That Nashville Sound

How can one of minor league baseball's oldest and shabbiest stadiums also be one of its best places to watch a game?
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Originally published November 18, 2013.

Herschel Greer Stadium, the ramshackle home to the Triple-A Nashville Sounds, is one of the strangest and shabbiest and weirdly best places to watch baseball anywhere. If a plan to build a new stadium in Nashville's Sulphur Dell goes through (the first vote will be held on November 19), Herschel Greer's days are numbered. In the Being There issue of The Classical Magazine (which you can buy, along with any other issue, here or here), W.M. Akers wrote about Greer, what it means to Nashville and baseball, and how it works and doesn't at the same time.

Two hours before first pitch, Brad Tammen combs his stadium for peanut shells. He sees one wedged into a seat back, and points it out to a staff member, who prises the stubborn, seemingly-fossilized shell out with his fingernail.

"I swear, I thought we had every one of them," says the general manager of the Nashville Sounds. It's peanut-free night at Herschel Greer Stadium, which means no peanuts, Cracker Jacks, or (oddly) Dippin' Dots. Tammen has faith in his grounds crew getting the stadium clean. He's worried about the sky. "I don't need another thunderstorm," he says. "We don't need any more rain."

Greer Stadium is the third-oldest Triple-A ballpark in the country, and does not stand up well to rain. On a gray afternoon, its seats are rusty, its concourses spotted with puddles that seem decades old. Today there is a leak in the front office roof, and the famous guitar-shaped scoreboard is, as always after a heavy rain, only partially operational. But the field is spitshine perfect, and Tammen sounds like the proud captain of an aging diesel sub when he calls it, "the best playing surface in the Pacific Coast League."

Because excellent grass is not, by itself, enough to draw a crowd, the Sounds have been agitating for a new stadium for a decade. But just as Nashville finds itself on the upswing, plans for relocation have stalled out. The Milwaukee Brewers have been "patient," Tammen says, in their wait for a new facility, but there's no evidence that patience extends past their current two-year agreement with the team.

This leaves Tammen, who will give a speech at this year's winter meetings about "how to make the best of an old ballpark," in limbo—patching leaks and fixing seats, but holding off on major renovations in hopes that a new stadium is on its way. As it turns out, limbo is an excellent, or at least fascinating, place for a ballpark. Greer Stadium's concourses are cramped, damp, and lit by eerie fluorescents; concessions are limited to burgers, hot dogs, and—most nights—peanuts. There are no amenities but cold beer, green grass, and cheap tickets. Its problems are plain enough, but Greer Stadium is one of the finest minor league parks in the country, precisely because it is good for absolutely nothing at all but watching baseball.

***

"In my lifetime, Nashville has gone through four or five peaks," my uncle Duck told me in July. "The previous ones were exciting for business people, or for people of an older generation. The one we're on now, I think, must be much more exciting for a younger person."

It's a peak you may have seen on TV. In the pilot of ABC's Nashville—which must always be referred to as "ABC's Nashville," to distinguish it from reality's Nashville—scheming, syrup-voiced Powers Boothe bellows, "This isn't a backwater hamlet! This is an industrial and cultural juggernaut." I laughed out loud when I heard that, because in the 19 years I spent growing up in Nashville, I saw scant signs of industry or culture of any kind. But on a recent trip home, I found a city trying its damnedest for juggernaut status. Mayor Karl Dean is a builder, responsible most notably for a colossus of a convention center and a lovely symphony hall that last month narrowly avoided foreclosure.

In terms of food, booze and style, Brooklyn has come to Davidson County, bringing high-minded coffee shops, a bike share, and enough farm-to-table restaurants that the Nashville Scene recently joked about a looming shortage of reclaimed barn wood. When the New York Times dubbed Nashville the nation's latest "It City," residents were embarrassed, amused, and, when they thought no one could see them smiling, sheepishly proud.

But I wasn't raised in an It City. My Nashville was textureless: a landscape of strip malls, office parks, and overdeveloped private school campuses. I found joy in its dingy corners, searching Nolensville Road and Charlotte Pike for Mexican food, international markets, and sprawling used CD stores. I left for college ready to devour New York, my confidence bolstered by knowing that steady, dependable, never-exciting Nashville had my back. I was naïve, in retrospect, to expect my hometown would stand still. Many of my old haunts are gone, and those that remained looked, in the glare of national attention and the aspirational blaze of the new Nashville, threadbare and sad.

Which is, to a certain extent, just the way it goes. I'm all for a new Nashville. But the quicker this city gets away from what it was—and, so, from who I thought I was when I was there—the more intent is the urge to cling to what remains. There's nothing bigger to hold on to than a baseball stadium.

***

In its shabbiness, Greer has acquired something of the flavor of Sulphur Dell, a tumbledown wreck which hosted Nashville baseball from Reconstruction until the Civil Rights era. It was a strange place, with dimensions that surpassed quirkiness, rising to the absurd. Only 262 feet from home plate, the right field fence was topped with a towering screen—ten feet taller than the Green Monster—that turned fly balls into home runs, and rising line drives into harmless pop outs. More unbelievable was the outfield "dump," a hill that at rose as high as 22.5 feet, on which Babe Ruth once nearly broke his leg. The New York Times once called it "the world's most improbable ballpark," but among players it was known as "Suffer Hell."

Farrell Owens, the Sounds' first general manager, learned the sport in the grandstands at the Dell. As a child, he "didn't know that little short right field fence was any problem."

"That just was the way it was," he said last month. "So far as not having any amenities, so what? We didn't know any different. You just go out there and watch guys hustle, and play baseball. So what that the stadium was a little run down, and you had to look around poles to see? You didn't know any different. People would have a hard time going down there now."

People were already having a hard time going by 1963. The Southern Association refused to integrate, choking off crowds in a city that was in some ways more progressive than the rest of the South. When the Nashville Vols folded, only 971 people came to watch their final doubleheader, which was capped, appropriately, by a walk-off home run that just barely tumbled over the right field fence. The stadium once advertised as baseball's "most historic park" was converted to a racetrack, an indignity it endured for six years before being delivered by the bulldozer.

Few mourned. The city's population had more than doubled that decade, and Nashville was becoming Music City—a rhinestone-spangled, big-hatted, floridly tacky boomtown-cum-metropolis, whose downtown bristled with office buildings so concrete and modern, you'd think you were in the opening sequence of Dallas. Sulphur Dell was strictly small time, and off brand. It had to be left behind.

***

So began a baseball drought that spanned a decade-and-a-half in a city with no professional sports.

"It was a void," said Owens. "Those fifteen years was a void."

Without pro baseball, the only game in town was Vanderbilt's, where head coach Larry Schmittou spent the early '70s piling up division and conference championships. After an early proposal for a new stadium was derailed by the '74 recession, Owens and Schmittou—whom Tammen called, "Mr. Baseball here in Nashville"—began brainstorming about starting a minor league franchise.

"We were dreaming and talking specifics at the same time," said Owens. "We'd stay up till two o'clock in the morning. We'd just be rattling."

They would have kept rattling indefinitely, perhaps, if Conway Twitty hadn't wanted a baseball team. An oaken-voiced crooner with a concrete perm, this Music Row fixture had dreams of a Twitty empire. In the early '70s, he started a short-lived fast food chain with the unfortunate name of Twitty Burger, and in the '80s would go on to found Twitty City, an entertainment complex and Christmas village just north of town. Unable to resist the lure of minor league ball, Twitty become a majority shareholder, bringing a few of his Opry friends along for the party. After that, Owens said, "Things went fast. It went wild fast."

They placed their stadium at Fort Negley, where the Union built the Civil War's most elaborate fortifications, only to find that, when the battle of Nashville finally happened, their guns were just out of range. Building Greer went little better.

The drawings for the stadium looked like promotional artwork for a 1960's suburb, with soft lines, green trees, and plenty of parking for the family station wagon. It was a modern thing in 1978, all steel and concrete, with luxury boxes and concession stands and an outfield whose dimensions made sense. It was to be everything that Sulphur Dell was not.

"I like everything about it, I guess, since I built it," said Schmittou, who now runs a chain of bowling alleys in and around Tennessee. "I built it so the fans would have an up close, unobstructed view of the field."

1977 was icy, often so cold that to pour cement, Owens had to warm it with hot air machines. A picture from March of 1978, a month before opening day, shows the grandstand half-finished, the field muddy enough for a tractor pull. A few days before the home opener, the outfield sod came in rotten, and its replacement didn't arrive until the day of the first game.

"Farrell got on the phone and called some radio stations and said, 'We need some help out here,'" said Schmittou. "We had several hundred people come out and lay sod on that field. At that time, it was a community project.

"We didn't have electricity until about an hour before the game. And a little old lady said, 'I love the park, but I go into the restroom and I touch the wall and it shocks me.'"

The hastily-built outfield was so poorly graded that, during an eight day road trip, Schmittou brought in bulldozers, ripped up the grass, and tried again. Before a doubleheader, Felipe Alou, managing the Memphis Chicks, was disgusted by the playing surface.

"He told me, 'Worst field I ever saw, Larry,'" said Schmittou. "They beat us bad both games, and he said, 'Best field I ever saw.'"

The fans didn't care either way. Playing in the Double-A Southern League, the Sounds set a league record for attendance, as fans bought souvenir batting helmets, flirted with the beautiful Soundettes, and craned their necks for a look at the celebrity ownership. When the grandstand was full, they sat in the outfield: cross-legged, shaggy-haired, intent on the game. Sulphur Dell was dead and buried, and the city couldn't be happier.

"There wasn't any other sports around," said Schmittou. "Wasn't any football team. Wasn't any hockey team. The fans said this is our team. It was a love affair that had a good run."

***

Of all the sports to cling to, baseball offers the most handholds. We collect programs, ticket stubs, bobbleheads, foul balls, box scores—not just to remind us that we went to a game, but which game we went to, so we know that, if we ever need to remember it, we can look it up on Baseball Reference and be reminded again that our memory was true, all true. When an old man shows his grandson how to mark a double play on his scorecard, he's passing on more than a quaint old ritual—he's explaining something vital about the sport, which more than any other gives the illusion that time can be stopped. Baseball isn't a pastime. It's an anchor, and it gets heavier every year.

Talk to someone like Farrell Owens, who has the kind of perfect Nashville accent that, by all rights, should have been preserved on the Voyager spacecraft, and you'll get a master class in using a sport to keep lost years alive. Baseball can't stop a man from aging, Mariano Rivera being the notable exception, but it's an easy way to roll back the years.

"It was just wild," he said. "It was wild there for about seven years.

"We had a used car giveaway once. Boy that was something. And we put a tarp on the field one night, and had a money scramble. We had $5,000 out there in silver coins. We had an Annie contest—Annie, the real Annie, who had just come out of that movie in '80 or '81, we had her down there. We had Max Patkin, we had a lot of characters. Bob Feller would come in and throw to people. The fans would get a chance to hit off Bob Feller!"

In the early years, the Sounds were affiliated first with the Reds and then with the Yankees, giving Owens and Schmittou impressive names to drop—from prospects named Showalter and Mattingly to veterans named Mantle and Rose.

"I got to spend a lot of time with Yogi Berra," said Owens. "I was with him for two or three days, and he never said anything funny."

And then there is the Sparky Anderson story, a winding tale which, unfortunately, can only be summarized here. At the start of the '79 season, Anderson has just been fired from the Big Red Machine, and comes to Nashville for a night to watch his buddy George Scherger manage the Sounds.

"We just ready to play ball," said Owens, "and boy, a thunder boomer came up before we could do anything. It rained the game out."

Anderson decides to stay another day, and asks Owens to change his ticket. The plane he'd been booked on? American Airlines Flight 191, which crashed at O'Hare on May 25th, 1979, killing all aboard.

"I had those tickets in my hand," said Owens. "That's the largest crash ever on US soil. Somebody got that ticket. Because it rained."

Like anyone who uses baseball to mark time, Owens knows it is an imperfect anchor. Sparky Anderson avoids a plane crash in 1979, wins another World Series, disappears into dementia and finally dies in 2010. Rookies age; teams move; stadiums are torn down. Ticket stubs get lost, foul balls misplaced, and scorecards get thrown out when we move or the basement floods or somehow just disappear into household mess. But we cling to the game anyway, because there's no real reason not to. It works as well as anything else at slowing time and giving a real embraceable shape to memory—which is to say that it doesn't work, not really, but sometimes it feels like it does.

***

Of course, baseball games tend to run together, especially when the players are anonymous and the beers are cheap. The Sounds game I remember most fully was a few summers back, and it sticks in my head mainly because it featured a cameo by Rick Ankiel, then playing outfield for the visiting Omaha Royals. The game started in a rain delay—a wonderfully baseball concept—and my friend and I, home from college with nothing to do and no one to see, spent an hour with our feet on the dugout, drinking $1 beers and watching the grounds crew draw the batter's box with their little chalk-cart.

Somewhere around the start of extra innings, we wandered away for a cigarette, pausing by the exit to talk to a shoeless kid digging in the grass by the stadium exit, three baseballs gripped in one hand.

"What are you doing?" my friend asked.

"Looking for foul balls."

"You already have three of them."

"Yep. There's usually a few over here."

"Can I buy one of those off you?" I asked.

"Nope," he said, and scurried away. He hopped a fence into a restricted area that appeared to contain electrical generators. I imagined his bedroom, overflowing with salvaged foul balls, and wondered if he bothered to keep track of when he found each one.

Ankiel went 3-for-4. The Sounds won on a walk-off home run from Joe Koshansky, whose overlong Wikipedia entry informs readers that Koshansky "was a Major League Baseball first baseman who is currently working for Target."

***

Because every It City has a revitalized waterfront, Powers Boothe spent most of the first season on ABC's Nashville trying to force a corrupt mayor to build Subway Field: a Major League stadium overlooking the Cumberland. If that evil scheme sounds oddly realistic for a primetime soap, it's because it's based in fact. Real-life Nashville has been trying to build its real-life baseball team a downtown stadium for the last decade. Proposed sites have included Boothe's riverfront meadow, the scrapyard beside LP Field, and the traffic-heavy stretch just north of the state capitol, which as it turns out was once the home of Sulphur Dell. Those plans have all stalled.

"Mayor Dean continues to support having minor-league baseball in Nashville," wrote his press secretary, Bonna Delacruz Johnson, in an email. "However, any sort of future investment in a stadium must make sense for the city and be a true public-private partnership."

Nashville didn't pay a dime for Greer Stadium—a good deal, after more than three decades of use—and after overpaying for Titans football and Predators hockey, the city does not want to be burned again.

"We need Powers Boothe," says Tammen.

Before he came to Nashville, the Sounds GM worked for the Oklahoma City RedHawks, and helped with their transition from battered old All Sports Stadium to Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark, which sits alongside the canal in the middle of the city's revived entertainment district. Like most new stadiums, Chickasaw Bricktown is in the retro mold, with a stately brick structure looming over left field, like Baltimore's B&O Warehouse, or San Diego's Western Metal Supply Company. Look closely and you'll see it's not a decades-old, repurposed factory, but a Hampton Inn & Suites.

"What would be better about a new facility?" I ask Tammen.

"Everything would be better, top to bottom."

"And what would you lose?"

"Well, maybe the character. The history. My favorite piece is obviously the guitar scoreboard. A lot of great memories have happened here. Home runs have been hit over that guitar, and off the guitar. The guitar is the big focal point in Greer."

Asked if the scoreboard might join them in the move downtown, Tammen would not commit himself. The big blue guitar is too broken-down to be used in a modern park, he says, but would make a nice marquee. I try to explain that what I'll miss about Greer is more than the scoreboard. It's quiet here, I say. It's an easy place to watch a ballgame. Tammen answers with a non sequitur.

"Since the early '90s, in affiliated baseball, 160 teams, there have been 120-plus new ballparks built," he says. "That'll put it in perspective."

If they manage to build a new ballpark in Nashville, it will probably look something like one of those 120. It will make a few people a little money, and if it's situated properly, it could bring foot traffic to downtown and help out a few more. But it won't be special, and it decidedly will not be like Greer, whose shabbiness is unique in a country where sports get slicker every year. Brad Tammen deserves a roof that doesn't leak, and the It City deserves a stadium with whatever amenities its people demand. I've no right to deny them that—I make it to Greer once a year, if I'm lucky. But until city and team work out an agreement, I intend to savor the rusting, concrete pile.

***

The skies clear an hour or so before Peanut Free night, and the Sounds have perfect weather for their game against the Albuquerque Isotopes, whose name comes from a Simpsons gag. Spooked by the threat of rain, the crowd is thin—announced at 3,003 but in reality much smaller. Kids wearing baseball gloves wander the concourses, too restless to wait for a foul ball. Behind the Sounds bullpen, one tween stands alone on the Delta Dental Deck, chewing tobacco and kneading his glove.

Between innings, I wander into the mud-floored camera well at the end of the visitor's dugout. While I take a few dozen blurry pictures of the famous scoreboard, the Isotopes heckle the umpire, break down the Sounds pitcher, and argue about who in the clubhouse has "a skinny cock."

"We're in friggin' Nashvegas," says one 'Tope, to no one in particular.

The sun sets, a full moon rises, my dad and I eat $1 hotdogs and drink Yazoo Pale Ale. The reduced crowd and narrow concourses make a round-trip bathroom break possible between innings—an amenity that no modern ballpark offers. The bigger a park's video screen, I decide, the harder it is to watch the game. Here, there's no screen at all. With the scoreboard's message system suffering from water damage, there is no one hurling information at me but the PA announcer, who for one inning is replaced by a kid from the crowd. Every filter has been removed, and I can see the game as well as I ever have.

In the bottom of the seventh, Sounds down by one, Nashville's Khris Davis does an impression of Baltimore's Chris Davis, catapulting a three-run homer over the top of the 53 foot tall scoreboard.

Well, truthfully, the ball was maybe two feet to the left, but I swear it could have cleared it. Something less than 3,003 fans leap and shout and high five and look at the moon as he crosses home. It feels just like baseball, and nothing else.

Photos by W.M. Akers.


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