CEO Ken Babby intends to keep swinging at 121 Financial Ballpark now that the Minor League Baseball season is canceled.
The day before Minor League Baseball canceled the 2020 season because of the coronavirus, Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp owner and CEO Ken Babby signaled a business group that he was preparing for it.
“I wish I had better news to share,” Babby told the Meninak Club of Jacksonville in a Zoom meeting June 29.
“We are not optimistic at this point about a Jumbo Shrimp baseball season in 2020.”
The Jumbo Shrimp confirmed his expectation June 30 after an announcement by Minor League Baseball that the 2020 season was canceled.
Babby was disappointed, but not surprised.
“As we approach the end of June, that's really the reality, especially as cases continue to rise throughout the country,” he said.
The 2020 cancellation is the first time since 1969 that Jacksonville will not field a professional baseball season.
The previous franchise moved from Jacksonville to Norfolk, Virginia, after the 1968 season. In 1970, a new Jacksonville Suns team – the one that became the Jumbo Shrimp - started playing as a Double-A team in the Southern League.
“The environment we're living in”
Babby, now 40, bought the Jacksonville Suns in 2015, changing the name of the Double-A affiliate of the Miami Marlins to the Jumbo Shrimp.
He focused on expanding the experience of minor league baseball into what is promoted as affordable family fun with specials and nongame events.
He told Meninak those activities will continue. The events are listed at milb.com/Jacksonville.
Babby was in Akron, Ohio, when he spoke to Meninak. He also owns the Akron RubberDucks, a Double-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians.
Babby said he had not imagined owning two baseball teams during a period of no games.
“That's the environment we're living in and whatever hair I had remaining, before 2020, is all gone at this point,” he said.
Baseball fans will be credited for purchased tickets.
“As you can imagine, what a year it has been,” Babby said.
He said that when the 2019 season ended in the fall, staff started to prepare for 2020, highlighted with the January announcement that 121 Financial Credit Union will be the naming rights sponsor for 13 years at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville.
“We entered into a long-term lease agreement with the city of Jacksonville and solidified this naming rights agreement that was ultimately built to really take our franchise to the next level,” Babby said.
The financial value was not disclosed. The ballpark is at 301 A. Philip Randolph Blvd. in the Sports Complex.
“So I woke up, like we all did, on New Year's Day in January, incredibly excited about what 2020 was going to mean for our community, for our business, for all of us and our hardworking staff,” he said.
Babby said the senior team met at an off-site retreat in February to build a strategic plan and goals for 2020.
“Who knew what was around the corner for all of us?” he said.
“Sitting around that table, it's almost eerie to think about it now, we started to say, what is the business that we're really in? What is the service that we're really providing to our community? What are the things that, really, the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp are really known for in Jacksonville? And then throughout Northeast Florida?”
Babby said they talked about ideas and concepts, in addition to the fact that the Jumbo Shrimp plays nine innings of baseball.
”The conversation that we had as a strategic team in February was that we were more than just a Minor League Baseball team,” he said.
“We're really a family entertainment business that has a mission to be able to provide affordable family fun all year round in the facility, even when there's no baseball game going on,” he said.
The group noted that even in times of no baseball, it hosted movie nights, activities and fireworks shows.
“And who knew as we sat there as a team, literally eight weeks before the craziness of this crisis began, that we found ourselves in this strategic conversation about what our business really is.”
Opening day was to be April 15.
The leadership team left the meeting and went to work, locking up season ticket accounts and finalizing the promotional schedule.
Then the March pandemic spread triggered states of emergency that closed businesses, parks and businesses while requiring social distancing and other practices.
“We realized there were bigger issues in the world than the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp,” Babby said.
The franchise moved to prioritize the safety of staff and closed offices. Zoom meetings became the norm into early June.
“We wanted to make sure that our staff understood, more than ever, that our mission was strong. Our future was bright and the fundamentals of our business were everlasting,” Babby said.
“We're part of the Jacksonville ecosystem, and will be for decades to come, regardless of the crisis,” he said.
“Despite the notion that this is likely to be a very difficult period, baseball will return, entertainment will return, people will eventually gather together as groups. And we wanted to really restore that with our people,” he said.
The staff developed safety protocols for the office reopening and for ballpark events.
“We didn't know when baseball would return, but we knew that when it was safe to do so, we'd start the process of having events at the ballpark again,” he said.
He said the first job was to make sure the Jumbo Shrimp's 30 employees could return to work with the proper safety protocols.
“We're back at work for, I don't know, maybe 20 minutes and all of a sudden the questions began,” he said.
“When are we going to have our first event? When are we going to open the gates? When are we going to have baseball back?
“We didn't have the answer as to when baseball was going to be returning, but we knew that we had a safe and responsible commitment to Jacksonville to find a way to reopen safely.”
It started with planning the first family movie night May 30.
“We had about 400 fans come to that first event. Plotted out on the field, in squares, for safe, family social distancing, where you'd sit as a pod, as your family, you'd come in and out safely,” he said.
Concession lines were set up with 6 feet of separation, and fans were encouraged to wear masks. Other protocols were in place.
“The first movie night became the second movie night, and now all of a sudden, it seems like every night at the ballpark there's something else in terms of another fun event.”
June 27 was bingo night “with 150 people, safe, socially distanced, enjoying hot dogs, sausages, beer, and family bingo night.”
“It wasn't exactly how we planned the year to go,” he said.
“We looked at each other and said, we're really starting the process here of fulfilling our mission to the community. And doing so without baseball is hard work.”
Meninak asked about the players, who lose a year of their careers.
The New York Times reported June 30 that most MLB teams committed to paying their minor league players, many of whom earn less than $15,000 per season, $400 a week beyond June 30.
Here for the long run
Plans this weekend include a safe and socially distanced Fourth of July celebration on July 3 with fireworks. Attendance is capped at 2,000 in the park, which has a capacity of more than 11,000.
Major League Baseball expects to start its 2020 regular season in late July. Fans are preparing to watch the games on TV or remotely.
Babby pledges that Jumbo Shrimp baseball will be back, eventually.
“I can share with you with tremendous certainty that Jumbo Shrimp baseball will be back. Affordable family fun will return to 121 Financial Ballpark, and until then, stay close to us as we're planning events, literally by the day, and finding ways for you to bring your family in safely and engage and have a great time this summer,” he said.
“That is a promise. We are here for the long run.”