The Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville combines two ingredients that make it an utter success: A downtown location with novel use of its surroundings, and a lively atmosphere, bolstered by a freshly energized fan base.
And then there's the ballpark itself, a sparkling new palace with enough unique features to leave a distinct impression, while tossing in a few major-league caliber extras (seats are angled towards home plate, 12 luxury boxes).
Jacksonville is, after all, the largest city in the United States (land size-wise) with a metro population around one million folks. So it stands to reason that their new baseball stadium should shine in comparison to many of it's Double-A brethren, located in cities a tenth its size.
The Grounds are part of the Jacksonville Sports Complex and is nestled between Alltel Stadium, home of the NFL's Jaguars, and the still-under construction Jacksonville Arena.
In between lies the classically named Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, a beauty of a ballyard that will no doubt catch your eye with its visually appealing brick exterior.
The ballpark's interior is even more impressive. Seats run from the home team dugout at third base all the way to the right field foul pole and continue from there as bleachers that extend into deep right-center field. The lawn seating available just past third base and berm seating in left field makes the Grounds one of the few ballparks that you can actually walk all the way around, and the outfield vantage points are unique for the Double-A level.
There are many great perspectives from the ballpark's berm section, as fans can lean up against the outfield wall (like Winter Haven), which only comes up mid-waist high on most people. The no-seat back lawn seating down the left field line is directly behind the home team's bullpen.
The Suns also have an interesting quirk in straight-away center, where a full-length see through chain link fence replaces ten panels of the regular opaque fence. Hence, the center fielder can actually run into fans if he crashes into the wall while chasing a fly ball.
Jacksonville is also one of the few minor league ballparks with a large diamond-vision screen, although they only showed replays of between innings contests. The large main scoreboard itself, in which the screen was embedded, features a grandfather-style clock on top.
But you don't have to actually enter the Grounds to be able to watch the game. The only thing behind the berm seating in left field and the sidewalk on the outside is an iron fence with thin gates allowing for a perfect view of the action.
A quick walk around the outside of the Grounds will lead you to the fully-covered walkway with brick pillars on the first-base side of the ballpark, which lead to the only ticket windows and Jacksonville's main annoyance. With only five windows available, the waiting time to purchase walk-up tickets reached 20 minutes for a Saturday night game. Only the main gate behind homeplate was open, despite having entrances behind third base and the right-center field bleachers.
The Grounds attain much of its uniqueness from the structures that exist outside of the ballpark that are visible from the many different vantage points fans in Jacksonville are afforded.
The most dominant optical eye candy is behind the right field fence: Alltel Stadium, which in addition to hosting the Jaguars is the site of the annual Georgia-Florida game and in 2005 hosts the Super Bowl, which is already hyped as much as the Olympics are in the years leading up to the Games' start at their respective destinations.
Recognizing that a large 73,000-seat football stadium isn't exactly the stuff post cards are made of, your eyes quickly dart back and forth between the two large iron bridges that rise from either side of the football stadium, crossing the nearby St. Johns River. When night descends, the display of car tail lights from the bridges pulsate in the distance like the Citgo sign in Boston.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the Grounds is that it was built around a church - yes, a church - that has stood for over 115 years. From all vantage points from the first base seating bowl and outwards, the Old St. Andrew's Church stands out like a beacon just beyond the beginning of the outfield grass behind third base.
Nevermind that the Jacksonville Historical Society purchased the church in 1993 and it no longer officially represents its original Episcopal denomination. The people of Jacksonville must feel blessed to have a new ballpark, as they've set an all-time season attendance record in the Grounds first year.
After upgrading to a new ballpark, Jacksonville has their sights on a higher classification of professional baseball. The Grounds seat the Triple-A minimum of 10,000 and rumors have swirled that the Suns could soon be the AAA affiliate of the Dodgers, who are unhappy with the facilities their current team has in Las Vegas.
Outdated facilities was one of the reasons that the Grounds replaced the previous home of the Suns, Wolfson Park, which was the oldest stadium in the Southern League by nearly 30 years prior to it's demolition following the 2002 season.
If the Suns do make the jump up the professional ladder they would be returning to their affiliated roots, as the Suns began their inception in 1962 as a Triple-A franchise. Courtesy of a new ballpark, baseball's future in Jacksonville has never been brighter.
Plenty of parking is available within a short walk of the ballpark. The lots are gravel and grass and charge $5.
Unique In-Game Promotion: The Dice Roll
A person in the press box drops two oversized dice down the home plate protective screening. While they descend, one fan guesses the number while the other picks whether the result will be over or under.