, Bloomfield needed a tenant to play its home games at the proposed stadium. As it turns out, the Atlanta Braves (which own the majority of their minor-league teams, unlike other MLB franchises) had been struggling to work out a deal to keep their Double-A club in Greenville, SC. The ballpark there was anything but modern, and the Braves worked long and hard with the city on a way to build a new park, or significantly renovate the old one.
After little movement from the city, the Braves imposed a deadline of April 1, 2004 for Greenville to come up with a plan for a modernized ballpark. The deadline came and went, and a few hours later, the Atlanta Braves announced that the Greenville Braves would become the Mississippi Braves a year hence. Ground was broken on May 11, 2004, and following a lame-duck season in Greenville in 2004, the team moved into its new home on April 18, 2005. One of Mississippi's biggest banks, Trustmark, bought the naming rights just before the season started.
So just as the Jackson area lost its affiliated Minor League team following the 1999 season to a new park in Round Rock, central Mississippi re-acquired a franchise by offering to build it a new stadium. But what is this facility like? Let's take a closer look ...
On Deck -- The Setting
Since the ballpark was to be in the middle of the mixed-use project, there really wasn't much around the site prior to the construction. You can now see where the Bass Pro Shop will open later this year, and a number of stores, hotels and restaurants -- even a multi-screen movie theater -- have sprung up close by. When everything is complete, it will be quite an impressive area.
Bloomfield chose this location carefully. After first considering the city of Jackson, they decided instead to build the project in the suburb of Pearl, just east of Jackson's downtown. This is also quite close to the intersection of two of the state's key highways, I-20 and I-55. This spot is often referred to as The Crossroads of the South, so its a fitting location for the massive Bass Pro Shop (see below), which will sit between the ballpark and I-20.
First base -- The Exterior
Since there's no downtown nearby, and the land is pretty flat in these parts, there's nothing out of the ordinary to see outside of the park beyond the outfield walls. However, it's always nice to see tall trees in these settings, and you can certainly see those here.
Trustmark Park's exterior isn't as elaborate as, say, the new parks in Corpus Christi or Greensboro, but it is pleasing -- and different -- nonetheless. While the outer buildings in Pearl use brick in a pleasing way, the aspects of the park that first draw your attention are the entryways, which are very well done. The one behind home plate (see below) is open and bright -- that is, you don't enter into a dark concourse or have to go up stairs, like in Corpus. Instead, you immediately walk into a wide-open plaza. More on that later.
The more elaborate entryway is near the right-field foul pole, which is where the ticket windows are. This is certainly logical. Here there is a huge plaza like at Springfield, Missouri's new park, which makes it a great place to meet your friends before you go through the turnstiles. To your left is the floor-to-ceiling glass of the souvenir shop, and to your right is an interesting masonry structure that supports signs identifying who plays here and an electronic message board.
Second base -- The Design
The "architect of record" for Trustmark Park is a local firm, Dale and Associates. Sports-architecture kingpins HOK also worked extensively on the design. The general contractor for the construction was Yates Construction. The latter two also collaborated on one of the nicest Minor League parks to open in recent years, Riverwalk Stadium in Montgomery, Alabama. This is noteworthy because some of the wonderful design elements from Montgomery are incorporated here, particularly the way the main concourse is designed.
As at Corpus, Springfield, Greensboro and Manchester, New Hampshire, Trustmark utilizes the now-familiar two-level design, where the floor of the luxury suites and press box forms the the ceiling over the concourse. What sets Trustmark apart, though, is that the concourse is open not only toward the field, but also in the opposite direction. In this regard, the concourse is like the one in Montgomery -- but Montgomery's is open on both sides only on the third-base side and behind home plate. In Pearl, the entire length of the covered concourse is this way. In the shots below, you're looking toward home plate from the far end of the third-base concourse, and the first-base concourse is shown on the right as you're facing right field.
Speaking of concourses, this one is "360 degrees." That means that you can take a leisurely stroll all the way around the park, and that's a trek that you should take since there are several aspects of the park (kids area, the full-service restaurant) that you might miss otherwise.
The openness of the concourse is partly due to the expansive plaza where you enter the park behind home plate (photo below). I like the idea of not having any walls surrounding you or a ceiling overhead when you first walk through the gates -- and I especially like the fact that it's open all the way through to the field.
The photo of the entry plaza above was taken from a landing in the stairway that takes you to the upper level. Unfortunately, most of the best vantage points for photographing this very pretty park are located in places where the average fan isn't allowed to go. For instance, there's a spot on the upper level beyond first base that is perfect for taking pictures (like the one below), but you can't go up there unless you have a pass for that group area or one of the suites.
Overall, the design of Trustmark Park is very nice. Aside from the way the open concourses are configured, though, there aren't any groundbreaking elements here. But what is like to be a fan at a game here, though? Is it fun? What does it cost? What's the atmosphere like? Let's find out ...
Third base -- The Essentials
First, compared to other Double-A parks (especially newer ones), it is pretty affordable to bring your family to a game here. Parking, which is adjacent to the stadium, costs a fairly normal $4 (I pay that at the Triple-A park near where I live). Programs, which are full of great info and are printed on high-quality, glossy paper, cost a reasonable $3. Tickets for "real" seats cost $12 between the dugouts and $8 for the other reserved seats. General admission tickets are $5 and allow you to roam, or to plant yourself on a beach towel on the raised berm in left field. The Dugout Level seats might be just a touch high for Double-A ball (but they don't come close to Frisco's prices), but the $8 reserved seats are very reasonable.
The cost of souvenirs is what you would expect, with a simple adult T-shirt running $20. The main souvenir shop near the entryway in right field is beautiful, by the way. There's also a smaller store near the entrance behind home plate. The price of food varies widely, but I was really impressed that there were so many menu items at bargain prices (sort of like having a "value menu"), with a simple hot dog running only $2.
The quality of the food is, in a word, excellent. I really like the way that Trustmark Park has numerous, smaller concession stands, as opposed to the trend of having just a few, very long concession areas .... which end up serving exactly the same menu items. The arrangement in Pearl means greater variety.
And it makes me happy to see a ballpark feature a "signature food item" -- one that is a local favorite and/or is not something you'll find at other parks. Trustmark Park definitely has one, at the cutely named "Basket Catch" concession stand. The catfish basket is a real winner (see below), and for $6.75 you also receive fries, cole slaw and hush puppies.
Speaking of the concession stands, I really love their names in Pearl. I thought I'd seen every possible cutesy name, but the ones here really tickled me: the aforementioned Basket Catch, which features baskets of food (typically with fries); Hot Corner Slice (pizza); The Mendoza Line; The Sweet Spot; and my personal favorite, The Wheel Haus. Very clever!
Yes, eating is really an artform here. In addition to the fun concession stands, and the ample picnic tables nearby, there is also the ALLTEL Corporate Picnic Pavilion, a large, multi-level group area near the left-field foul pole, as well as the Cellular South Cafe near the other foul pole. This Cafe, in fact, is a full-service restaurant, with seating both inside and on a deck that looks in from right field (see the photo below). In this way, it's reminiscent of The Chop House restaurant at Turner Field in Atlanta. I'm told that Pearl's Cafe is open even in the off-season.
Also beyond right field is the Mid South Ford Dealers Family Fun Zone (yes, everything in a ballpark these days has to have a corporate naming sponsor, doesn't it?). Here weary parents will find a number of inflatable games and attractions that will help the kids burn off excess energy.
And since kids usually love mascots, the Mississippi Braves offer up two of them! And the names of these fuzzy, blue creatures couldn't be cuter: the male mascot is named Jackson, and the female, of course, is Pearl.
With all of the food, fun and frivolity happening all around at a Braves game, you might wonder if people care about the baseball action happening on the field. The answer is: yes! I found the fans to be "in the game," more so than I see at other Minor League venues. If you're one of the ones who wants to keep track of the game, then you will be very thankful for a certain structure in left-center-field. "Our fans really love the scoreboard and video screen," said Nick Skinner, PR Director for the team, when I asked him what feature of the park has been most embraced by the fans. Truly, the Daktronics video board is stunning. "The video is very clear, and it actually provides live (updated) stats of the players during the game."
Skinner went on to say that, "Overall, the response from the fans has been great. That's helped the team, too, because our fans are always in the game. They are very vocal, and they know how to do the tomahawk chop like in Atlanta." Obviously, they are having a great time!
Sliding into home -- Summary
So attending a Mississippi Braves game at Trustmark Park is affordable, and the atmosphere is a lot of fun. So, men, when planning a trip to Pearl to spend a day at the Bass Pro Shop, make sure you allot time to take in some baseball!