Summer sit down with new Suns owner Ken Babby
Jewish owner of the Jacksonville Suns comes to the First Coast following a successful two seasons at the helm of Akron's minor league franchise
A native of the D.C. Metro area, Ken Babby grew up going to Orioles games, but his love of the grand ole game and passion for Judaism intersected on the diamond, when after more than a dozen years working in a number of different capacities for the Washington Post, he tried his hand in the business of baseball, purchasing the Cleveland Indians' AA Eastern League affiliate, the Akron Aeros, which eventually was renamed the Rubber Ducks. Following numerous successful events and opportunities to make a difference in the Jewish community in Northeast Ohio, the Baltimore boy now finds himself becoming familiar with the Jewish community in Northeast Florida, through another baseball team, this time the Jacksonville Suns, which he purchased in 2015.
Jacksonville Jewish News: What has been your overall reception in the community since you've arrived and began a new chapter in the history of Jacksonville baseball and with the Suns?
Ken Babby: "I think first of all the community has been incredibly warm and welcoming to what we're attempting to build. It's always a risk when you come into a community and you don't know people, but in this community we have set forth our vision, which is being a leader in affordable family fun here in Northeast Florida. When we started this process, we knew we had a big road ahead of us, with a continuation of a franchise that has sort of become a stable aspect in town, so we brought in a great team of people and strong front office with more than 50-years of minor league baseball experience. I am very proud of what we're building and the community has been wonderful in responding to that."
JJN: What was your Jewish upbringing as a child?
KB: "I grew up just outside of Washington, D.C., in suburban Maryland near the Potomac/Bethesda area, and was raised conservative, but sort of morphed over time to be reform. For me, it (Judaism) was always an opportunity to have those special moments around family, such as Jewish holidays and going through Hebrew school when I was preparing for my Bar-Mitzvah. My sister actually went to Masada in Israel for her Bat-Mitzvah and that was really a transformative experience in my life, to be able to connect with the land but also that experience emotionally and spiritually."
JJN: What was your baseball experience like as a child and what team did you root for?
KB: "I grew up an Orioles fan only because my dad was at the ballpark everyday as he was general counsel for the team, which meant an important part of my journey was making sure that my work was done in the afternoon, so my father and I could hop in his car and drive up I-95 from Washington to Baltimore. I think if my grades were better I could have gone to more games, but I do remember having to get my algebra homework done in his office before being able to walk that bridge from the Warehouse (at Camden Yards) into the upper concourse of the ballpark. I remember that vividly and now as a father of a seven-year old, I am trying to instill those same values, that schoolwork has to come first."
JJN: Do you think there is a special bond between Jews and the game of baseball?
KB: "Here's my read on that and I look at it through a very biased lens, but I grew up outside of Washington, D.C., with a father who was a diehard Brooklyn Dodgers fan as a kid. We would drive first to Memorial Stadium in Baltimore and then to Oriole Park in Camden Yards, often being picked up before or after Hebrew School to attend a game. The Jewish way and the love of the game, somehow very early on, well before we got started (watching and playing it) has been tied together. There is a unique and special bond (between Jews and baseball) and we've had fun exploring that in Northeast Ohio. From our fireworks Shabbat to our Jewish Federation picnics that we've done, and even bringing summer camps from the JCC to the ballpark to attend a game, I've looked for ways to sort of take that thread which has been so important to my upbringing and values and then tie that into the business, while finding ways to get people involved in what we're doing."
JJN: What are you looking forward to most about Jewish Community Fun Day with the Suns, July 31st??
KB: "I am extremely excited about that day as it will be the first in a series of wonderful days at the ballpark. You know, I had the pleasure of hosting and chairing JFCS' scotch and sports men's event in February out at Deerwood Country Club, and the room that day was just packed with people who were excited about the Suns, baseball in Jacksonville and certainly the efforts of the Jewish community in this town, so I joked as I stood up there and said that we had accomplished our first sellout. That same energy continues to be shown at the ballpark and will continue on special days and nights like that one."
JJN: What are some of the different kosher options or Jewish friendly amenities that fans can expect to see at the ballpark this season and beyond?
KB: "On a typical night we offer a grilled Kosher hot dog which we are very proud of, as our ballpark in Akron has a range of Kosher options as well. That's important to me because during my childhood I would always want to make sure a Kosher dog was available at the parks that we went to, so we are continuing that tradition here. But there are obviously opportunities to do more in terms of food choices, not just Kosher, but to really explore a whole range of really different culinary options at the ballpark."
JJN: What made Jacksonville and the Suns your choice for your second baseball franchise to secure ownership of?
KB: "You know it's funny because I was just asked this question, so it's kind of fun to reflect back on that process. The 2014 season was a success for us in Akron and a lot of fun as we had some wonderful attendance after remaining the team the 'Rubber Ducks'. As the season came to an end, I started to think through that off-season and what some of my priorities were likely to be and I ended coming down to Jacksonville at the request of minor league baseball, because we were planning to announce an All-Star Game in Akron in 2016. The game had just been to Jacksonville a year earlier, so it gave me a chance to come down, see the ballpark, meet the Bragan family and connect with leaders in this community, which ultimately resulted in a series of conversations which led to buying the team."
JJN: What do you like to do for fun during your downtime in your new home of Jacksonville?
KB: "I'm at the ballpark a lot but I love to eat, so I try and get out to the Town Center. I also really love the beaches as it has a lot to offer and I even had a chance several weeks ago to visit the zoo with my son, so I'm still exploring and learning about our community everyday because it's so large from a geographic standpoint but at the same time it is intimate and has a small community feel in terms of its people, which I love."