Savannah Sand Gnats
The Savannah Sand Gnats of Savannah, South Carolina, played an even twenty seasons in the South Atlantic League. In that time, they served as the Class A affiliate of four major league teams: the Los Angeles Dodgers, Texas Rangers, Montréal Expos/Washington Nationals, and New York Mets.
The identity was born following the 1995 season, when the Savannah Cardinals and their major league counterpart in St. Louis did not renew their PDC. As such, the minor league team needed not only a new parent club, but a new identity. The team found both in time for the 1996 season. They joined the Dodgers’ farm system and called themselves the Sand Gnats. This new nickname had a lot going for it–alliteration, assonance, easy marketability, and regional relevance. Sand gnats (also called no-see-’ems) are widespread on beaches in the South Atlantic region, and choosing an animal moniker in the nineties was a no-brainer. This brand would prove to have remarkable staying power. The team colors (green, burgundy, tan) as well their logo (a fanged, sunglasses-clad gnat in a batting stance) were with the team for the entirety of their twenty years. Add in a tough-looking on-field mascot named Gnic, and you had a buzz-worthy identity.
Right out of the gate, the Sand Gnats found success on the field. Not only did they win the Sally League title in that first season, but they had the fortune of hosting a (likely) future Hall of Famer at Grayson Stadium. In Adrián Beltré’s first professional season, he spent half the year in Savannah. That first season was also the debut of future Cy Young winner Éric Gagné. However, the Dodgers affiliation was short and sweet–lasting only two seasons. By 1998, the Dodgers had managed to arrange two Class-A Advanced affiliates (Vero Beach and San Bernardino) instead of the typical setup with one team each at High A and Low A. Savannah was left in the dust.
The Sand Gnats latched onto the Texas Rangers, and this partnership lasted a solid five years. This period saw a handful of future All-Stars don the Gnats cap, including Carlos Peña, C.J. Wilson, Hank Blalock, and Edwin Encarnacion. In 2002, the team was featured in an episode of Da Ali G Show, with the famous character Borat visiting Grayson Stadium. This event included Borat singing a protracted version of the faux-Kazakhstan national anthem as well as priceless footage of him hanging around the Sand Gnats’ locker room and goading players into wrestling matches. It is a video well worth watching.
Following the Borat year, Savannah inked a PDC with the Montréal Expos. This affiliation carried through for four years, so that by the end of it the Expos had moved to Washington, creating an incidental Nat/Gnat affiliation. Notable players who suited up for the Sand Gnats during the Expos/Nationals era include Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Marco Estrada, and should-have-been-perfect-gamer Armando Galarraga.
The lengthiest affiliation in Sand Gnats’ history began with the New York Mets in 2007, and continued for nine seasons–through the end of the Sand Gnats identity. These years featured several would-be big league standouts and contributors, including Jacob deGrom, Jeurys Familia, Juan Lagares, Jeff McNeil, and Steven Matz. While things were buzzing along on the player development front, the team itself was struggling to stay off the ground.
In their later years, the Sand Gnats were perennially in the bottom quartile for average per-game attendance within the 14-team Sally League, and they were dogged with reports that historic Grayson Stadium (built in 1926) was wholly inadequate for 21st century minor league baseball. After a few years of relocation rumors swarming around the Sand Gnats, the team moved inland to South Carolina’s capital, where they are now known as the Columbia Fireflies. Following the Gnats’ departure, the summer collegiate Coastal Plain League founded a team (housed at Grayson) called the Savannah Bananas. To fly in the face to those who blamed the historic ballpark on the Sand Gnats’ struggles, the Bananas averaged roughly double the average fans per game during their first few seasons as the Sand Gnats had in their later years. It goes to show what a little creative marketing can do, and it begs the question of whether the Sand Gnats’ early marketing success and subsequent brand inertia were as much to blame for their demise as anything else. Consistency is admirable in the minors, but stagnation can sting.