Many an afternoon I sat in the stands at Wolfson Park or in the upper deck at the Baseball Grounds with “Senior” and “Pedro” listening to common wisdom, getting life lessons, hearing fantastic stories (that were all true) and enjoying a cigar (when it was legal). I knew those moments were special and I savored every one. Oftentimes the evening was spent on the “Chairman’s Bench” watching baseball, hearing baseball wisdom and watching the endless stream of well-wishers who came by just to say hi to Peter Bragan, Sr. and Peter Bragan, Jr. and express how much they enjoyed being there. I saw kindness and humility, passed from father to son and watched a local business become an institution and flourish.
Monday’s announcement that Pedro was selling the team to an out of town businessman was inevitable, of course. Having bought the team from the Eliopoulos family (good people and owners in their own right) for $330,000 in 1984, a 30+ year run as the owners of the Double A franchise in Jacksonville seemed enough. When Senior died in 2012 and Pedro passed into his 60’s, the idea that somebody else was going to own the franchise soon was getting close.
“If Daddy saw those numbers he’d say ‘Sign the papers boy,” is how Pedro told me he came to his final decision to sell the franchise. It’s been widely reported that Ken Babby is paying about $25 million to be the new owner. “That’s funny money,” according to Pedro and “more than me and Nancy will ever be able to spend.” But at the very least the Bragan legacy in Jacksonville seems secure. With that “funny money” Pedro intends to start a baseball foundation and perhaps build a museum to honor Jacksonville’s baseball history.
“He’ll make it a better franchise,” Bragan said during the announcement in the locker room at the Baseball Grounds. Babby, the owner of the Akron Rubber Ducks is media-savvy having worked for the Washington Post Company. So it was no surprise when he encouraged applause regarding the baseball foundation announcement.
“We like affordable family fun,” Babby explained when asked about his philosophy regarding running a minor league franchise. “But a few championships thrown in here and there wouldn’t hurt either.”
Bragan will run the franchise for 2015 calling it, “Pedro’s Last Dance.” He stepped out from behind the podium, and in classic Pedro fashion, danced an abbreviated jig for the media. “It’s not quite right because I still have this boot on,” he explained having had foot surgery two months ago.
Interestingly enough, Shad Khan was interested in buying the Suns but Babby was willing to pay top dollar and Khan let the deal go.
Pedro wanted to announce the deal at his annual Christmas party in December but couldn’t complete the paperwork for the deal to go through in time so he figured the beginning of spring training was his next best option.
What the Bragans did was bring exactly what Babby says he wants to continue: affordable family fun. They also build relationships with advertisers and sponsors, the city and most importantly their paying customers, the fans. Babby has increased attendance nearly 30% in the first two years he’s owned the club in Akron.
That can’t be overstated. If you went to the ballpark and didn’t see Pedro and his Dad there, it would have been strange. I guess that’s why I can’t remember a time when I was at the ballpark and didn’t see one of them there. That will end after this season. Chris Peters has done a great job of learning the business and running the show for the last few years and hopefully, he’ll be given a chance to continue to do the same.
That local, common touch is important in any minor league baseball operation but perhaps more pronounced in Jacksonville.
As Pedro said, “I never really owned the Suns, the fans and the city did, I was just a steward.”
And it’s because he thinks that way that made it work so well.