Developing Youth the Focus of Smith-Wills Stadium
Sports promoter Tim Bennett has big plans for Jackson’s Smith-Wills Stadium.
With 150 events on the schedule this year – including high school and college baseball, and the SWAC Championship Baseball Tournament May 13-17, 2020 – Bennett’s ambitions begin with big dreams to give the 1975-built stadium a new life and a new purpose.
“(It’s) about promoting youth to get back in baseball with a focus on African Americans and minorities,” Bennett said. “(Major League) Baseball said they want more minorities, but they haven’t attracted them. Give them a place to play, train and practice, and then they can play at a higher level.”
Bennett has a twenty-year contract with the City of Jackson to manage Smith-Wills, with two ten year renewals.
He plans to build additional fields on land to the northeast of the stadium and improve the Michael D. Johnson Memorial Field that fronts the stadium on Lakeland Drive.
First up, a bit of TLC.
Paint, a new sound system and lights, a barbecue smoker and restaurant and lots of Major League Baseball and college logos and photos will adorn the stadium’s walls. Bennett is dubbing the concept “College Campus USA.”
“Keep it nostalgic,” he said, “and not make it look like a brand new ballpark.”
It was in 1975 when former Jackson city commissioner and “sports visionary” Doug Shanks negotiated a long-term lease with the State of Mississippi to build Smith-Wills (he was also responsible for the Dizzy Dean Museum, now part of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame).
The Jackson Mets, a New York Mets affiliate, and later, the Jackson Generals, a Houston Astros minor league team, played there and produced greats like Mookie Wilson and Darryl Strawberry. Former team owners are considered Jackson sports royalty (Con “Cowboy” Maloney and Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame’s Bill Blackwell come to mind). But there hasn’t been an affiliated professional game in the stadium in 20 years.
Who is Tim Bennett?
A Florida by-way-of San Francisco native, Bennett’s name may sound familiar: he was a driving force behind the Mississippi Braves in Pearl and the Biloxi Shuckers on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
He took an interest in “America’s pastime” to understand the front office side of the game. He’s never played himself.
“It’s been almost 16 years,” he said of the Mississippi Braves. “Look at the development around the stadium.”
Bennett said it’s proof of what “baseball-as-a-development” can do.
“We tend to look at win-loss records in baseball, but it’s not all about that. Look at the rooftops, the tax base and the jobs. It builds bridges. We can share the wealth.”
Bennett believes he can help write the “comeback kid” story in Mississippi’s capital city, too.
“We’re going to put heads in beds, gain national TV exposure and see an economic impact in the millions of dollars,” Bennett said. “People will come (to Jackson) for the first time, but it won’t be the last.”
Bennett realized at a young age, not many (African Americans) were playing baseball and even fewer were managing.
In 1986, Los Angeles native John Young started the RBI baseball program to revive baseball in the inner-city. MLB stepped in to help and the number of black players increased to 19%.
Thirty-four years later, only 7.5% of baseball is black. 30 to 35% of players are from Latin American countries where Major League Baseball has pumped a billion dollars into development.
Bennett hopes to parlay his earnings and experience as an owner in baseball into recruiting inner-city players to Smith-Wills. He is asking for help.
“As an organization, can you give us $10M to build these fields for inner-city kids who want to play the game (in Jackson)?” Bennett asks of MLB, calling it a “responsibility.”
“When the call was issued for the Braves, Pearl and Mississippi answered. When the call was issued for the Brewers, Biloxi and the state answered. Now, we’re putting out the call to develop for our inner-city kids, to develop the same way MLB has for (Latin America). We have answered for them. It’s time for them to answer for the state.”
Non-native Mississippian Bennett has heard the stories of his adopted state. And just like baseball’s lack of young African American talent, he’s ready to change things.
“Mississippi is overlooked with a reputation for being backward, uneducated and overweight. There’s no better place to prove everyone wrong (than here in Jackson).”
With 150 events slated (120 games from youth, college and adult league baseball to football and soccer) plus concerts and other gatherings, there are many long days ahead for Bennett and his crew.
“Hey, I started off sleeping on the floor years ago, and there are many nights we grab a pillow and sleep on the floor still. We want to see it turn around and give Jackson back what it gave to us in 1975.”
See an ever-changing schedule at overtimesportsjackson.com.
What a great thing this can be for Jackson. My family came to Jackson in 1976 for my husband to be the General Manager of the Jackson Mets. Smith Wills was brand new and the parking lot was still a mud hole. Jackson was in love with baseball at that time and treated all of the ballplayers like they were family. I ran the concessions and had one of the first pizza places in the state out of a small portable trailer on the stadium grounds called MAMA MARY”S PIZZA SHACK. Our concession sales were the highest per capita in the Texas League.
So success can be had again.
Mr. Bennett, I wish you the best of success and thank you for creating this opportunity for Jackson.
I have a great black & white photo of Mookie & Rosa Wilson getting married at home plate under an arch of baseball bats held by Mookie’s teammates. My husband gave the bride away.