As Chipper Jones hung out in the Atlanta Braves dugout Friday afternoon, a few hours ahead of the Braves’ first regular-season home game at their new stadium, SunTrust Park, the future Hall of Famer fielded a question about what fans might be saying as they entered the ballpark for the first time.
“I would venture a guess the word mumbled the most — maybe not even mumbled — would be ‘Wow,'” the Braves’ icon said.
“I mean, look at that video board. Look at the LED lights, the incredible green grass, this incredibly orange clay. They watch how balls fly out of here and they see the skyline and everything, and they say, ‘Wow.’ I said it. Everybody else is going to say it. …This is very impressive.”
A sold-out crowd of 41,149 attended the Braves’ first regular-season game at SunTrust Park, a 5-2 win against the San Diego Padres. But the venue, where the city meets the suburbs in Cobb County, isn’t all that’s new. Thanks to public funding and the available land around it, a community is being constructed from the ground up, taking “ballpark development” to another level.
“I’d like to welcome you to baseball’s newest gem,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said to fans during the pregame ceremony.
In addition to Jones, Braves legends Hank Aaron, Bobby Cox, Tom Glavine, Dale Murphy, Phil Niekro, John Smoltz were present. They were honored as theirs and other retired numbers were unveiled. Aaron threw out the ceremonial first pitch to Cox. A prominent fan, former President Jimmy Carter, also was in attendance.
Braves starter Julio Teheran threw the first pitch of the game, which resulted in Manuel Margot flying out to center fielder Ender Inciarte. Inciarte, who led off for Atlanta in the bottom of the first inning, had the first hit, reaching on an infield single. He’d later score the first run, as Nick Markakis drove in Inciarte and Freddie Freeman with a double. Inciarte also hit the first home run, coming in the bottom of the sixth inning. It was his third home run of the season.
“I’m not going to lie, I had a good feeling about tonight,” Inciarte, who hit three home runs all of last year, said.
The action wasn’t just limited to the field. An area geared toward children has a zip line and a climbing wall. The three-story Chop House bar was packed full of patrons, some holding beers that were aged with baseball bat wood. In the hands of many were their phones, which could help locate the nearest concession stand or bathroom.
Just another day at the ballpark in the year 2017.
“It’s just amazing what they did with this ballpark,” Inciarte said. “It’s beautiful.”
From downtown to the suburbs
No longer in downtown Atlanta, the Braves (who technically still have an Atlanta address) now are northwest of the city.
They announced they were moving to the suburbs in 2013. At the time, Braves Club President John Schuerholz said that Turner Field, where the team played from 1997 until the end of last season, needed “hundreds of millions of dollars of upgrades.” (The Braves, in their 52nd season in Atlanta, played at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium from 1966-1996.)
Around the same time, city money was allocated for another stadium in downtown Atlanta, for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and MLS club Atlanta United. That venue, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, is scheduled to open this summer.
While one stadium construction started in downtown, the Braves started their plans.
In September 2013, the franchise created Braves Real Estate Development, LLC, the real estate holding company established by and operated as a subsidiary of the team. The Braves authorized BRED to acquire various parcels of property to build the proposed stadium and mixed-use development. The funding from Cobb County was approved not by a public vote but instead by county commissioners.
The new surrounding neighborhood, still a work in progress, is called The Battery. The Braves tout that the area, which includes housing, restaurants, a live music theater and retail, as “the first of its kind — a destination that will simultaneously build and integrate a state-of-the-art Major League Baseball ballpark with a multi-use development and community.”
The stadium has earned positive reviews from Braves players.
“I think it’s a lot more intimate,” Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “When you’re out there playing, it feels like the fans are kind of right on you, which at Turner Field, it was more relaxed. They were pushed back a little bit more. It’s going to be a better experience for the fans and obviously for us too.”
Atlanta traffic worries
It may be the latest installment in the history of MLB stadiums — the Texas Rangers have announced a new stadium plan — but there are concerns.
The top issue is traffic. A recent study showed Atlanta is in the top 10 of the worst congestion in the world, and the stadium is where two of the clogged interstates, I-75 and I-285, intersect, which means the rush-hour snarl could coincide with fans trying to get to the games.
And it might be even worse than expected, with the recent fire that caused a bridge collapse on Interstate 85 a few miles away. Repairs are targeted to be completed in June.
In a slight change, the Braves are starting their weekday home games at 7:35 p.m. ET this season, rather than 7:05 p.m. ET in previous years.
But logistics aside, will the team win at its new home? The Braves haven’t reached the postseason since 2013, and they’ve gotten off to a slow start so far this season.
“The stadium can’t do it; I mean, we’ve got to do it,” infielder Dansby Swanson said. “But I think this just allows us a fresh start, so to speak. Kind of a new beginning, how we can create our own legacy together in this place.”