The crack of a baseball bat is a familiar and exciting sound on spring nights in Savannah, home of the Sand Gnats.
This year, that sound may be bittersweet as the Sand Gnats begin what’s most likely their last year at Grayson Stadium- the nation's oldest operating minor league ballpark and a true centerpiece of Savannah sports.
Willie Smith, a diehard Sand Gnats fan known by Savannahians as “Mr. Willie” has watched the Sand Gnats play for nearly 80 years.
“I got used to the game here as a young boy and I fell in love with baseball through my daddy at that age, seven years old or whatever. I used to like running around trying to get baseballs,” Smith said, laughing. “I never bought a baseball in my life.”
The start of this 2014 season for the minor league team marks the 100th anniversary of professional baseball in Savannah.
While Mr. Willie has been here for more than seven of those 10 decades, his viewpoint from the ballpark hasn't always been the same.
“This place has a lot of history, some of it's good, some of it's not so good,” said John Katz, the president of the Sand Gnats. “Mr. Willie's been coming here since they told him he couldn't come here.”
Even though segregation altered the circumstances, Smith still witnessed some of the greats. Outfielder Al Pinkston was one of them.
“Oh Pinkston was the man,” said Smith. “He was an outfielder out of this world. Everybody recognized him for being so big but he was a fantastic player. I mean, he was one of the best”
A number of baseball legends have graced Grayson’s field, including Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth.
Beloved by both Savannah’s diehard and casual baseball fans, ticket-buying at the historic stadium may soon come to an end.
Grayson Stadium is the oldest operating minor league ballpark in the country, and some of its structural issues just can't be fixed.
Moving the franchise to a new Savannah venue is an option. But to the dismay of people like Mr. Willie, other options include moving the team to a different state.
Of course, Willie Smith hopes the team will stay at home.
“All I can say is, Savannah needs baseball. Whether they're in an old stadium or out there somewhere right on the corner. “