Jacksonville is the largest city by area in the lower 48 states and ranks 11th in population, but still only has a single team in the Big 4 sports leagues of North America. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other teams though, as minor leagues find Jacksonville to be a welcoming environment with a solid fan base from which to draw. Most prominent among these franchises is the Jacksonville Suns, a member of the Southern League, one of three AA circuits in the nation.
The Suns play out of the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, an extremely accurate if somewhat wordy appellation. Opened in 2003 as part of the Better Jacksonville Plan, the ballpark is part of the sports complex that includes Everbank Field and the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. It may be smaller than these other two venues but it is certainly worth visiting.
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As you walk around the spacious concourse, you will notice the typical ballpark food options at reasonable prices. There were two unusual items here, one being pork rinds ($4) and the other being tornados (pronounced tor-nah-dohs), a baked tortilla that is rolled with filling, deep-fried, and served with salsa or sour cream. At two for $5, they are definitely the best option here and are available at the nachos cart just behind home plate. Other than this, hot dogs and Bubba burgers were the most commonly seen items in the hands of hungry fans.
There are several party areas that cater to groups, including one right on the concourse behind home plate. If you want to escape the humidity, the Sundowner Lounge on the second floor offers drinks in an air-conditioned environment but doesn't provide views of the field.
I found my evening here to be the epitome of the minor league experience. There was a constant chatter throughout the ballpark that I've not heard elsewhere; I am not sure if the acoustics here are different, but it really added to the atmosphere.
The game I saw was delayed 30 minutes by rain and there were some beautiful scenes that resulted, including a rainbow over the Isaiah D. Hart Bridge. During the game, there was a lightning storm that passed beyond centerfield and provided an additional spectacle for the fans.
There were the usual promotions of course, including a local go-kart course having its vehicles driven around the warning track before the game.
The staff here are extremely friendly, with everybody greeting me with a smile. I was able to move around without hassle and enjoyed the different areas of the ballpark.
When this review was written, the owner, Peter Bragan Sr., had his own bench on the concourse behind home plate and was happy to talk to fans during the game. Sadly, he passed away a month later at the age of 89, but his legacy will live on. There is no doubt that having had an owner who was so clearly invested in the fans as well as the team itself rubbed off on everyone involved, making the Baseball Grounds one of the best places I have seen minor league ball.
The stadium is in the middle of the sports complex, and there is nothing else around. Just across the street is a single sports bar, the City Hall Pub, which likely does well later in the week but was empty after the game on the Monday night I was there.
Downtown is not far away though, and a quick drive will bring you to an area with more to do after the game.
The fans were polite, knowledgeable and spent their time actually watching the game despite their team being shutout. I really can't say much more because there were no nincompoops here to ruin my experience. They didn't block my view during the game, talk loudly on their cell phones, or otherwise annoy me. It seems obvious, but there seems to be this problem at most parks these days, and here in Jacksonville there was none of it. For that alone, they get full marks.
Located just east of downtown, the park is easy to reach from I-95 via the Main Street Bridge, following the signs to Duval Street. There are a few free parking spots at the meters but they were all filled up by 5:30, so you might have to park across the street for $5. Getting out is just as easy; I was on the highway about 2 minutes after reaching my car.
The Home Plate Gate is the main entry point and from here you walk up a staircase to the main concourse, which is more than wide enough. There is a single seating bowl that is asymmetrical in that there are full sections down the first base line while the third base seats are separated into upper and lower sections.
There is a second deck reserved for suites and skyboxes. The roof provided by this level covers the upper rows of the seating bowl which makes them the popular location as the Jacksonville area sees a lot of early evening showers, making the team's nickname less than fitting.
Tickets here are not cheap if you want to sit close, with the four rows of the dugout box section costing $22.50. These seats are at the same level of the dugout and allow you to watch the activities inside and even chat with the players if you are right next to them, as well as providing great views of the action. There is no chance to get foul balls here though, as the entire seating area behind home plate is covered with netting.
The rest of the box seats are $13.50 while $10.50 will get you a reserved seat. There are also berm and general admission seats for $7.50. I found that the ushers generally let you sit freely once the game started, as long as you avoided the dugout seats during the early innings. As you move down the lines, the seats are turned slightly so they face the mound, a feature not commonly found in minor league parks.
The scoreboard includes a small video board that shows replays and also includes the player's place of birth, even those on the visiting team.
One other thing to note is that the fence is not symmetrical, with left field at 321 and right field at 317, while center is a challenging 420 feet away.
The Suns have had some success on the field, winning five Southern League pennants that are commemorated on the right field wall.
The "Knuckle" is a general admission seating mound behind the Suns' bullpen that provides a different view of the action.
Finally, a point for the views of the bridges and Everbank Field that can be seen from the upper rows along the third base side.
Along with the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, Jacksonville is one of two minor league teams in Florida that are not in the Florida State League and as such offer somewhat better baseball than their High Class A counterparts. As such, a visit to the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville is highly recommended, the fans, staff, and ballpark combine to make it a memorable experience!
When walking into the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, you feel more than welcome, you feel like part of a family. Everything about this stadium is amazing. The field is always beyond words can describe, the groundskeeper does a terrific job. The stadium food is excellent. The part of it is that they have something for everybody each night of the week. So if you have kids, and don't want to be around a lot of drinking, Tuesday night is your night to go! If you want drinking, Thursday nights are your day!
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