Schmittou himself patrols the premises, soliciting fan reaction. "We just copied country music," Schmittou says. "We have a script each night, a complete show." There is, as you might expect, a Country Music Night, too.
Twitty is there just about every evening that he and the Twitty Birds are not on the road. Like most fans who come to Greer Stadium, he tends to eat too much. One out of every three Sounds rooters buys a Red Hot, compared to one out of four in other ball parks. Schmittou is so devoted to the concessions that he has put his wife, Shirley, in charge of them, and he has his four oldest children helping prepare the specialties. Three different kinds of grilled hot dogs are available: the regular, the super and the Big Red Smokey. The Sounds prepare their own pizza. Schmittou originated the practice, now common, of selling ice cream replicas of miniature major league batting helmets. "A healthy kid can eat his way through a whole division in a night," he says. Beer vendors are sent to a special school to learn how to pour a proper head, and the schooling must pay off because good ones can make $100 a game. Nashville! magazine, while no Guide Michelin, has nonetheless given Greer Stadium highest culinary honors, calling it "the most successful restaurant in town," and declaring that "cuisine alone makes it worth going to a game." The Sounds cleared $150,000 on concessions last year. "Why no big league club runs its own concessions is beyond me," Schmittou says.
The Sounds make money even when they are trying to lose it. This year the franchise decided to host the NAIA baseball tournament, figuring the losses would make a nice write-off. The plan fell through when a college named Grand Canyon won its regional. It seems that some of the Grand Canyon players, in the time-honored tradition, took a few sips of champagne to celebrate. But because Grand Canyon is a Baptist college, the administration ruled that the team, sullied by the grape as it was, could not go on to Nashville. So at the last minute the NAIA invited David Lipscomb, a small Nashville college, to fill in for Grand Canyon. David Lipscomb won the tournament, drawing such good crowds that the Sounds were forced to pocket eight grand.
This provides additional evidence to support Schmittou's contention that Nashville is an outstanding baseball town. This has been true since the days of Sulphur Dell, one of the most famous ball parks in America. As a quaint local attraction, Sulphur Dell was second only to Rynum Auditorium, where the Grand Ole Opry was located. Long the home of the Nashville Vols, Sulphur Dell was jammed into a city block, with most of right field consisting of a steep hill that rose to meet the fence a mere 265 feet from home plate. But the Vols were supported well in their crooked little emporium. Amateur baseball usually thrived in Nashville, too.
In fact, given this heritage, the success of the Sounds and Smokey's natural optimism, there are already rumblings that Music City is worthy of a major league franchise. The Nashville metropolitan area has a population of 761,000, half a million fewer than the Kansas City area, which is the smallest in the majors.
But there are other facts to consider. Nashville is a well-heeled city, with low unemployment. Almost a million and a half people live within 100 miles of Greer Stadium, and Nashville is the ideal state capital, located smack in the center of Tennessee and accessible by Interstate to citizens of Memphis, Knoxville and' Chattanooga.
Most important, with the Opry and the country music recording industry, Nashville is a celebrity city vital far beyond its size. Opryland, the giant theme park, attracts nearly 20,000 visitors a day and is glibly known as "the fifth largest city in Tennessee." Yet apart from Opryland and various other country quasi-shrines, there is little else to occupy the wide-eyed tourists who flood Music City, anxious to leave money behind in the metropolis of their dreams.
Country fans are terribly loyal folks, and, as the music's adult themes indicate, they tend to be grown up, heads of families—the ideal sort of long-term supporters to nurture a ball club. Rock fans do not a franchise make. If big country stars like Twitty owned a major league Sounds' franchise, one could visualize its becoming the favored team of country music fans all over the U.S.—as the Dodgers were once a national team for blacks and as Notre Dame still is for Roman Catholics. Because Greer Stadium is patterned after the Texas Rangers' park, it could easily be expanded to major league size should the bigs ever want to take a flyer on little Music City.
In the meantime, Nashville cannot rest on its laurels. Greensboro, North Carolina, is suddenly challenging it as the nation's top minor league town. Greensboro had been without professional baseball for a decade when the Hornets arrived this spring, under the direction of a former umpire named Tom Romenesko. The Class A ball club is on its way to drawing 170,000, which would exceed Greensboro's population and perhaps make Romenesko the choice to succeed Schmittou as The Sporting News Minor League Executive of the Year.
There is a kicker, though. It just so happens that the Hornets are owned by...ta-daa...the Nashville Sounds. Schmittou sold the Greensboro city fathers on his ideas, chose Romenesko, and then helped him apply the same principles that have worked in Nashville. Well, hello, darlin', it looks like Mr. Twitty is building himself the world's first minor league empire.