The Biloxi Shuckers have quickly become one of baseball’s hottest attractions, Shuckers play-by-play radio broadcaster Chris Harris told Friday’s gathering for the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art’s “Our Love Affair with Baseball” weekly luncheon.
“Everybody raves about Biloxi,” said Harris, who noted he spoke to opposing players, club personnel and fans across the Southern League during the 2016 season. “Everybody looks forward to playing here.”
Harris, who joined the Shuckers in January 2015, said the start of Biloxi’s minor league experience was difficult. The Shuckers moved from Huntsville to Biloxi after the 2014 season, but MGM Park was not ready until June 2015, which meant the team played its first 54 games away from Biloxi with “home” dates becoming road games.
On the road
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While the team opened on the road, Harris said the offices were not ready, either, with Shuckers personnel using an open office filled with folding tables and chairs. Season tickets were tracked by pins put on a chart.
The Shuckers started their 2015 road odyssey on April 4 in Pensacola with a foreshadowing 4-0 win over the Blue Wahoos. Ten days later, the Shuckers players made their first trip to Biloxi. Harris said the players walked around the construction site wearing hard hats, but they could see the future.
Harris said April 30 was a low point.
“We went back to Huntsville,” he said.
In Huntsville, the Shuckers played Mobile in the first of several “home” series in their former park, where they had been known as the Stars.
Harris said Huntsville fans gave the Shuckers a mixed reaction in the 15 games they played in the stadium, not being hostile, but not showing up, either. At times, he said, the Shuckers played in front of less than 100 fans.
Although attendance was sharply down, Harris noted the Shuckers were successful in their 15 “home” games in Huntsville, winning nine times.
On May 25, the former Stars played their last game in Huntsville before traveling to Chattanooga. It was there the team received its worst news — a press release said there would be no baseball in Biloxi.
“It was a very tough blow,” Harris said.
That night, the Shuckers played another foreshadowing game, falling behind Chattanooga 6-1 before coming back late to win 8-6 in 10 innings.
Despite the press release on June 6, 2015, the Shuckers debuted in MGM Park, beating Mobile 5-4 in extra innings.
“It was a special, special day,” he said.
The long Biloxi road trip generated a number of stories and features, including in-depth coverage by ESPN.
“We were just trying to survive every day,” Harris said.
The Shuckers did more than survive, advancing to the Southern League championship series and getting named the Team of the Year by Baseball America.
“We were away from home and living out of a suitcase,” he said. “We were successful.”
Though the Shuckers missed the playoffs in 2016, they ended the season with 72 wins, finishing just 1.5 games behind in the first half and a half-game behind in the second half. Harris said analysis of the Shuckers runs showed they finished 10 games above expected wins of 62.
“It had to be great play-by-play broadcasting,” Harris said, jokingly.
However, he noted manager Mike Guerrero pointed out strong relief pitching. Over the year, the Shuckers won all 51 games where they had a lead going into the eighth inning.
During the season, Guerrero won his 1,000th game as a minor league manager.
“We took a lot of big steps this past year,” Harris said.
Harris said the Mets’ signing Tim Tebow would bring good publicity to baseball, comparing Tebow to Michael Jordan, who played for Birmingham.
“Anything that brings publicity to baseball is good,” he said.
However, he said he doubted Tebow’s chance at making the major leagues.
“I don’t think he has a chance,” he said.
Tebow will start his baseball career in the Mets’ Instructional League.