The New York Mets appear to be on their way to winning their first National League East title since 2006 behind a strong, young pitching staff and a dominant closer.
Arguably the ace of New York’s staff, Jacob deGrom, as well as one of the best closers in baseball, Jeurys Familia, played in the Class A South Atlantic League for the Savannah Sand Gnats before going on to star for the Mets.
Starting next season, many future Mets will begin their careers in Columbia instead of Savannah when the Savannah Sand Gnats become the Columbia Fireflies. The Fireflies will play in a new stadium near downtown Columbia.
Nine former Sand Gnats are currently contributing for the New York Mets, including catcher Kevin Plawecki, third baseman Eric Campbell, shortstop Wilmer Flores and center fielder Juan Lagares.
“The past few years the Mets have done a really good job in the draft of finding players that have come through Savannah, players that are productive and exciting, and some of those players are already contributing with the big club, which is having a good year,” Sand Gnats manager Jose Leger told The State. “There are going to be good players there in Columbia, and they’re going to be happy to be playing in a new stadium.”
The new stadium, Spirit Communications Park, is designed for baseball, concerts, soccer and football. It will seat about 9,000 for sporting events and up to 15,000 for outdoor concerts.
In addition, the stadium will be open 365 days per year and will serve as a public park with a concourse that is about one-third of a mile. The concourse will be open to walkers and joggers throughout the year.
“We’ll use it for our 70-game baseball schedule, but then we can also use it for other events. Our ballpark will be big enough that we can fit a full-sized football and soccer field in it. We can add additional sports so it’s not just baseball,” Abby Naas, the Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations for the Fireflies, said.
“Also, with the HD video board that we have and how the ballpark will be open 365 days a year, people can come in and just eat lunch, walk laps. It is an actual city park. It’s really more of a community gathering place and an additional park for the city.”
Naas said there are no plans for minor league teams in other sports to use the facility, but that could change in the future.
“For now it would just be hosting special games for the 2016 season,” she said. “Obviously our focus is baseball, but down the road who knows.”
The new ballpark played a big role in bringing the Sand Gnats to Columbia. Grayson Stadium, where the Sand Gnats played this past summer, was built in 1926 and has been home to the Savannah Indians, Savannah Athletics and Savannah Pirates among other minor league teams.
Leger said he has mixed emotions about leaving the historic park for a new one in Columbia.
“Savannah was great to us, the fans there and the whole city was nice. And even though the stadium was kind of old, we kind of embraced the fact that it was a historic stadium,” he said. “I think it’s just one of those feelings that you’re happy you’re going to a brand new stadium, but you’re also sad that you’re leaving a great place like Savannah behind.”
Hardball Capital, the owners of the Savannah Sand Gnats, were considering staying in Savannah but opted to move the franchise after being unable to reach an agreement with the city on a new stadium.
“We already owned the Savannah team and we had a relationship with the city. We were trying to build a new ballpark down there, and we had owned the team for quite a few years. We knew that it would benefit the city and the team if we could build a new stadium,” Naas said. “It didn’t actually work out and so we ended up getting our relationship with the city of Columbia and getting a new facility here.”
The final season for the Sand Gnats has been a memorable one as the team finished the regular season with the best record in the South Atlantic League Southern Division before losing to Asheville in the playoffs.
The Sand Gnats players had hoped to send out Savannah as a winner with a South Atlantic League title.
“The whole team talked about that,” Savannah infielder Patrick Biondi said. “That would have been pretty special, just seeing the tradition that Savannah has with pro baseball and this being the last year.”
There is no guarantee that any of the current Sand Gnats players or manager Leger will be here next season in Columbia, but current Savannah players are excited about the possibility of opening up a new ballpark, as well as the chance to make history.
“There are a lot of people in Savannah sad that they’re leaving, but I think it’s a great opportunity to be in Columbia, kind of a new beginning. I know they’re building a new ballpark there. It’s nice to have an upgrade, but at the same time it’s a little bittersweet,” Sand Gnats infielder Jonathan Johnson said.
“This Mets organization is going to be able to write its own history. If we pick up where we’re leaving here, the first page in Columbia is going to be a good page. We hope to continue this legacy from Savannah on to Columbia.”
Sand Gnats alumni who played in the majors
The third baseman has more than 2,700 hits and more than 400 home runs. He has been named to four all-star games.
Retired, Gagne won the Cy Young Award in 2003 and holds the MLB record for most consecutive save opportunities converted.
He has hit 30 or more home the past four years, including 2015. He was an all-star in 2013 and 2014.
Zimmerman has battled injuries the past two years but when healthy has four years of 25 or more home runs.
Led the American League in home runs in 2009 and was named the AL Comeback Player of the Year in 2007.