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The Braves committed to 20 seasons in Pearl. That’s exactly how long they stayed.

The Mississippi Braves are moving to Columbus, Georgia, after this coming season, and I can’t say I am shocked. That’s because I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have been to M-Braves games at Trustmark Park over the past two decades when empty seats outnumbered warm bodies by at least five to one.

Let’s put it this way: I am not nearly as shocked as I was on April 1, 2004, when we first got the news that the Atlanta Braves were moving their Class AA minor league franchise to Pearl from Greenville, S.C.

Rick Cleveland

At first, I thought the news was an April Fool’s joke. Both the New York Mets and the Houston Astros had moved Class AA franchises out of the Jackson area because of financial woes stemming from lack of ticket-buying customers. Con Maloney, who was Mr. Baseball in mid-Mississippi, had tried everything he knew to try to make minor league baseball work at Smith-Wills Stadium in the capital city. Despite several championship teams and a world of talent that came through here, it just did not interest enough fans.

And I remember asking John Schuerholz, the remarkably successful Atlanta Braves general manager, if the previous baseball failures in the Jackson area were a concern for his franchise.

“No,” he answered, matter-of-factly. “We don’t care what other people do. We have a system and we believe in it. We made a 20-year commitment here. We have confidence in the way we operate. Excellence is our byword.”

“A 20-year commitment,” Schuerholz said. Do the math. That was 2004. This is 2024. The Braves are out of here after this coming season. And, yes, the Atlanta Braves got a sweetheart deal 20 years ago. Trustmark Park, replete with 22 suites, was built at a cost of $28 million. It would cost nearly double that today. The Atlanta Braves, who signed a 20-year lease, provided none of those millions. They just provided the talent, and there has been plenty of that, which we’ll get to here shortly.

Much has changed in 20 years. Back then, the Braves’ Class A team had just moved to Rome, Georgia, and was the only Braves minor league affiliate in Georgia. Otherwise, Atlanta Braves had minor league franchises in Danville, Virginia; Richmond, Virginia; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; and Pearl.

This time next year, all the Braves’ minor league teams will be in Georgia. That has to be by design.

Columbus, Georgia, has agreed to spend $50 million to renovate a century-old ballpark. Ironically, when the Houston Astros moved their Class AA franchise to Jackson in 1991, it moved away from the very same Columbus stadium, Golden Park, because of a lack of attendance there.

Some terrific ballplayers, including future Baseball Hall of Famers, have come through Trustmark Park. Several have made the leap from the Mississippi Braves to Atlanta, skipping Class AAA all together.

Ronald Acuna bats for the Mississippi Braves at Trustmark Park in 2017. (Courtesy Mississippi Braves)

Freddie Freeman, for sure, will have a plaque in Cooperstown. Reigning National League MVP Ronald Acuna, barring injury, is headed in that direction, too. Craig Kimbrel, who has saved 417 Major League Baseball games as a closer, was virtually un-hittable as a fresh-faced, 20-year-old flame thrower here.

Indeed, future Major League stars who played in Pearl are almost too many to name, but here are a few: Brian McCann, Martin Prado, Jeff Francoeur, Yunel Escobar, Charlie Morton, Jason Heyward, Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies, Austin Riley, A.J. Minter, Spencer Strider, Max Fried and Michael Harris.

In all, 169 former Mississippi Braves have advanced to the Major Leagues. That’s an average of more than eight per season — and that’s a lot.

Mississippi Braves Manager Brian Snitker taken at Trustmark Park in Pearl on April 20, 2005. (Tom Priddy, courtesy Mississippi Braves)

Brian Snitker, manager of the 2021 World Champion Atlanta Braves, was the first Mississippi Braves manager in 2005. Five of Snitker’s World Series champion everyday starters were former Mississippi Braves. All five starting pitchers were former M-Braves, and much of the bullpen staff had come through here as well.

We have seen some phenomenal talent come through here. Unfortunately, too few people watched them while they were here.

Speaking at a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Pearl Mayor Jake Windham said the city, Rankin County and state officials had done all they could to keep the Braves at Trustmark Park. “We are sad to see them go,” he said. Windham also said every effort will be made to bring another minor league franchise to fill the void.

On a positive note: Trustmark Park, has been well maintained. It looks virtually brand new and is a really nice minor league ballpark. The negative: If an Atlanta Braves minor league franchise didn’t draw well enough here, who would?

We shall see.

Mississippi Braves’ Gregor Blanco, left, shares some of the team’s “professional-grade” bubble gum with youngsters before the team’s home opener against the Montgomery Biscuits, Monday, April 18, 2005, at Trustmark Park in Pearl, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio Solis)

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