In his role as owner/whiz-kid GM of the Jackson Hammerheads, Steven Butler has made two things clear: he loves putting on a show, and he hates the rival Knoxville Smokies. Those two threads came together in spectacular fashion this weekend. The Heads had their home opener against the Smokies on Saturday, and Butler marked the occasion by overseeing a wild, over-the-top opening ceremony that left some of the Smokies seeing red.
The controversy began in fittingly strange fashion. Shortly before the season began, Jackson acquired CF Santiago Suarez from the California Sharks. The trade seemed to surprise Smokies owner Jeremy Mills, who had called Suarez a “hometown hero” and predicted that he would never be dealt. Mills also appeared irked that Butler dubbed himself the “Sultan of Swap” in the wake of the Suarez trade; the Smokies owner is also known as a frequent trader. Mills’ comments were innocuous enough, but Butler spied an opportunity to stoke the rivalry with his foes from Tennessee.
Butler announced that he would hold a “Hero’s Welcome” ceremony to greet Suarez during Jackson’s home opener, which just happened to be against Knoxville. Asked what the ceremony would entail, the whiz-kid GM was tight-lipped on the details, but said that it was a ceremony that the Smokies and the fans “would never forget.”
On Saturday, everyone got to see what Butler had planned. Just before the teams were due to be introduced, the lights at Cash Carter Downs went out. The fans initially believed it was a blackout, but that suspicion was soon dispelled as colored searchlights began sweeping the field. As the lights came back up, the strains of James Brown’s “Living in America” began to throb over the PA system.
As the fans began to clap along with the song, the center-field gate opened and a group of male dancers clad in sparkly bodysuits and hats paraded onto the field. While the fans laughed and cheered, the visiting Smokies looked around in bewilderment. The male dancers were then joined by a group of women dressed like old-fashioned Vegas showgirls, and the crowd erupted with delight.
The spectacle became even more spectacular as the Hammerheads’ ground crew ran onto the field waving giant American flags and a pair of WWI-era biplanes flew over the stadium.
Just when it seemed like the ceremony couldn’t get any crazier, the fans suddenly spotted Butler and Suarez descending from the roof of the stadium on a platform containing a golden shark head with glowing red eyes, with flames shooting upward from the corners. As the pair came into view, the crowd saw that the owner/whiz-kid GM was clad in an Uncle Sam hat, an American-flag tailcoat, and star-spangled shorts. Butler danced frantically along with the music while Suarez, wearing his uniform with an American flag draped over his shoulders, smiled and waved to the crowd.
The platform came to rest on the field, and Suarez jogged to his position in center field and acknowledged the roars of the fans. Butler lit a pair of sparklers and sprinted along the warning track, high-fiving fans as he passed. Meanwhile, a brass band wearing Hammerheads-blue tuxedos marched onto the field, adding to the general mayhem.
The Hammerheads’ in-game entertainment crew fired Jackson T-shirts with Suarez’s autograph out of a cannon and into the crowd. Butler, meanwhile, ran to the mound and thrust up his arms, whereupon two bald eagles came screaming out of the sky and landed on his shoulders.
Finally, as the song came to an end, Butler collapsed to his knees, and a team employee ran out and threw a flag cape over his shoulders before escorting him off through the home dugout. In the ensuing pandemonium, several fans rushed on the field; others threw beer cups, coins, and hot-dog wrappers at the Smokies. Irate Knoxville manager Snuff Wallace raced after head umpire Trent Capps to demand a forfeit, a demand the umpire refused to grant. It was almost 45 minutes before order could be restored and the game could begin.
After the game, a 6-3 Knoxville win, Wallace began his post-game press conference with a stream of obscenities directed at Butler, Suarez, and the Hammerheads. “Damn fools can’t beat us, so they’re out here trying to start a [expletive] riot,” fumed the Smokies skipper. “Is this a [expletive] ballgame or the [expletive] circus? Well, you can [expletive] well believe that they sure as [expletive] fired us up to win this game and kick the [expletive] out of them. And you [expletive] well believe this [expletive] ain’t [expletive] over. Me and Mr. Mills both got a [expletive] memory like a [expletive] elephant, and we’re good and hell well going to get our [expletive] revenge for this [expletive] show.”
The league has not announced plans to discipline Butler or the Hammerheads for their actions.
When the whiz-kid GM was asked about the incident, he only smiled. “I know I had a good time,” said Butler. “Didn’t you?”