Biloxi Shuckers homeless to start season after construction delays
While the job as a major league general manager can be demanding and stressful, the power and financial rewards make it an enjoyable profession. The perks are not the same, however, for the larger fraternity of minor league executives. The tasks are endless and a love for the game is put to the test. Then there’s the gig Buck Rogers contemplates each day, which borders on insanity.
Rogers is the general manager of the brand new Biloxi Shuckers, the double-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers that used to be the Huntsville (Alabama) Stars. The sale of the franchise and planned move took place prior to the 2014 season when the city of Biloxi approved the construction of a new stadium across from the Beau Rivage Casino. The $36 million project was to be financed with $21 million in city-issued bonds and $15 million from a BP grant in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that was pledged by the state of Mississippi.
The ground-breaking for MGM Park began on January 24 of last year, and the excitement of a new beginning in this gulf coast resort made the lame-duck season in Alabama more bearable for Rogers and his team. But the Biloxi City Council threw a nasty curve ball in May when it terminated the contract of the project manager and solicited bids for a general contractor. The decision was seen as a cost-cutting measure to keep the job within budget, but it resulted in critical delays that made the target completion date by opening day this season an impossibility.
All this has tried the patience of Rogers, 54, a man with a military background who likes to run a tight ship. An army paratrooper for the better part of 14 years, he saw combat duty in 1989 during the invasion of Panama that ousted dictator and drug lord Manuel Noriega. The baseball career has spanned nearly two decades as a lieutenant at dimly lit minor league venues. I recently had a brief lunch with Rogers at a waterfront Biloxi restaurant just before the Brewers and its farm clubs broke spring camp. It was raining heavily and he wasn’t in a good mood.
“No construction today,” he snapped as we sat down at a table. Then Rogers reeled off a laundry list of aggravations.
“We can’t print tickets if there aren’t any seats. It’s hard to sell advertising without a scoreboard.”
The fast-talking Rogers wasn’t finished as he gulped down a chicken salad and Diet Coke.
“We have three rooms in our office for 11 people. I have equipment packed in storage and uniforms coming today with no place to put them.”
I tried to change the subject and asked why Orlando Arcia, a Shucker and the Brewers’ #2 prospect, was out of the spring training lineup the last few days.
“I don’t know,” he flatly admitted. “I haven’t seen a box score in a week. My main focus is getting this stadium built.”
After he had finished venting though, I could see Rogers was ready for the challenges yet to be tackled with a certainty that there was light at the end of the tunnel. For sure, the situation is even more frustrating for Shucker owners Tim Bennett and Ken Young. Both men are veteran minor league warriors who are accustomed to dealing with less than perfect circumstances. But they aren’t independently wealthy and were forced to front the city of Biloxi almost $1 million last month to speed up the construction process.
The Biloxi Shuckers are led by Arcia, Tyrone Taylor, Tyler Wagner and Jorge Lopez, all who are knocking on the varsity door. So yes, they’re pretty damn good. The team flew directly from Arizona to Pensacola, Florida, on April 7 for their opening Southern League weekend against the local Blue Wahoos. They won that series and are scheduled to make an overnight trip to Biloxi for an all-day fan fest at the Beau Rivage. Then it will be back on the road again via Mobile, Alabama, to begin a 50-game marathon, some which will be played in Huntsville where sparse crowds are expected. Folks there are not happy about being abandoned. And even though the Shuckers will occasionally be listed as the “home team” during their journey, the club will receive none of the revenue.
The new tentative date for the first pitch at MGM Park is June 6, and I think baseball will be big in Biloxi. This is a growing community with a large tourism base, although there isn’t much to do there except gamble and go fishing. The Biloxi Shuckers will provide an outlet for both locals and visitors to enjoy some inexpensive family entertainment and cheer for future major league stars. Co-owner Bennett is well known in the region as a sports and concert promoter, and he will undoubtedly use the stadium to stage some major events. In fact, there’s a plan in the works to hold an international baseball tournament after the season is over. The Havana Industriales could be one of the headliners, and a Cuban delegation has already been in town to get the ball rolling.
So, while it’s hard not to feel sorry for the Biloxi Shuckers, give these guys a hug and embrace them. Things are going to be alright for this young franchise. Just like it was with Katrina, it’s simply a matter of weathering the storm.