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The Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville / Jacksonville Suns

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Boy, $34 million doesn't buy a lot anymore when it comes to ballparks. Case in point: the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, the new $34-million home of the Jacksonville Suns. True, there's nothing really wrong with the Baseball Grounds: when you're settled in your new seat, the Baseball Grounds is a pleasant enough place to watch a ballgame. You have your concourse ringing the stadium, concession stands off the concourse, a picnic area down the right-field line, and the obligatory berm in left field. Complete with lots of brick and wrought-iron detailing, green seats, exposed trusses and a row of luxury boxes.

FAST FACTS

Year Built: 2003
Capacity: 10,000
Dimensions: 321L, 382LC, 420C, 375RC, 317R
Website: jaxsuns.com
Phone: 904/358-2846
League: Southern League (AA)
Affiliation: Florida Marlins
Ticket Prices: Dugout Box, $20; Homeplate Box, $12; Reserved, $9; Bleachers/Berm, $6
Parking: Two nearby lots charge $5.
Address/Directions: 301 A. Philip Randolph Blvd., Jacksonville, FL. From I-10 or I-95, take I-95 north and then get off the freeway at the Union Street exit. Head east (which is the only way you can go; Union Street is a one-way street) and follow Union Street to where it turns into the Arlington Expressway. Take the A. Phillip Randolph Boulevard exit and hang a right. There is plenty of signage pointing you toward the city Sports Complex, which also includes Jacksonville Municipal Stadium (home of the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars).
Written by: Kevin Reichard

Sound familiar? It should. The Baseball Grounds pretty much looks and feels like any number of ballparks designed in recent years by HOK. The brick-and-steel retro approach does work well in an urban setting and was certainly groundbreaking when unveiled at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. But in the years since then the retro design has descended into a ballpark cliché and employed in some situations where it's not wholly appropriate.

Like Jacksonville.

The design at the Baseball Grounds is strictly a generic brick-and-steel affair. The most disappointing thing about the ballpark is that it could be set anywhere: it's a generic McPark. If I had to sum up the design concisely, I'd it's a pale imitation of AutoZone Park, but without the expansive footprint and added attractions that makes the Memphis ballpark unique.

The most obvious mistake made by HOK is the total lack of anything Floridian inside the ballpark. There's a rich tradition of unique ballparks in the state, whether it be a Spanish style of architecture (as found at the renovated Joke Marchant Stadium in Lakeland or Cracker Jack Stadium in Orlando) or an old-fashioned grandstand reminiscent of those spring-training stadiums from the 1950s. (Wolfson Park, which we'll discuss in a second, fits under this heading.) But the Baseball Grounds does nothing to invoke these traditions.

In addition, there's also little reminiscent about Wolfson Park, the former home of the Suns, except perhaps the front entrance to the ballpark. Wolfson Park was an historic ballpark built in 1955, and the Suns ownership was very comfortable with that distinctive ballpark -- so comfortable that the city basically had to force them to accept the new ballpark. For Jacksonville, Wolfson Park was a barrier to upward mobility: the city father obviously views the city as being at a major-league level (witness the NFL Jacksonville Jaguars as a great example), but Wolfson Park was a relic that would never attract more than a Class AA team. When Jacksonville voters approved a plan to improve Jacksonville, a key part of the plan was a new ballpark built to Class AAA levels.

Finally, the location of the park is a little disappointing, although this is not HOK's fault. Jacksonville decided to centralize all its sports facilities in one location, so both Alltel Stadium (known formerly as the Gator Bowl) and a new multipurpose area share the same area and parking lots as the Baseball Grounds. (Wolfson Park was also part of the complex and located right next to the new ballpark.) While the area is well-served by many roads -- making for easy accessibility -- the location does add a sense of remoteness to the ballpark, though civic leaders make the argument that the area is really an extension of downtown. Even though the sports complex is about a mile or so from downtown Jacksonville, it might as well be 20 miles away -- there's no integration between downtown and the sports complex. Similarly, there's just nothing that indicates you're watching a game in Florida: the sports complex isn't close enough to the ocean or the river to benefit from a scenic background. A new sports bar is under construction across from the ballpark, but apart from a few factories, a fairgrounds and historic buildings, there's just nothing interesting in the general area.

Now that everything bad about has been listed, it's time to discuss the good things about the ballpark. First off, the sightlines are truly great, and the grandstand was designed with smaller-than-normal sections and lots of aisles, which means most fans will be able to leave their seats without causing inconvenience to many other fans. The bleachers in right field are set up nicely, serving as an attractive homer porch to the left-handed pull hitters on the Suns. There are two picnic areas at each end of the concourse that can handle both large and small groups. In the left-field corner there's a berm area with several different levels, perfect for spreading out a blanket. Team President Peter Bragan has his own raised seats on the concourse level and is a fixture at Suns games; the team is still a family enterprise, which is refreshing in this age of corporate team ownership. And the area beyond the fence in center field has been claimed by the youth of Jacksonville, who enjoy themselves in the expansive play area.

(I should make one thing crystal clear: the negative comments are not geared toward Suns management or the Bragan family, which owns the Suns. The games themselves are well-run: the concession lines move along well and every Suns employee I spoke with was friendly and helpful.)

The Baseball Grounds could have been something great: with a budget of $34 million purely for ballpark construction, Jacksonville clearly was willing to spend to achieve a first-class stadium. Instead, the city received a cookie-cutter retro park that could be located almost anywhere. Sure, it's a decent Class AA stadium, but it will just barely be a decent Class AAA stadium someday.

CONCESSIONS
The concession offerings aren't extensive. Hot-dog aficionados will want to bypass the regular hot dog ($1.50) and go right to Pete's Famous Dog; there aren't many hot dogs worth $3, but this is one of them. (Kudos to the Suns for placing sauerkraut and relish on the condiments stand.) The beer offerings are predicable (Bud, Bud Light, Miller Lite, Icehouse, Foster's), but you'll want one to wash down Papa John's Boiled Peanuts. Other stands offer grilled items like hamburgers and chicken sandwiches.

If it gets a little warm for you, head up to the Sundowner Lounge on the suite level, where you can see the game over a cocktail in air-conditioned comfort.

WHERE TO STAY
There are no hotels within walking distance of the ballpark. However, the ballpark sits a mile or so away from downtown Jacksonville, and there's a wide range of hotels there. Occupying an attractive spot on the St. John's River waterfront is the Adams Mark Jacksonville (225 E Coastline Dr.), located next to the Jacksonville Landing, and the Omni Jacksonville (245 Water St.). Also located downtown, but across the river, are the Radisson Riverwalk (1515 Prudential Dr.), Extended Stay Riverwalk (1413 Prudential Dr.), Hilton Jacksonville (1201 Riverplace Blvd.) and Hampton Inn Jacksonville (1331 Prudential Dr.).

The sports complex is also less than four miles from the airport area, which features the Ramada Limited and Suites (153 Airport Rd.) and Wingate Inn (1200 Airport Rd.).

FOR THE KIDS
There is an expansive play area beyond the outfield wall that offers something for kids of all ages. The smaller kids will enjoy the playground area and inflated bounce area, while older kids gather and play catch with a baseball or a football.

BEFORE/AFTER THE GAME
Jacksonville is a midsized town with big-league aspirations, but one of the nicer things about it is the relatively laid-back atmosphere. That's pretty apparent at the beaches, located on the east side of town. (In Jacksonville, they refer to every beach collectively as "the beaches.") Technically, most of Jacksonville is not on the oceanfront, and you'll need to drive through miles of congestion to reach the ocean from downtown Jacksonville.

The Jacksonville Landing (2 Independent Dr.), located downtown on the St. John's River, is worth a stop after the game. It features several bars and restaurants, and throughout the year there's a multitude of special events. Across the river is the hip and scenic River City Brewing Company; on a hot summer night, try the Jackson Pale Ale.