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Imagine if I told you that six years from now, AT&T Park would be obliterated.
That splendid little patch at Third and King would be reduced to rubble. No more splash hits or kayaks or views of the bay. Just wrecking balls and respiratory masks and concrete dust. One giant implosion and mere memories where a baseball palace once stood.
What would you think? Is it wasteful? Environmentally irresponsible? Completely and totally unnecessary?
Well, that is what is about to happen in Atlanta. The Braves are moving out of Turner Field, lured by a deal from Cobb County that was so sweetheart it should’ve been brokered with a box of chalky conversation candy on Valentine’s Day.
All right, fine. Turner Field is not AT&T Park. I’ll grant you that. It doesn’t have water views or the iconic right field arcade. Then again, seeing where Atlanta is situated relative to the Atlantic Ocean, to get that would require a seismic shift on an order grand enough to make “The Walking Dead” look like an ABC after-school special.
No, the Braves’ home since 1997 might not be on the short list of most scenic or iconic baseball stadiums. But it’s pleasant. It’s well maintained. It’s modern in every sense. As a beat writer, I tend to evaluate a ballpark’s “functionality” with the elevator test. And the elevators work just fine. Albert, who operates the lift to the press level, has been pushing buttons and pleasantly guffawing as long as I’ve been covering games there.
It’s a home that has served the Braves well enough. In their first nine seasons there, they won nine NL East titles. The cringe-worthy tomahawk chop aside, it’s been a good place to watch a baseball game.
If I were to summarize Turner Field in five words, I’d pick these: “There’s nothing wrong with it.”
Yet on July 15, when the All-Star Game will be played in Minnesota and all will be silent inactivity at the ballpark off Hank Aaron Drive, there will be noise and diesel fumes 14 miles up the road. Way off in the suburban wilds of Cobb County, next to a shopping mall with a Macy’s and a Sears, ground will be broken on a ballpark that nobody needs and nobody should want. If the grading and construction and everything else goes to schedule, the Braves will make their white-flight move – and yes, that’s precisely what it is -- in 2017.
This is outrageous. I don’t live within 2,000 miles of Atlanta and I am outraged. If I had been there to cover the Giants’ three-game sweep over the weekend, it would have been fascinating to take the temperature of people in that region. I’m curious if they share my outrage, too.
I’m curious about how they’ll feel when a perfectly functional ballpark, publicly financed as part of the 1996 Olympics investment, gets leveled. I’m curious whether Hank Aaron Way will be renamed after baseball leaves the area where, across the road at old Fulton County Stadium, Babe Ruth’s record fell. Why keep the street name when there’s no attachment? Why continue to honor one of the game’s most regal souls with a road bearing his name that separates an empty parking lot from another empty parking lot? Why treat a multimillion dollar edifice, built with public money, as a disposable diaper?
These are the kinds of questions you ask when they pave paradise.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Cobb County will pay $300 million in public funds plus infrastructure costs to build a new ballpark. They might as well euthanize someone who needs their tonsils out. They might as well crush a Mercedes coupe off the assembly line. I can’t help but picture Boss Hogg and Roscoe P. Coltrane giggling and snorting while taxpayers get the bill for this deal.
To be fair, I’m not from Atlanta so I can’t tell you I understand every nuance of the political and economic climate there. But I’ve always felt a kinship to the area. My great-great-great-great-great grandfather, Lyman Hall, was one of the first governors of Georgia and signed the Declaration of Independence. An hour south of Atlanta, in the little town of Senoia, you’ll find the main drag is named Baggarly Way and the local museum is situated in the old workshop of the Baggarly Bros. Buggy Shop. It’s distant kin, to be sure. But whenever I took a trip to Atlanta and had a rental car, I’d take the drive down south of Peachtree City – pulled as If magnetically drawn home.
At least they aren’t ripping up half of quaint, leafy little Senoia to build a baseball stadium.
Turner Field is personally memorable for me, too, and not just because of those two epically torturous games the Giants won there in the 2010 NLDS. For me, whenever I think of the ballpark, I’ll remember taking a break while covering a day game in August, 2008, and sitting in the stands with Jason Coffee, one of my dearest friends from college, who might be the world’s most fervent Chipper Jones fan. It was a brisk game that day and a lively conversation and I stayed amid the crowd all the way through the seventh-inning stretch, which I never do. Then I had to go back and start writing some running copy. I remember thinking at the time it was one of my very best days covering baseball, when I completely and thoroughly appreciated what I get to do for a living and how I get to see people I otherwise wouldn’t see.
My friend died four months later, after surgery to remove a brain tumor. I miss him every day.
Why are the Braves moving? Braves president John Schuerholz, in a taped statement that sounded thoroughly vetted and polished, cited difficulty with fan access at Turner Field along with lease that is expiring in three years and explained how millions in upgrades wouldn’t have come close to “improving the fan experience.”
“We wanted to find a location that is great for our fans, makes getting to and from the stadium much easier, and provides a first rate experience in and around our stadium,” he said.
I’ll leave you to wonder which fans they care about.
“These are issues we simply cannot overcome,” a wooden Shuerholz continued in his video statement. “Our vision for the future is grand. The new stadium site will be one of the most magnificent in all of baseball. It will thrive with action 365 days a year. We plan to transform the surrounding area of the new ballpark into a mixed-use destination.
“It will serve our fans from Atlanta, the southeast and beyond in the finest of fashions. This new ballpark will be in the heart of Braves country and we look forward to sharing memories and championships together on this exciting journey.”
We’re supposed to assume then, I guess, that the “heart of Braves country” must be a lot closer to the suburbs than the Old Fourth Ward or Sweet Auburn, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was raised.
The Braves’ new ballpark might make financial sense. It might be too sweetheart to turn down. But every baseball ownership group should see itself as stewards for the franchise and the community, both those who are economically important and those who are less so. And that’s what makes this wasteful flight to Cobb County such a disappointment. It just feels wrong.
As wrong as Boss Hogg and Roscoe winning in the end.