Game 4: Turner Field, Atlanta

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Welcome to Braves Country.

The first stop on The Smorgasbord Tour: Atlanta. I’ve been to ATL twice in the past for youth ministry conferences, but I had never been to a Braves game before. I went to a Hawks game once – I was one of about 57 people there – but Turner Field was going to be a new experience for me.

I flew in on Saturday night, hopped on the MARTA and met up with my new friend, Wally, on the north side of the city. Wally is the father of one of my seminary friends, and as I was raising support for this project, she sent him the information and he quickly contacted me asking if I had a place to stay while I was in Atlanta. I’m thankful to have gotten to spend the weekend with him.

Spending time in Wally’s condo was like walking through a museum. He is extremely interested in his family heritage and owns countless antique items that each have a special story and memory behind them.

He showed me his Cardinals scorecard from a game he went to at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis when he was a kid. It is framed next to a photo of he and his siblings at the game. When his grandmother died, he asked if he could have her old antique bed. He has a framed receipt listing all the things his grandparents bought at the store on their wedding day. Wally restores old photographs and has an image of his grandfather’s one-room schoolhouse class from the early 1900s. Everywhere I looked I found another antique, and every antique had a family story.

This past December, Wally’s wife, Lynda, passed away due to non-smokers lung cancer. Understandably, it’s been a difficult few months for him. He has spent some time away from work traveling to visit his daughter in Kansas City, his brother in St. Louis and some friends in Tennessee. He’s been back home for about a week now, and everywhere he looks he’s reminded of the past 40 years of life with his wife.

Wally is exploring who he is and what he is going to be about now that Lynda is gone. “My life is like a whiteboard now,” he said this weekend, “and the great thing about whiteboards is that you can erase them and start over whenever you want to.”

He’s exploring his identity, asking questions about himself and his life he hasn’t asked for years. He’s trying new things and new experiences, which is the reason he was so excited to put me up for the past two nights and join me for the Braves game yesterday afternoon.

But before the game, we were headed to All Saints Episcopal Church for worship.

Palm Sunday in an Episcopal Church was a very unique worship experience. Lots of Scripture readings. Lots of call and response. A beautiful choir with a processional and recessional that bookended the service. Everything was ordered and deliberate. They even incorporated intentional segments of silence into the liturgy, which is an option I think lots of churches might benefit from exploring.

I think this is a major part of why baseball can seems so spiritual. There is an order of events in place: batting practice, announcing the starting lineups, the ceremonial “first pitch”, the National Anthem, yelling, “Play Ball!”, the 7th inning stretch, Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and sometimes the singing of God Bless America. Baseball is liturgical.

And unlike other sports, there are 17 different breaks in the action for us to process what’s been happening in what we’ve witnessed so far. Time to process the game so far. Time to swap stories and take in the setting. It’s a form of silence that is embedded into the game.

Silence and liturgy are both deeply incorporated into the game of baseball.

Okay moving on to the game.

The Braves are the oldest MLB franchise. They were first the Boston Braves in 1871, then they were the Milwaukee Braves, then in 1966 they became the Atlanta Braves.

The Braves played in old Fulton Country Stadium until the 1996 when the olympics came to Atlanta. They built Turner Field to house the summer events, then converted it to the “Home of the Braves”.

It was a beautiful afternoon for a ballgame – 81 degrees and sunny. My arms managed to get sunburned. I have a calculator watch tan line.

Every Braves employee I met, whether an usher, vendor, or parking lot attendant, had the same thing to say: “Welcome to Braves Country!”

One of my favorite things about ballparks is seeing all the creative ways the club has memorialized it’s past. Since I’d just left Wally’s house a few hours earlier, I was even more attuned to noticing the subtle ways the Braves honored their past.

The parking lot, for example, is where Fulton County Stadium used to sit. They outside wall of the parking lot is the old outfield wall! Such a brilliant move. High five to whoever had that idea.

There are retired numbers and statues of former players all around outside the park. Murphy. Jones. Neikro. Spahn. Aaron.

All around the outfield concourse, they have little signs posted that say “723 feet from home plate” and “581 feet from home plate”. Which is a brilliantly subtle thing that only baseball fans would probably appreciate. The 581 sign was especially cool considering Josh Gibson once hit a ball that far at Yankee Stadium.

But there are two numbers that Braves fans celebrate more than any other: 715 and 14.

This past Tuesday marked the 40th anniversary of “715” – the day Hank Aaron passed Babe Ruth and officially became the home run king. Hank hit 733 homers as a Brave, and 755 in his career. Hank had finished the 1973 season with 713 HRs.

The 14 is more recent: they were division champs 14 consecutive years between 1991 and 2005. Somehow they only managed to win 1 World Series in that span – 1995. Also surprising: somehow the Marlins won it all twice in that span.

Before the game, we hit the Braves HOF and Museum. It was actually a mejor letdown. You’d think the oldest franchise would have the best museum experience, but it was very lackluster. a fake dugout. An old Milwaukee Braves train car. A leaderboard of all the current Braves leaders in every major statistical category. Fake lockers from each of their most successful years.

The franchise records leaderboard, however, was impressive. Some team records are kinda goofy to read. Like that Ricky Nolasco holds half the pitching records for the Marlins. Or Jim Thome holding the Indians home run record. Or that Michael Young leads the Rangers in hits, runs, singles, doubles, triples…and strikeouts. Usually team records are more of a list of players that just wore the uniform the longest. And for younger franchises, that can make the list a bit embarrassing.

But not for the Braves.

Sure, it’s still a list of the longest tenured players. But those players were awesome, and most of the resulting records aren’t going to change…probably ever. A sampling…

  • Innings: Warren Spahn, 5046
  • Wins: Warren Spahn, 356
  • Strikeouts: John Smoltz, 3011
  • Hits: Hank Aaron, 3600
  • Games: Phil Niekro, 740

But one stat that isn’t going to last much longer: most saves. It’s currently held by John Smoltz with 154, but Craig Kimbrel is going to shatter that mark. My prediction: he breaks Smoltz’s record on May 29.

Kimbrel has been amazing in his first 4 years in the league. In 231 appearances he has 139 saves. Some perspective: Mariano Rivera only had 84 saves in 200 appearances in his first 4 years. He’s averaged 46 saves per season, and he strikes out FORTY-THREE PERCENT of the batters he faces. Outrageous.

But we didn’t get to see Kimbrel. Which is about the only disappointment (besides the HOF) from our trip to Turner Field.

photo-16A couple points about food: Atalanta is the home of Waffle House, so naturally there’s one in the left field concourse. But I wasn’t in the mood for a waffle. I opted for the Georgia Dog instead: a foot long hot dog with crunchy cole slaw and sweet sautéed vidalia onions. Holy smokes. absolutely delicious.

I’ve been to a lot of baseball games, and I’ve never seen in-between-inning production brilliance as I did at The Ted. First, in the minutes leading up to the first pitch, they ran the “Oblivious Cam” where they just found people in the ballpark who had no clue they were on the screen and set a timer counting up the amount of time until they noticed. :30…:45…1:00…1:15…and every second the rest of the ballpark laughed louder and louder.

Two other genius moves: The Grounds Crew Inning and the Hug Cam.

Apparently, first baseman Freddie Freeman has a history of hugging everyone. In the dugout, on the field, in the clubhouse – Freeman is a hugger. The Braves marketing department latched onto this and turned it into a brilliant crowd segment. Unlike the Kiss Cam, complete strangers can hug, kids can hug, anyone can hug. No more awkward pairings on the screen. No more “let’s end with an old couple and celebrate their long marriage” sappiness. They ended with a shot of Freddie and one of the Upton brothers (I think) sitting in the dugout. Freeman saw himself on screen, shrugged, and hugged it out with his teammate.

But the best segment: The Grounds Crew Inning.

Set to the tune of the William Tell Overture, when it came time for the grounds crew to run out and smooth over the infield, they sprinted out of the right field tunnel, ran their lap around the infield, set in three new bases, and sprinted back to the tunnel. The camera crew kept cutting from angle to angle in dramatic fashion managing to turn the Crew into the heroes of the moment.

Final piece on Turner before I move on to the game notes: I think it’s super sad that they’re leaving for Cobb County after 2016. The Braves started at The Ted in 1997, which means they’ll have been there less than 20 years.

I just don’t support the idea of baseball being moved to the suburbs. The Braves ran studies on where their primary customers were coming from, and they know they’ll be a success outside the downtown loop. But there’s something beautiful about a crisp clean ballpark among the busy highways and buildings of an urban center. Instead of a beautiful green paradise in the dirty city, it’s reduced to another clean building among the taupe facade of suburbia.

Overall, I loved Turner Field. And I’m glad I got to visit before it isn’t there anymore.

Game Notes:

The Braves destroyed the Nationals, 10-2.

They hit three homers: Justin Upton to CF, Freddie Freeman to RF, and Andrelton Simmons to CF. All three were absolute bombs. Simmons’ was most impressive – it bounced high off batter’s eye above the CF wall. Probably around 430′.

As I mentioned on Twitter yesterday: I’m a huge Andrelton Simmons fan. I’m a sucker for amazing defense, and that’s his primary game. I’m tempted to make an Ozzie Smith comparison, but he has too much power to compare the two on both sides of the ball. I think Simmons is a future Hall of Famer – bold statement in only is second season, but I think he’s only going to get better.

Simmons went 2-5 with a 3B and a HR yesterday.

Aaron Harang started for Atlanta and he continued the dominance he’s displayed so far this season. In 18+ innings, he’s only given up 9 hits. He went 6 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 5 K yesterday…his worst showing of the year somehow.

Gio Gonzalez, on the other hand gave up 6 runs in the first 2 innings – 3 in each – but stayed in the game through 6 innings. Ross Detwiler came in and gave up 4 runs in the 7th – all unearned due to an Ian Desmond error at SS.

I picked the Nationals to win this division after Medlen went down. It’s early, and the Nationals are now 7-5…but all 5 losses are to the Braves. The Braves bats are hot right now, and if Harang and Santana can continue to give them quality starts, this Braves team might win their second straight NL East pennant.

Four down. Twenty-Six to go.

Up Next: Texas Rangers

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