By Roger Hoover / Smokies Radio Network
I’ll never forget the first time I heard that bell.
It was Game Four of the 2009 Southern League Championship Series, with the Tennessee Smokies trailing the Jacksonville Suns two games to one.
The Suns had won the first two games of the series in Jacksonville, most infamously in Game One that Smokies fans now know as “The Chris Ward Game,” following some questionable decisions by Southern League umpire Chris Ward. Facing elimination in Game Three, Starlin Castro hit a game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth to keep Tennessee alive and force a fourth game.
The game was off to a good start for the Smokies, leading 3-1 entering the top of the fourth. I was broadcasting that inning on the Smokies Radio Network when Jacksonville pitcher Elih Villanueva hit a three-run homer to left that completely left the ballpark and gave the Suns a 4-3 lead.
Down below I heard Jacksonville Suns owner Mr. Peter Bragan, Sr.’s CSX railroad bell that he rang following Jacksonville homers or victories. The Suns brought a large contingent to Tennessee for the final games of the series, and Mr. Bragan’s bell rang loud and clear following that unlikely homer by Villanueva that proved to the be the difference in the series. The Suns won that night 7-3 for Jacksonville’s fourth Southern League title.
The next time I heard Mr. Bragan’s bell in person was the next September in 2010. Throughout the year the Smokies and Suns had been the best two teams in the Southern League, with both clubs winning the first and second half division titles.
In the Southern League Championship Series, the clubs split the first two games of the series at Smokies Park. In 2010, the series would end in Jacksonville where the Suns had a great home field advantage. The fans were out in force, and the Suns pitching took over.
The Suns took Game Three 2-0 thanks to a two-run homer by Jeff Corsalleti as Jacksonville’s Brad Hand out-dueled Tennessee’s Trey McNutt.
In Game Four, it was another pitcher’s duel at the Baseball Grounds. Tennessee’s Craig Muschko hadn’t allowed a run in eight innings on the mound, and neither had the Suns pitching staff. With the game scoreless entering the bottom of the ninth, Jacksonville’s Chris Hatcher swung at the first pitch he saw from Tennessee reliever Luke Sommer and sent it over the left field wall, ending the series on a walkoff home run.
I was in the Smokies dugout as the Hatcher homer left the ballpark. I was the dugout reporter during the series for the Smokies Radio Network and had just given a report about the charged atmosphere of the Baseball Grounds before Hatcher hit the walkoff blast. After standing with some of the Smokies watching Jacksonville celebrate the title, I made my way back upstairs to the press box to prepare for the postgame show. I walked through the stands where all I could hear were the delirious cheers of the Suns fans, and Mr. Bragan’s bell.
The bell kept ringing throughout the celebration and even during our postgame show. Mick Gillispie and I packed up the equipment and were getting ready to leave the ballpark when I saw the Bragans near their “President’s Box” on the concourse. The reason I kept hearing the victory bell ringing was that Mr. Bragan was letting fans come up and ring the bell.
While it was tough to see the Smokies lose another series to the Suns, it was nice to see how the happy the Suns fans were, as well as the joy the Bragans were getting from this championship, their fifth since taking over the franchise in 1985.
Peter Bragan, Sr. was one of the original Bragan baseball brothers, with Bobby, Jimmy, Frank, and Lionel all serving a role in our national pastime. Brother Jimmy was President of the Southern League from 1981-1994, a time when Peter Bragan decided to get back into the game.
He had been a successful car dealer in Birmingham, but his love for the game brought him to Jacksonville where he took over a struggling Suns franchise, buying the team in 1984. The Bragan family including his son Peter Jr. (Pedro) helped revitalize the franchise, drawing the best crowds in the Southern League at Wolfson Park.
In 2003 the Suns opened their new ballpark, the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville and quickly turned into the crown jewel of the Southern League.
The back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010 made it five for the Bragans since purchasing the franchise, and it was easy to see the Bragans were very proud of the storybook way the 2010 season ended. A walkoff homer in front of a charged crowd at the Baseball Grounds.
I took over as the Jacksonville Suns radio broadcaster in March 2011, and I was excited to get to work with Peter Sr. and Jr. I quickly realized that the Bragans take great pride in their radio broadcasts, and listened to each game when the Suns were on the road.
I enjoyed getting to meet Peter Bragan, Sr. at his home just prior to the season, where he explained the tradition of the Suns, plus how happy he was I was joining the organization.
I saw him a lot during the season at the ballpark, where he rarely missed a game. We would talk baseball while I prepared the media materials near his desk and sometimes I’d visit him while he was enjoying a cigar on the skydeck at the Baseball Grounds an hour before the game began.
I can’t remember exactly which game I started talking about Mr. Bragan’s victory bell following games, but it soon became a tradition on the broadcast whether at home or on the road. After the Suns won I’d say, “Mr. Bragan, ring that victory bell for the Jacksonville Suns!”
The most memorable night I said that was on July 3, 2011. The Suns and Barons were playing at the Baseball Grounds on Mr. Bragan’s 88th birthday. The sold-out crowd of over 11,000 sang “Happy Birthday” to him. The clubs provided a classic game, a 17-inning contest that the Suns won on a walkoff double by Paul Gran. The call below is of that game-winning hit by Gran as the Baseball Grounds celebrated another Jacksonville victory.
The Suns didn’t make it back to the postseason in 2011, and I ended up leaving Jacksonville to return to Knoxville to broadcast University of Tennessee baseball and assist the Smokies. I was saddened to hear earlier this week that Mr. Bragan wasn’t at the July 3 game at the Baseball Grounds for his birthday celebration due to health.
Yesterday we learned the sad news that Mr. Bragan passed away at the age of 89 in Jacksonville. I offer my condolences to the Bragan family and the Jacksonville Suns organization and will keep them in thoughts and prayers during this difficult time.
Peter Bragan, Sr. made great contributions to the city of Jacksonville and Southern League baseball. He revitalized baseball in one of the largest cities in the South, and turned it into a winning product. In a time where minor league baseball is becoming more and more corporate and unoriginal the Bragans made sure that baseball reigned supreme at the Baseball Grounds. You could always feel that the Suns were a family-owned team, and that was certainly a charm in this day and age. The best example of that was following the 2010 Southern League Championship Series, where Mr. Bragan let all Suns fans be a part of his family, ringing that victory bell as much as they wanted.
I will miss seeing Mr. Bragan at the ballpark, but I’ll always remember how proud I was to broadcast games for his ballclub, and all the great wins where he got to ring his victory bell for the Jacksonville Suns.