Savannah's Grayson Stadium

SAVANNAH, Ga. - The "Orange Monster" lurks beyond the left fielder, seemingly ready to gobble him up at any moment.

Actually, it's only a wall, with three numbers painted near the ground that beckon every right-handed hitter who steps to the plate at Grayson Stadium.

It says 290, as in feet, although former Savannah manager Bobby Dews insists it's even shorter.

"We measured it one time and it was about 272," said Dews, now a bullpen coach for the Atlanta Braves. "You really managed the whole game according to that fence."

A quirky park for a quirky city, Grayson apparently has the shortest fence of any professional baseball stadium in the country, according to the organization that oversees the minor leagues. Compared to this place's orange left-field wall, standing about 15 feet high, it takes a mammoth shot to reach Fenway Park's 37-foot-high Green Monster, 315 feet from home plate.

"It's tempting," said Jason Jones, a right-handed slugger for the Class A Savannah Sand Gnats of the South Atlantic League, a Texas Ranger farm team. "The big thing in batting practice is to see who can hit it over the farthest."

Actually, Grayson Stadium is pitcher-friendly. The wall - it's 310 to right - juts out sharply from both foul lines, creating deep power alleys and a center-field fence 420 feet away.

"Gap to gap, you can't hit it out," Sand Gnat Manager Paul Carey said. "It's not a hitter's park, that's for sure."

He tells every batter the same thing: Forget about the wall and maintain your normal swing.

"Guys have a tendency to try to hit home runs," Carey said. "They're trying to pull pitches down the line, but they're more likely to pull off and hit a grounder."

Grayson Stadium, where baseball has been played since 1926 in an eccentric city made famous by the book "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," is more than just an architectural oddity. It's an 8,000-seat park filled with memories.

"My daddy brought me out here when I was a baby," said Willie Smith, 61, making his way to a prime seat behind home plate with a cane in one hand and a bag of popcorn in the other.

"We never could sit in these seats until integration," said Smith, who is black. "We had to sit in seats with no backs on 'em."

Lou Brissie resumed his pitching career in Savannah after nearly losing his left leg in World War II. He drew record crowds whenever he pitched. During his 23-win, 278-strikeout season of 1947, a crowd of 8,146 turned out for a game in September. Nowadays, the team doesn't draw nearly as well.

A young Hank Aaron, then playing for Jacksonville, used to knock home runs into the pine trees beyond the left-field stands - good practice, as it turned out, for breaking Babe Ruth's record. Ruth played here, too, stopping by for an exhibition game against South Georgia Teachers College in 1935 during his final season.

Jim Bouton's comeback began at Grayson, where he spent the summer of 1978 throwing knuckleballs on his improbable trip back to the major leagues at age 39.

Then, of course, there is the sweltering summer heat and those dreaded sand gnats - millions of them, swirling around the lights during night games and making dive-bombing missions to terrorize fans and players.

"Because of the heat and the sand gnats, I always felt like we had a two-run advantage to start every game," Dews said.

But Grayson, like so many old ballparks around the country, faces an uncertain future. Any day now, the city is supposed to complete a study for a new stadium. The Sand Gnats - the team, not the bugs - clearly believe one is needed if they are going to survive financially in Savannah.

"It's a 60-year-old facility that has seen better days," General Manager Nick Brown said. "There's no luxury seating. There's very little box seating. It has inadequate parking. The restroom facilities are subpar. The concession stands are well below that."

But the Sand Gnats don't think Grayson Stadium should meet the wrecking ball. A couple of high schools could use the field. Or it could be turned over to the Savannah College of Art and Design, which has a team coached by former major-league pitcher Luis Tiant.

The ballpark has endured its share of calamity. Opened in 1926 as Municipal Stadium, it was blown down by a hurricane 14 years later. The old wooden stands were then replaced by a red brick structure, with three stately arches framed by two giant pine trees at the main entrance. The name was changed to honor Gen. William Grayson, who was active in civic affairs in Savannah at the time.

But the stadium, which originally had symmetrical outfield dimensions, was never actually finished as the nation plunged into World War II in 1941. The result was an odd-shaped grandstand, covered by a wooden roof, and the short left-field porch.

"The whole thing is crooked," said Tom Coffey, 77-year-old former sports editor of the Savannah Morning News.

There's a grandstand beyond the left-field wall - topped with advertising signs such as Piggly Wiggly and Red, Hot and Blue barbecue - but it's not used for people anymore. The concourse is fenced shut, serving as a storage area for old seats, plumbing supplies and a tractor.

On a recent Saturday night, Smith glanced around at a half-filled stadium.

"It's nice here," he said. "I don't think we need a new stadium. We just need to get more fans to come out."