Watching the World Series the other night I was impressed with the kind of baseball being played by both the Dodgers and the Rays. The long ball is still the biggest part of offensive tactics in this era of metrics, but baserunning, defense and pitching are on display in the 2020 version of the Fall Classic.
“I was worried a good team all season long might not get through,” former Jacksonville Suns owner and lifelong “baseball man” Peter Bragan, Jr. told me when I called him this week to see what he thought about this year’s World Series. “With the two teams in it though, the best two teams are there.”
It’s not unusual for me to pick up the phone just to talk baseball with “Pedro.” We also have dinner together once a month as part of a business group here in town, but I was surprised how candid he was about this season and its eventual playoff format.
“I originally thought it was going to be a joke, just sixty games,” he said. “That’s normally. just about a third of the way through. But in light of the coronavirus, it was wonderful to watch. Even with the canned music and the cardboard cutouts. Some friends said they weren’t going to watch. But I love the game, balls in the gap, defensive players moving. I just liked watching how good these guys are.”
After his father bought the Suns to start the 1985 season, Bragan originally came to town as the Director of Marking for the Double A club. Before getting here, Bragan took what he calls a ‘masters course” on running a minor league baseball franchise from Larry Schmittou in Nashville. Schmittou owned pieces of nearly a dozen minor league teams in his career and was named the Southern League Executive of the Year in 1978. Pedro came home asking his father all of the right questions about running the Suns and was elevated to the General Manager’s role the following season.
This year’s World Series has several Jacksonville connections, starting with Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts. Roberts bounced around in both the minors and the majors in his fifteen-year playing career, including three stops in Jacksonville.
“It was when we were with the Tigers,” Bragan recalled. “We won the championship with him here. He was kind of a fourth outfielder, what I call a good ‘scratch hitter’ with good speed.” Roberts hit .326 in the first half of the 1998 season as the leadoff hitter for the Suns, was traded to Cleveland mid-year and was in the Majors with the Indians the following April.
“Austin Barnes was a big part of that 2014 championship, playing second base and hitting second. He hit great for us,” Bragan said of Clayton Kershaw’s personal catcher. Barnes split time between playing second and catching over two seasons in Jacksonville. He’s done much of the same for the Dodgers.
One of the most dominant pitchers in the game today, Kershaw pitched here over two seasons. “He didn’t pitch that well, a little wild in his first year,” Bragan remembered. Kershaw spent some time with the Dodgers in 2008 but Bragan says his performance in Jacksonville solidified his major league status.
“He was here in July and August and dominated the Southern League,” Bragan said. “He went back up and has been in the rotation ever since.” Kershaw had a 1.91 ERA in thirteen starts in Jacksonville that year and was in the Dodgers starting rotation the following season.
When Pedro sold the Suns in 2015 (for somewhere north of $20 million) it’s the first time in 78 years there hasn’t been a Bragan in baseball. His uncle Bobby was in the game as a player, manager and executive starting in 1937.
With that history, it’s no surprise Bragan says he still misses going to the ballpark every day and admitted it took him about two years to adjust to not heading downtown.
As you might imagine, he still has some specific ideas about the current state of the game.
“We need an electronic strike zone,” he started with, pointing out his displeasure with umpires still calling balls and strikes. “These guys are better athletes. It showed up in this shorter season. Pitchers are all throwing 98-100, curveballs look unbelievable”.
“I hate the idea of the pitchers never batting again because sometimes it was fun,” he said of the National League adopting the Designated Hitter. “That was a one-year experiment in the American League, but crowds and scoring went up. And they never went back.”
Bragan has no problem with some of the other changes proposed to shorten games but doesn’t think you can “legislate” the shift out of baseball. I thought that was a funny answer having played a bunch of baseball with Pedro in Senior Leagues and Fantasy Camps in the past. A left-handed hitter, I never saw him hit a ball to left field.
“I hit some to left field,” he disagreed with a laugh. “When we played the Vikings (a great amateur team here in town from the Northside). “I’d have to wait on the fastball from their best pitcher and hit it to left.”
“It’s up to the coaches and hitter to beat the shift,” he explained. “I hate seeing that scalding ball hit right by the pitcher that’s supposed to be a single to center. You can’t legislate against that. You have to work the game around it. The hitters can handle it.”
Since getting out of the game, Bragan and his wife are building a house in St. Johns County. He’s been working on a book and has “seven or eight chapters written” and he’s playing more golf. He’s very interested in building a Jacksonville Baseball Museum and is willing to fund a big part of it but hasn’t been able to get a meeting with the current political placeholders.
“Down by the ballpark would be perfect,” he said with enthusiasm. ”I have a collection of historical things about baseball in Jacksonville. I’d finance most of it to get it done and work with the city. Hopefully that will happen sometime in the future.”
As much of a baseball legacy that Bragan has, perhaps the biggest part of his notoriety is his recitation of “Casey at the Bat” at schools and civic clubs. He encouraged kids to read and learn the famous baseball poem in schools and is reminded of his presentations almost every day.
“I did over a thousand clubs and schools over twenty years,” he said. “The other day we were moving my sister into her house and somebody there asked her about ‘Casey at the Bat.’ Said they saw me when they were in school.”
Bragan is obviously and rightfully proud of his impact with ‘Casey’ and offhandedly said, “I could fall out of bed and get that done with a one word start.”
So I said, “Oh, somewhere in this favored land, the sun is shining bright.” And without hesitation, Pedro picket it right up. “The band is playing somewhere, somewhere hearts are light. And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout. But there is no joy in Mudville, mighty Casey has struck out.”
It was impressive, as was Bragan’s stewardship of baseball in Jacksonville.
“I love baseball,” he said.