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The Gnewest Gnat
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One thing’s for sure -- John Simmons has great timing. The 37-year-old Illinois attorney is the new owner of the Savannah Sand Gnats, and he enters the local stage at a propitious time:

Formerly a farm team of the Montreal Expos, the Sand Gnats are now the single-A affiliate of the Expos’ buzzworthy new incarnation as the Washington Nationals, who begin their inaugural season in the nation’s capital this spring.

In addition, the 2005 season marks ten years of the “Sand Gnats” moniker for the team, which over the years has been called the Braves, the Cardinals, the Indians and the Pathfinders.

And lastly, Simmons comes to a city with a new mayor and a new expansive mode -- a city that maybe -- just maybe -- might be willing to play ball with him on funding upgrades to the historic but decrepit Grayson Stadium.

We spoke with Simmons within hours of his arrival in Savannah from his home in Illinois, fresh from getting full South Atlantic League (SAL) approval for the $6 million purchase.


Connect Savannah: This is your first ball club. What made you decide to take the plunge?


John Simmons: Well, it’s going to be fun. I’m not saying I’m the world’s greatest businessman or anything like that, and this isn’t something you’d necessarily want to depend on as a retirement vehicle. But I’ve got kids, and that’s going to be really great -- for example, my oldest son is seven. So on our first homestand we’re going to make him a batboy -- he’ll be batboy number 7. Most of all, we want to make this a real treat for the city.


Connect Savannah: Many baseball people insist that Savannah is still too small a market to support a minor league team. What about that school of thought?


John Simmons: A lot of small markets are actually doing very well. They’re all different animals, really. It boils down to a lot of other factors, like competition for the entertainment dollar, things like that. The most important thing is, it’s got to be a great family experience.


Connect Savannah: Another thing you hear so much is that the key to minor league success isn’t so much the baseball but the entertainment.


John Simmons: Well, the concerts we have planned are the big thing. I love music, and there’s nothing like a good concert. We eventually want to get to a point where about ten percent of the home games have a post-game concert afterward.

We’ve got Sammy Kirshaw coming in April 9. Then we’ve got the big Bob Dylan/Willie Nelson show in June. That’s not after a game, of course, but it’s part of our schedule at the stadium.

Then later on we’ve got the Wanda Mountain Boys, a great country gospel group, to perform after a Sunday game. One thing we really want to do is focus on church groups. Not just in town, either, but church groups all around the area.

One of our goals for ‘06 is to maybe announce the opening concert, but have all the others be a secret. You’ll pay six bucks to come to a game, and there might be a concert afterwards. You don’t know unless you come. And, boom, there’s Alan Jackson or somebody like that coming out after the game.

But other than that, you know, you can go on the Internet and see what every other club is doing. There’s only so much you can do (laughs). You’ve got the sumo suits, throwing the ball through the hoop, and everything else. I’m not going to sit here and say we’re going to come up with a million new things.


Connect Savannah: There was some controversy sparked by reports in Illinois that you might be planning to move the Sand Gnats up there after the 2005 season.


John Simmons: Well, what happened was everyone knew I was working on a team deal in Southern Illinois. So naturally they assumed that meant I was thinking of bringing the Sand Gnats up there. No one could contemplate that what I was actually doing was considering buying a second team. Now, I don’t blame anyone for thinking that. It’s perfectly understandable. It was kind of a natural thing to think, in a way.

But Savannah is Savannah, and Grayson is Grayson, and baseball will be here.


Connect Savannah: So you’re prepared to say point-blank that you’ll keep the Sand Gnats here beyond the 2005 season?


John Simmons: Yes, I’m absolutely prepared to say that, and that’s what I’m saying.


Connect Savannah: Everyone, even the city, agrees something has got to be done about Grayson Stadium. What are some specific improvements you’d like to see happen?


John Simmons: We’ve already had architects give us some designs on some things we want to do in the 65 days before the season opens. Keep in mind I didn’t get full SAL approval until this past Monday. The only major work is what we want to do to the concourse -- clean it up, make it nicer and friendlier. It’s too late to do anything to the seating or anything like that.

There are really two things we want to do in those 65 days -- the concourse work, and fix the foul ball nets so there are no holes and you can see through it better.


Connect Savannah: The history at Grayson is unbelievable. Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron all played here, to name just a few.


John Simmons: It’s an incredible story, it really is, and we’re going to try our best to get the word out. I’d like to do more with the plaques that are in the concourse right now. Get them refurbished, and invite some of those players honored on the plaques to come down to some games and rededicate them. Then we’ll put them in a different area where they can be displayed better.


Connect Savannah: How is the Nationals affiliation going to impact you locally?


John Simmons: It’s going to be great. Really, other than the Braves there’s no other affiliation that would be better for the Sand Gnats right now. There’s so much buzz around the Nationals now. It’s also good because Washington isn’t really all that far away -- certainly it’s a lot closer than Montreal (laughs).

Another plus is, the team is owned by all the owners of Major League Baseball, so in a sense they’ll all want to help us out in some way. Everyone will have a stake in the Nationals’ success.


The Savannah Sand Gnats 2005 home opener is April 9 at Grayson Stadium.