BILOXI, Miss. (AP) _ His is a success story, of a Black kid who grew up cutting lawns for rich and influential folks in Orlando, Florida, and went on to build two minor league baseball stadiums in Mississippi.
Tim Bennett’s story has a catch, though. As a part-owner of the Biloxi Shuckers, he doesn’t feel welcome in his own front office.
Part of the reason for that, he said, is the color of his skin.
But in a state he said many consider racist, two governors _ along with others _ gave him a chance.
“Here in Mississippi they got it right,” he said. “Not once but twice.”
Governors Haley Barbour and Phil Bryant didn’t care about his race, he said, or that he was not from Mississippi, never went to college, never played professional baseball and didn’t have a family pedigree or money.
“They gave me a shot,” he said.
Barbour supported him in his construction of a stadium in Pearl, Bennett said, even after the mayor of Jackson dashed his ideas of building in that city. “I got kicked out of Jackson, of all things, for being a dreamer,” he said, referring to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech.
What he thought at the time was the worst thing that could happen turned into the best thing. Bennett teamed up with the city of Pearl and the Atlanta Braves and went on to build Trustmark Stadium. In 2005, the Atlanta Braves Double-A affiliate, the Mississippi Braves, played in their new stadium, just 1 1/2 miles outside of Jackson.
Michael Plant, president of baseball operations for the Atlanta Braves, said he didn’t know Bennett before the talks began to move the Braves’ AA team to Mississippi. Plant had hired someone to introduce Bennett to teams.
“If I’m dealing with you, I don’t need an intermediary to do that,” he recalls Bennett saying.
“I said if we’re going to advance this thing it’s going to be based on trust and respect and trying to work in a way that we can create a mutually beneficial arrangement for everyone,” Plant said he told Bennett.
Both men were raised with strong principles, Plant said. “I know Tim and I had never forgotten these principles,” he said, which is why he believes the deal was concluded in just 90 days and Bennett went to work building the stadium.
“He was the quarterback on the ground,” Plant said. Bennett worked with the governor, Pearl Mayor Jimmy Foster, the architect and contractors. “He was running and gunning,” Plant said, and the Braves counted on him to get things done.
Spotlight on Biloxi
In June 2015, Bennett’s mom was in the stands when MGM Park opened in downtown Biloxi. It had taken 10 years, but Bennett got the stadium built and found now-majority owner Ken Young and an ownership group to buy the Huntsville Stars _ the AA affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers _ and make the team the Biloxi Shuckers.
With the Mississippi Braves’ and Biloxi Shuckers’ major-league affiliations, “we’ve got the only two teams Hank Aaron played for,” Bennett said, a proud accomplishment for Mississippi.
Now Biloxi is preparing to host Conference USA Baseball Tournament, May 24-28, a nationally televised baseball competition that is expected to be seen by millions during the final game on CBS and live-streamed on ESPN. That’s more people seeing Biloxi in the first few minutes of the broadcast than have ever been to MGM Park, Bennett said.
“I brought it here,” he said of the tournament. “Three-year contract.”
In the shadows
“Baseball’s been very good to me,” is Bennett’s mantra, but overshadowing his success in Mississippi is his feeling of not belonging in the stadium he built.
“Why am I not accepted in my stadium? That’s the only question I have,” he said with a tear in his eye. “Why?”
He tells how he earned $1 million on the development in Pearl and turned around and invested most of it in a 10-year struggle _ and put 370,000 miles on his truck _ to get a stadium to Biloxi.
He doesn’t have an office in MGM Park. He had held the title of vice president of the team, but that has disappeared.
“Never got a call, never got a reason,” he said. John Traub, general manager of the Albuquerque Isotopes, a New Mexico team also owned by Young, is now VP.
Young said he gives Bennett credit to being able to get the Biloxi stadium built. In the early days of the team, “purely at my discretion,” Young said, he decided to give Bennett the title of VP.
“The reason he’s no longer VP is because I didn’t want the public to get confused about if he ever had any authority on the Biloxi Shuckers’ side of the business,” Young said.
As president of Overtime Sports, Bennett manages events at the stadium, Young said, adding, “Overtime Sports does not manage the stadium and that was never the case. The Shuckers manage the stadium and we have a whole staff to do that.”
“There’s absolutely no discrimination,” Young said. “It’s a personal problem between the two of us that we need to rectify.”
Last year was the first time in a decade Bennett didn’t go to the winter meetings for professional baseball.
“If I didn’t receive an invitation as an owner I’m not going,” he told himself. He wanted to be invited as an owner, a representative of the team, the guy who built two stadiums.
Bennett said when injustices occurred he’s been told to sit down and say nothing.
“But I’m not sitting and I’m not silent anymore,” he said. “Somebody’s got to charge that hill and take that bullet.”
Diversity is an initiative
Bennett doesn’t blame Major League Baseball or Minor League Baseball for his challenges and the diversity issues in baseball.
He is one of a handful of minority owners throughout the country and treasures a letter from Jackie Robinson’s widow, Rachel Robinson, commending him on persevering and achieving his goal of becoming an owner of a professional ball club.
“As you may know, one of Jack’s wishes was to see more African Americans in the front offices of baseball,” she wrote.
“She knows the struggle,” Bennett said.
Pat O’Connor, president of Minor League Baseball, has created a Diversity Initiative to encourage participation by minorities at all levels of the game, including the fans.
Bennett said the Jackson State-Alcorn game last season drew 2,000 people to MGM Park and 95 percent of the people in the stadium were black, showing black sports fans do have an interest in the game.
Baseball is a game of diversity, he said, where you can be tall or short, slight or overweight and play a variety of positions. Though talented athletes can go right from high school to the NBA or NFL, “baseball, that takes a lot longer,” he said. Even the best players in baseball start at the minor league levels and earn not much money to start.
A lot needs to change in baseball, he said.
“This isn’t meant to be a negative story,” he said. “This is meant to be a celebration of Mississippi.”
Bennett said his part ownership of the Biloxi team is something he plans to pass down to his daughter. He will continue to speak for equality, he said, because of the backing he got from Barbour and Bryant, O’Connor and Mincher; from Doug Dale, “an architect who just wouldn’t stop believing in me”; and so many others.
Plant had faith in Bennett closing the deal. “With the Braves organization it was all for one and one for all,” Bennett said.
“I’ve never seen the guy lose his cool,” Plant said. Bennett faced great challenges and he persevered through them, he said. In the 10 years he worked to get the stadium built in Biloxi, “he had barriers,” Plant said, but stayed the course.
A home run
“Tim Bennett knows baseball,” Gov. Barbour wrote after the success at Pearl.
Now, in Biloxi’s third season, Bennett said the Shuckers are eighth in attendance of 10 teams in the Southern League, with the newest stadium and sitting across from a casino.
“We’ve got to do better,” he said, and he wants to help turn it around.
Bennett never owned a baseball or glove as a kid and didn’t need to be a player who takes home the trophy.
“I just wanted to be on a winning team,” he said.
There are very few people who can put on their resume that they are part of building two minor league baseball stadiums, Plant said of Bennett’s accomplishments. “Tim’s a very classy guy who brought a lot to this game.”
Information from: The Sun Herald, http://www.sunherald.com