There is one corner of Savannah that has defined summer in the city for close to a century, and yes, there are gnats there. The sights, the sounds, the smells and the energy of the season are encapsulated at the east end of Daffin Park in Grayson Stadium, where people cheer for the gnats.
The Savannah Sand Gnats, that is, who make their home at Grayson. The stadium is the oldest working minor league ballpark in America, and its classic atmosphere makes it the perfect place for a new generation of kids to discover the magic of baseball.
"There's a lot of history in the ballpark," says Savannah Sand Gnats President John Katz. "We have an opportunity now to bring back that community atmosphere of the post-WWII era, when this place was jammed every night."
The ballpark was originally known as Municipal Stadium when it was built in 1926, and was still new when it was almost lost to history forever. After closing operations during the Great Depression, the stadium returned to huge crowds and championship games in 1936. Four years later, a hurricane blew through Savannah and left very little of the stadium standing. The effort to raise the $150,000 needed to rebuild the ballpark was led by Spanish-American War veteran General William L. Grayson, and when the job was done in 1941, the stadium was renamed in his honor.
Exhibitions games at Grayson have treated Savannah spectators to some of the biggest legends in baseball: Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Jackie Robinson. Today, the Sand Gnats are the Class-A affiliate of the New York Mets and the stadium is a training ground for new major league heroes. A series of upgrades have taken place to bring modern amenities to the historic park, including a new video scoreboard, large fans under the grandstand, and the new Land Shark Landing. The landing is a three-level deck next to the first-base bleachers and is outfitted with new furniture and and other amenities.
"Everything we've done over the last four years has been to enhance the fan experience," Katz says. "We're looking to bring generations of families back together with the stadium as the place to get together."
The families that come have a soft spot for one particular gnat named Gnate. Gnate the Gnat is the team's mascot.
"Gnate's one of those characters who does what mascots are supposed to do," Katz says. "He appeals to everybody. You'll find as many adults getting their photos taken with Gnate as you do kids."
Katz says the attendance for the first ten games in 2011 saw a 30 percent rise from last year. It has been he and the team's goal to combine the thrill of a modern-day ball game with the historical traditions begun at Grayson Stadium.
"We have coaches and instructors that played here twenty years ago, and they tell us that the place has never been better," Katz says. "We're really excited for what the future holds."
So You Think Your Workday Is Tough?
The Savannah Sand Gnats play more than 140 games each season, often playing until around 11 pm and getting back on the field early the next day. The Sand Gnats' Strength Coach, Kyle Huckins, explains how the players maintain their health and their sanity with simple principles that any employee can incorporate into his or her lifestyle:
1. Remembering good nutrition and hydration. "A player's body is a valuable tool, so nutrition is key. The players have to watch what they put in their bodies, stay hydrated, and focus on balanced nutrition with plenty of vegetables. It's harder on the road, but I tell these guys not pick up fast food on the way to the field."
2. Keeping tasks varied. "We individualize a program for each athlete. For example, catchers are in a squatting position every day. They have to be careful how hard they work their legs in the morning before they catch."
3. Stretching and staying flexible. "Our goal is to keep the players as less sore as possible and their bodies as fresh as possible. Stretching before any activity, and after, helps to minimize that soreness and fatigue."
4. Working on your strengths consistently. "We really stress the player's offseason program, so when it's time to re-train for the season, they're ready."
5. Getting enough rest. "The players have long workdays and need to get off their feet and relax. Some listen to music or play video games to wind down, others players go right to sleep."
Are You Babe Ruth On The Weekend?
If you love playing hard after a long work week, you can benefit from adopting the same exercise principles employed by the Savannah Sand Gnats. But there are more considerations that "weekend warriors" need to make about how they treat their bodies. The goal of St. Joseph's/Candler Sports Medicine is to provide this region with the resources to prevent, evaluate, and treat injuries that occur to any athlete regardless of age or level of competition. Joe Winburn, Manager of St. Joseph's/Candler Sports Medicine, encourages weekend athletes to:
- Stay hydrated: thirst, a dry mouth, fatigue and irritability are the first symptoms of heat illness. A shaded area and plenty of fluids to drink are the best defense against dehydration.
- Listen to your body for signs of injury. Any severe pain should be checked by a doctor.
- Stop playing immediately if you experience nausea and muscle cramps. These are signs of heat exhaustion. Move to an air-conditioned or shaded place and use cold towels to cool your body.
- Engage in a regular exercise routine during the week.