JSU, M-Braves to take the field next year in exhibition game at Smith-Wills

Bennett discusses plans to host an exhibition game between the Mississippi Braves and JSU at...
Bennett discusses plans to host an exhibition game between the Mississippi Braves and JSU at the Hank Aaron Sports Academy, formerly Smith-Wills Stadium.(WLBT)
Published: Sep. 29, 2022 at 1:55 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - An annual exhibition game slated to be played for the first time next spring could mean major improvements to community ballparks across the capital city.

The Mississippi Braves and Jackson State University Tigers are slated to face off in a matchup on April 5, 2023, at Smith-Wills Stadium.

The event, which has taken a little more than a year to organize, will be the first of what baseball lovers and city officials hope will be many more events to come at the historic Lakeland Drive location.

Organizers also hope the event will bring in tens of thousands of dollars to help improve community baseball facilities in Jackson, something that, in turn, could give young people more opportunities to participate in sports.

“Studies have proven, and I strongly agree, that crime prevention and the lack of kids being involved in recreational activities, there’s a correlation there,” said former JSU baseball coach Robert Braddy. “If you give a kid a bat, a ball, and a place to play, you’ll never find them going astray.”

Funds raised will go into a nonprofit “Revitalization Assistance Program,” which will go directly toward “bricks and mortar, grass and turf, lights, [and] copper, so that we can give our kids a place to play,” said Tim Bennett, who owns Overtime Sports and the Hank Aaron Sports Academy.

Aaron held the Major League Baseball record for most home runs in a career until it was surpassed by Barry Bonds in 2007.

Bennett took over management of Smith-Wills shortly before the pandemic and renamed it the Hank Aaron Sports Academy in 2021. Today, the 5,200-seat facility is home to Jackson Public Schools high school baseball and hosts the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship, the academy’s website states.

“We think we can raise about $150,000 the first year, just from the gate alone. That money is going into the RAP... and then, with the mayor’s assistance and guidance and some of the older and younger coaches here, we’ll figure out which fields need the attention most,” he said. “We know that we’ve got talent in football and basketball, but we also have talent in baseball. The problem is, it’s overlooked.”

Pete Laven, general manager of the Mississippi Braves, said to his knowledge, next year’s game will be the first time the Braves have played at Smith-Wills. The stadium was previously home to affiliate teams for the New York Mets and Houston Astros.

“We’re very proud to be part of the professional baseball history of the Jackson metro area, along with the Jackson Mets and the Jackson Generals,” he said. “I think we all know how Hank Aaron, the legendary Hank Aaron, would be all about anything that’ll help grow the great game of baseball here in the inner city, and I think this event will take a giant step toward that goal.”

JSU coach Omar Johnson said without baseball he wouldn’t be where he is today. “I’m an inner-city kid. I’m from Liberty City. I’m from the inner city of Miami. So baseball has impacted my life,” he said. “You know, every turn, every opportunity that I’ve had, it was baseball-related. So, to have the opportunity to pass it on is tremendous.”

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