Saying Goodbye to The Ted

I spent the summer regretting that my kids and I didn’t skip school to attend the last opening day at Turner Field.  So, when the opportunity arose last weekend to see the Braves final game in the Ted, my son Ben and I decided to go.  We both had homework and undone chores at the farm, but we headed out anyway, hoping the experience would be worth the trouble.  We were not disappointed.  But despite the fanfare, pomp, and ceremony of Sunday’s game, one thing became obvious:  Atlanta fans love the Braves, yet, according to the resounding boos and jeers that concluded a stirring day of tributes to Turner Field, they do so in spite of the people who make the team’s administrative decisions.

*****

A red, foam tomahawk on every seat and a silver dollar-sized plastic container full of Turner Field dirt awaited each fan who arrived at the now-former home of the Atlanta Braves on Sunday.  There was a touch of somberness among the people who waited in the never-ending concession lines, despite the celebrative, weekend-afternoon atmosphere.  This was it, the last time we would come to The Ted.

The window of opportunity to “grow up” visiting Turner Field was pretty small.  Anyone born much before my teenage sons were — in 1998 and 2000 — had likely spent some time visiting Fulton County Stadium first; anyone born afterward is not yet old enough to drive.  Twenty years isn’t long enough to see the members of more than one generation through a childhood of baseball memories.  

So, moving from a beautiful, 20-year-old stadium with an Atlanta skyline view to a suburban mall-where-you-can-also-watch-baseball seems to me to be a horrific idea.  But having spent the summer listening to Braves broadcasters and PR folks tell us how great the new park will be, I had become convinced that I was one of only a few remaining fans still mad about it.  After all, according to Braves’ advertising, “entire sections” of next year’s season tickets at the new SunTrust Park are already sold out.  And, as well as the Braves played in the second half of the season, we can almost believe that the promised team rebuild will soon see its fruition in the new stadium, where “there’s not a bad seat in the house,” and World Series championships will surely abound.  Besides, there will be lots of shopping  (Because after dropping 400 bucks to take my kids to a game, shopping is right a the top of the list of things I want to do) and other fun activities to do while you’re not watching the game (Just in case you’ve spent $400 to go to a baseball game that you’re not really interested in watching anyway).  We love good old, “historic” (yes, they used that word repeatedly on Sunday) Turner Field, but the future — even without the picturesque skyline in the backdrop — will be better.  We should get on board, they told us, because everyone else already was.

But apparently they were wrong.

The Braves grand goodbye celebration was an extraordinary, first-class presentation that repeatedly took fans from tears to cheers.  But the most lasting impression was of the jeers, a resounding chorus of boos and scoffs whenever the new park was mentioned from the podium.  At first, I thought they were limited to the rowdy, inebriated crowd a dozen rows above Ben and me, but quickly realized they came from across the stadium.  The fans on hand would affirm their love for the team, but they would not leave Turner silently.

Many of the greatest players to ever wear a Braves jersey had taken the field in the pre-game ceremonies, one at each position to represent all those who had played in the stadium.  Chipper Jones, Rafael Furcal, Andruw Jones and Javier Lopez were among those who entered the field through a fireworks-lined red carpet to take their respective positions.  John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux represented the pitchers, and all three threw out simultaneous ceremonial first pitches.  Throughout the nine-inning pitchers’ duel, (Atlanta’s Julio Teheran went seven innings in the 1-0 win over the Tigers) former Braves shared their favorite Turner Field memories in video clips played on the center field big screen.  They recalled championship moments, famous first at-bats  — like Jason Heyward’s 3-run homer in his first Major League appearance — and the people of Turner, including legendary Braves usher Walter Banks, who worked the first Braves exhibition opening in 1965 when the team moved to Atlanta, and every season for the 51 years since.

At the game’s end, Hank Aaron, introduced to thunderous cheers and a standing ovation as “the real home run king,” threw a ceremonial last pitch to iconic former Braves manager Bobby Cox, then walked, with the assistance of a cane, from the infield toward home.  Aaron helped to lift the plate, which he had brought over from Fulton County Stadium in a similar gesture in 1997, and climbed with it onto a black transport truck escorted by eight motorcyle-riding Georgia State police officers, their blue lights flashing as they pulled around the perimeter of the field and left the stadium.  

Meanwhile, in a nod to the stadium’s Olympic beginnings (the stadium was built to host the 1996 Olympic Games), delegations from the six states within the Braves television broadcast area took the field, each group featuring lifelong fans of the team following behind their respective state flag.  Dressed in red, white, and blue, the delegation members — more than 1,600 strong, one for each game played at Turner Field — paraded around the warning track to the infield, where they assembled in the shape of the MLB logo in front of a podium.  

As the ceremony continued, periodic updates on the progress of the truck’s nine-mile journey to SunTrust Park were displayed on the big screen in center field.  Fans laughed as Aaron accepted a glass of champagne, then cheered as he appeared again to emerge from the parked truck and place the plate in the dirt at the still-under-construction stadium. “SunTrust Park is now officially open,” he said.  

There were no hisses or boos for Aaron, but Braves radio man and Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton and television commentator Joe Simpson weren’t so lucky.  Both gave short comments, but anytime they mentioned SunTrust Park, they were met with booing and jeers.  Most of the 51,200 who attended the game remained in the stands for the ceremony, and thousands lingered outside long after the confetti flew and the microphones were silent.  

What a waste. The vague “needed renovations” to the Ted could have happened at a fraction of the $1.1 billion being spent on the construction of the new SunTrust Park development.  The only happy note in this story is that, thankfully, a plan is in place to fill the void that the Braves leave by moving to Cobb County.  Georgia State University has stepped in to purchase and redevelop the 70-acre downtown property as an extension of their campus.  In addition to playing ball there, the school plans to develop a “walkable district with shops and amenities,” as well as student housing and classroom space.  With the school’s $300 million plan to reconstruct and renovate the area, Georgia State will do for Atlanta what the Braves should have done, at a fraction of the cost of the Braves’ relocation.

This move is at the top of the reasons I’ve tried my best to swear off this Atlanta organization.  But like the booers and hissers from Sunday’s game, I apparently can’t bring myself to leave.  Why? Because the game of baseball, at its core, is not about money and new stadiums and shopping malls.  It’s about history and tradition and memories — immutable pieces of our lives that can’t be taken away. My history, tradition, and memories are forever tied to Atlanta, and you can’t just put those things in a truck and move them down the interstate to another team. Turner Field could have held so many more of those most-important things for my kids, and for their kids.  It could have held those things for all of us, for generations yet to come.

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