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Jacksonville Suns owner Ken Babby reads "A Day on Safari" to the fans during the July 3 home game. It was an unexpected moment for the first-year owner, but one of his better memories.
Jax Daily Record Thursday, Sep. 8, 201612:00 PM EST

Ken Babby had busy first season as Jacksonville Suns owner

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by: David Chapman

A microphone in one hand, a copy of “A Day on Safari” in the other, Ken Babby straddled the wall near the home team’s dugout.

From there on that particular sunny July afternoon, the Jacksonville Suns owner started reading to a crowd that quickly surpassed 10,000.

Normally, Suns players are the ones who do the honor of Sunday readings as part of family day promotions.

They huddle up with kids on the grassy field while other children run the bases or play a game of catch with their family.

On this day, though, the players were going through extended stretching exercises. They weren’t an option.

Babby just happened to be on the field when Andrea Williams, the Suns community relations director, asked the owner for an assist.

It was Babby’s turn in the big time after years of one-on-one reading to his young son, Josh.

“Sometimes the best moments aren’t always planned,” Babby said Wednesday afternoon as he was on his way to Altoona, Pa.

That’s where Babby’s other minor league team, the Akron RubberDucks of the Eastern League, began playoff baseball.

The Suns didn’t make the playoffs in the Southern League, but Babby’s first year owning the Suns was a success in many ways.

He said it’s been “quite remarkable” how quickly the community rallied behind the team and its “fundamentally different” (emphasis on fun) approach to his inaugural season.

General admission prices were slashed to $5. The ballpark staple hot dog cost $2.

The overall concession menu received a revamp with options like jambalaya, grilled cheese and even locally sourced sausages.

Fans responded by flocking to the gates and setting milestones in attendance for signature events like Opening Night, the first home stand of the season and largest home series attendance in three years.

And while Babby wouldn’t reveal concession revenue, the changes received “resounding appreciation” from baseball fans.

“Food should be one of the things you get excited about at a ballpark,” he said.

Babby didn’t know exactly what to expect in his inaugural season.

He purchased the team early last year from the Bragan family, which owned it for 31 years.

Babby already had baseball roots in Akron, but Jacksonville was new.

“From an outsider looking in … it can be a little bit intimidating,” he said.

The city has a lot of people and a lot more area to market, which he admittedly called “terrifying” at first.

Babby said he quickly learned his initial perception was off — the JAX Chamber, City Council, sports officials and others actually are a close-knit group with which he’s become involved.

And he and the Suns have become engaged with the community. Players went to children’s hospitals weekly for visits or to schools to read to children.

Babby said he would like to start a children’s reading program similar to one established with the RubberDucks.

Called “Quack Open a Book and Read!,” the Akron program allows students to earn free tickets to games and recognition for completing a reading program.

In addition to the players, the team’s mascot, Southpaw, also made the rounds throughout Northeast Florida.

The focus on the team being out in the community was a foremost desire for Babby.

“We are more visible in the community this year than probably any year in the franchise’s existence,” he said.

The team also contributed toward the local nonprofit community through various themed days.

Through its “Charity Begins at Home” partnership with VyStar Credit Union, the Suns provided opportunities for agencies to buy tickets at a discount then sell or give them away to people.

During those games, half the proceeds from the Launch-a-Ball promotion also went toward that game’s cause. Organizations including Dreams Come True, Pit Sisters, Haven Hospice and the Jacksonville Public Library took part.

Additionally, players during Friday home games wore red jerseys that will be auctioned off to benefit Jacksonville United Service Organizations.

Total local economic impact figures will be announced closer to the end of the year, Babby said.

Being the owner of two minor league teams meant a busy schedule.

Babby said he was able to make 50 to 60 percent of the home games — he was a part of every home stand — for both the Suns and RubberDucks with the rest of his time traveling to see his son.

Josh managed to make it to a few games, too, mostly at the beginning and end of the season. In between was summer camp, but Babby said Josh did enjoy many things about the city.

The beaches and Jacksonville Armada soccer games were fun, but Josh was a big fan of Bono’s Pit Bar-B-Q, particularly the banana pudding. He was such a fan the original location on Beach Boulevard has his picture on the wall.

As much as Jacksonville has worked out for Babby so far, he recently learned a lesson many outsiders do that no person can control: The weather, particularly the stormy late summer season, can be hectic.

“You can do everything right,” he said, “but it really affects the ability to attract people … it’s very humbling.”

Seven games in all this year were washed out and had to be rescheduled, including most recently the final home stand last week impacted by Hurricane Hermine.

Even so, it was a pretty successful year, he said, one he and the team can build upon in the offseason.

Better promotions, new concession items and an overall evaluation of what the team did and didn’t do well will be determined during the off-season.

And before you know it, baseball season will be back.

“It’s a very quick off-season and it’s a busy one,” he said.

That off-season might have started for the Suns, but it hasn’t for Babby — there’s still baseball to be played.

[email protected]

@writerchapman

(904) 356-2466

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