Double-A mound an unlikely sanctuary for Miss Mississippi candidate

May 3rd, 2024
Tate Nations

This is an excerpt from the latest edition of the Ben's Biz Beat Newsletter, bringing Minor League Baseball business and culture news to your inbox each and every Thursday. Check out the full newsletter HERE.

For David Kerr, working in Minor League Baseball means keeping the following mantra in mind: Every game is someone’s first. “It’s a thing I overcommunicate,” said Kerr, director of group sales for the Double-A Mississippi Braves. “It’s really easy to have tunnel vision and not see that everyone has their own individual story.”

Those individual stories can be powerful and wholly unexpected, serving as a reminder of baseball’s ability to create and contextualize meaningful life experiences. Case in point: When the Mississippi Braves played their home opener on April 9 -- kicking off their final season in the Jackson suburb of Pearl before relocating to Columbus, Ga. -- Anna Leah Jolly threw out the game’s ceremonial first pitch.

Jolly is the reigning Miss Rankin County; winning that title was a necessary step toward the larger goal of competing to be Miss Mississippi. As she waited to throw out her Opening Night first pitch, representing the county where the M-Braves’ home of Trustmark Park is located, she said something to Kerr that left him dumbfounded.

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“You just want to chat with [first pitch throwers] and take them out of the moment a little, so they’re not nervous going out,” said Kerr. “She’s like, ‘Oh, this is where I met my parents.’ Out of the blue. Just one of those things that makes you turn your head for a second, do a double take.”

Indeed, you never know someone’s story. In 2013, 11 years before she became Miss Rankin County, the young woman now known as Anna Leah Jolly first met Kelly and Jay Jolly during a game at Trustmark Park. Within the span of a year, they became her “forever parents.”

Jolly hails from what she calls “the Odessa area” of Ukraine, “a really beautiful place.” She endured a difficult early childhood, shuttling back and forth between a “home life” she’d prefer not to talk about and a group home. Her residence in this latter environment resulted in her first trip to America, organized by the Joyful Journeys international hosting program. This group of eight children, most of whom hailed from Ukraine, stayed with families in the Crossgates neighborhood of Brandon, Miss.

Among the many activities that the group enjoyed during their two-month stay in the U.S., seeing the M-Braves was a distinct highlight.

“That was the most fun I’ve ever had. I didn’t need to speak the language to know what was going on,” said Jolly. “And it was so much fun to watch. So different, because in Ukraine football -- or soccer -- was the primary sport I grew up with. So watching a ball get hit with a bat, that was really different for us, but we were all in on it. I honestly think we were the loudest ones there.”

Kelly and Jay Jolly were at Trustmark Park for that game as well.

“They were just there to help with transportation,” said Jolly. “And then they met me, and they were like ‘That’s our kid.’ There was just something about it … So I feel like a lot of it was just the Lord pushing them towards adoption.

“It was very, very quick. Six months later they were in Ukraine. We spent three months there and then we were back [in Mississippi].”

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Jolly started doing ballet soon after beginning her new life in Mississippi, which she credited with giving her “an outlet to showcase my talent and gain confidence.” This led to pageants, which had similar benefits. As Miss Rankin County -- and an aspiring Miss Mississippi -- she is now partnering with an organization, Casa, which assists children whose situations she can relate to.

“I really have a heart for foster care and that is what Casa does, they help abused and neglected kids,” she said.

Jolly now has plans to partner with the M-Braves, working with Kerr specifically, to further her work on behalf of Casa. For Kerr, it all ties into a larger mission to utilize the ballpark as a place to benefit the community.

“We want to make sure that our final season -- our 20th at Trustmark Park -- is really just a love letter back to Mississippi,” said Kerr, “to say thank you for all the things you’ve built and all the memories you’ve given.”

From her life-changing first game to her 2021 high school graduation ceremony to throwing out the first pitch as Miss Rankin County, Trustmark Park has provided Jolly with memories to last a lifetime.

“We definitely went to games after [her first one] and I don’t think I ever felt like ‘Oh, well, this is where I met my parents,’” Jolly said. “It was just so natural, it felt like I’ve always been here. You know what I mean? I don’t know how to explain it.”