I’ve felt a kinship, however distant, to Ted Turner since the media titan delivered the keynote address at my college graduation 19 years ago. But until last weekend, I had yet to visit Turner Field, home of Ted’s Atlanta Braves since 1997 (the year after it was the centerpiece of the 1996 Summer Olympics). Two tilts with the Florida Marlins were my first Brave games in Atlanta since I saw St. Louis clinch the National League championship in 1982. Some observations:
• The Braves do right by the team’s history, particularly the 44 years since the franchise moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee. The entry plaza — easily five times the size of AutoZone Park’s — is highlighted by four statues of baseball legends: Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, Phil Niekro (nails digging into the knuckleballing Hall of Famer’s next pitch), and Georgia native Ty Cobb. The Aaron sculpture was actually dedicated just four weeks before my 1982 visit and is the first stop for camera-toting fans.
The Braves’ retired numbers — most recently Greg Maddux’s 31, with Tom Glavine’s 47 to be retired next month — can be found in the plaza, too, metallic benchmarks that lead to the entrance of the Braves Hall of Fame and Museum. Along with lockers devoted to each of the team’s 14 consecutive division champions (1991-2005), you’ll find an old train car that allows visitors to sit down in a cabin where Spahn may have sat for a trip from Milwaukee to Philadelphia before air travel became the norm.
• The Braves are a dynamite team. Casual fans might assume the two-time defending champion Phillies have the inside track for the NL pennant. San Diego is rightfully excited about their Padres. And if the Cardinals can fill in their injury-plagued starting rotation, they could survive into October. But Atlanta held a good-hitting Florida team in check behind its number-four (Kris Medlen) and number-three (Tommy Hanson) starters. With Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe at the front of the rotation, and Billy Wagner (he of 400 career saves) closing, the Braves are going to let their offense have several chances to win games. You’ll get to check out Martin Prado — the league’s leading hitter — when he steps in for Chase Utley to start at second base in next week’s All-Star Game.
• During the Braves’ profound success in the Nineties, the team’s fan base developed a reputation for being somewhat spoiled, with seats to first-round playoff games remaining empty (the presumption being that Atlanta would at least reach the National League Championship Series). At Saturday’s game, with temperatures in the low 80s and a 4:00 start, there were thousands of empty seats in a ballpark home to the team with the National League’s best record. (Announced attendance was just over 30,000 in a stadium that seats well over 40,000.) In a city the size of Atlanta, hard to explain.
• Judging on t-shirt sales (including one to a companion of mine last weekend), Jason Heyward is the real thing. While on the disabled list, Heyward was elected to start the All-Star Game, having played exactly 71 games in the big leagues. When it comes to baseball marketing, it’s a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world. Turner Field has a shop with signed memorabilia from past and present players. You can get a ball signed by Bob Horner — the 1978 Rookie of the Year, who hit 215 homers as a Brave — for $50. You can get a ball signed by Eric Hinske — the 2002 AL Rookie of the Year, playing his first year with Atlanta, his sixth team — for $75.
• The next time you see human hamburger-stacking at AutoZone Park and think it might be beneath a Triple-A franchise, reconsider. Among the entertainment offered between innings at Turner Field — yes, a major-league park — is a tool race, sponsored by a hardware chain. Best I could tell, the fight that broke out mid-race between a human-sized saw and hammer was the highlight.
• Baseball is a crazy, unpredictable, all-too-random game, which makes it so wonderful. In Friday night’s game, Florida scored a go-ahead run in the top of the 11th inning, after Troy Glaus — fielding a bunt — made an errant throw to first base, then pitcher Jonny Venters dropped the ball in a run-down after a botched squeeze play (with former Redbird Brian Barden at bat for the Marlins).
Then in the bottom of the 11th, Glaus doubled to put the winning runs in scoring position for Omar Infante, who promptly drilled a single into leftfield for a walk-off victory. Infante would not have been in the game had he not entered as a defensive replacement in the bottom of the 9th, when Wagner gave up a lead-off homer to Gaby Sanchez to blow a save opportunity. Glaus thusly redeemed, the win went to none other than the butter-fingered Venters.
• Two spots to see when you plan your next trip to The Ted: the Varsity and the Carter Center. A chili-cheese dog and “Frozen Orange” have been staples at the Varsity — adjacent to Georgia Tech’s campus — for more than 50 years. It’s the kind of place the University of Memphis could dearly use near the Liberty Bowl.
As for the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, be prepared to be humbled. It’s a beautiful and voluminous tribute to the impact one man can make on the world. What’s the last disease you helped eradicate?