What I’ll remember most about Turner Field

When the mammoth Centennial Olympic Stadium was rising across the street just before the ’96 Olympics, I remember looking over from old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and thinking, wow, that is really big. As in, 86,000 seats.

The sun is setting on Turner Field, at least as a baseball stadium. It'll be converted into a smaller football stadium for Georgia State University after the 2016 Braves season. (AP photo)

The sun is setting on Turner Field, at least as a baseball stadium. It’ll be converted into a smaller football stadium for Georgia State University after the 2016 Braves season. (AP photo)

Then when I covered my first game in the new stadium, after it had been retro-fitted, downsized for baseball beginning in 1997 and renamed Turner Field, I remember thinking, wow, that really is big. This time, I was talking about the video board/scoreboard in center field. It was the biggest in North American sports at that time. Massive. And frankly, so far advanced, so much bigger and more hi-def than the suddenly primitive looking boards at most other venues, that Turner Field was suddenly in my top tier of ballparks, if only for a relatively fleeting period.

That’s because in the two decades since, other teams built video boards that rivaled or even surpassed the Braves, and many ballparks were built that are just a bit nicer than Turner Field. Not necessarily because they were designed specifically for baseball but also because of advantages in ballpark design and amenities that have become commonplace since then, and the downtown locations of several parks that are more accessible. And the views. Oh, yes, the views can skew my ratings.

The skyline or other close-proximity views in places such as Minneapolis, St. Louis (that arch), San Francisco (that bay) and especially Pittsburgh (that river, that bridge, those buildings) make the three-hour experience sitting in those parks more captivating and even invigorating — having something attractive to view, to be immersed in, between innings or during rain delays or just when a game is a bit slow.

I’ve always said, the stadium designers at Turner Field messed up in a big way by putting the 755 Club above the left-field seats, blocking out the view of downtown Atlanta and the gold dome of the State Capitol building for all but those seated in the highest rows. That mistake wasn’t as grievous as the one made by whomever decided that revenue from acres of parking was more prudent than a MARTA spur directly to the stadium — which I’m told could have been built with Olympics money — but both were decisions that have haunted the Braves.

That’s water under the proverbial bridge now. That MARTA-spur matter would ultimately play a major part in why so many Braves fans don’t want to come to Turner Field since they can’t do it easily via public transportation, and no one wants to get off a train and have to take a shuttle or walk the last leg of the trip anytime, much less on hot, humid or rainy summer days and nights.

Bobby Cox waves to an adoring crowd at Turner Field after the final game of his managerial career, when the Braves were beaten in the 2010 division series. (AJC fiel photo)

Bobby Cox waves to an adoring crowd at Turner Field after the final game of his managerial career, when the Braves lost to the Giants in the 2010 division series. (AJC fill photo)

We’re not here to dwell on what could have or should have been done to keep the Braves at Turner Field, we’re here to discuss memories of two decades of major league baseball at a ballpark that’s going to be retro-fitted a second time and turned into a football stadium for Georgia State University. (Hey, at least it’ll still be in regular use, and to good use, unlike so many other boondoggle Olympic stadiums in other cities around the world.)

Alas, there haven’t been nearly as many on-field memories – the kind that involve champagne being sprayed – as the Braves had expected when they moved over from the old stadium just two seasons after winning the World Series (still the only major pro-sports championship won by an Atlanta team).

All of us got a bit jaded by the Braves’ unprecedented 15 consecutive division titles through 2005, some adopting the wake-me-when-the-NLCS-begins attitude. Braves attendance, which peaked a whopping 3.88 million (47,960 per game) in 1993 at the old stadium after consecutive World Series in 1991 and 1992, never got to 3 million again until the first season at Turner Field, when the Braves drew more than 3.46 million (42,771) in a smaller stadium.

Attendance eroded steadily after that, then plateaued and hovered between 2.3 million and 2.7 million for a 13-year period before plummeting to 2,001,392 in 2015. It’ll be below 2 million this season. I bring this up because ballparks that are half-empty tend not to be nearly as attractive and energizing as ones that are nearly filled.

But I digress. My fondest memories of Turner Field? A few come to mind immediately: Andruw Jones’ walk-off walk in the 10th inning of game 6 NLCS-clinching win in ’99 against the Mets; Randy Johnson’s perfect game against the Braves on May 18, 2004, and of course the terrible infield-fly call on Andrelton Simmons’ pop-up to medium left field in the 2012 Wild Card game against St. Louis, which helped quash a potential rally.

As impressed as I was as a visiting reporter by how loud Braves fans got when Andruw drew that walk-off walk in ’99 – after so much was written and said about spoiled and/or blasé Braves fans — I was similarly impressed in my 11th year as a Braves beat writer in 2012 by the passion of Braves fans when they hurled garbage onto the field after the infield-fly ruling. Not saying I approved of the response, but  it was understandable given the circumstances, and it was frankly nice to see Braves fans get riled up when they showed a better understanding of the infield-fly rule than the umps that night.

But no Turner Field crowd reaction resonates with me quite like Bobby Cox’s farewell game, when the Braves were beaten in the decisive fourth game of a 2010 division series against the Giants. A crowd of more than 44,000 chanted, ‘Bob-ee, Bob-ee,” and he came out of the dugout to wave one last time. Celebrating Giants players stopped what they were doing and stood to tip their caps to a man who was as universally admired and respected as anyone I’ve known during three decades of covering sports.

There were other indelible moments, including Jason Heyward’s opening-day homer that drew thunderous applause in his major league debut, after he’d caught the ceremonial first pitch from the great Hank Aaron. There were Chipper Jones milestones and dramatic moments as the Atlanta icon’s career winded down; and John Smoltz’s 3,000th strikeout, and that crazy 19-inning game against the Pirates that ended at 1:50 a.m. when the home-plate ump apparently decided he’d call Julio Lugo safe regardless so we could get out of there.

Most of my other best memories of Turner Field were non-game moments, things like the jersey-retirement ceremonies for Bobby, Chipper, Smoltz, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine — the Braves got to do a lot more of those things than most teams ever do, and the organization got quite good at such ceremonies. And I’ll never forget the night that Pete Van Wieren and others spoke during a ceremony in memory of Pete’s late, great broadcast partner Skip Caray after Skip’s death in August 2008. Pete retired soon after and died six years later in 2014.

The Braves have been fortunate to have an extraordinary roster of broadcasters during the team’s Atlanta era, and I can’t say how fortunate and honored I was to have become friends with Skip and Pete, who were simply as good as it gets as a broadcast team, and at least as entertaining before and after the games.

Great people. I guess that’s ultimately what I’ll remember most about Turner Field. Great people I encountered on a regular basis. From Albert the media-elevator operator to usher Walter Banks; from Bobby and Fredi and Snit to frequent visitor Dale Murphy, from Skip and Pete to Joe, Don, Chip and Jim in the broadcast booths. So many other classy folks employed by the team, who make the daily grind tolerable and usually enjoyable.

And the fans, who sometimes get maligned outside of Atlanta, but who ultimately love their guys and support them, and who’ll be back in droves when the team’s a serious contender again. Of that, I have no doubt.

An era is ending. One last homestand starting Tuesday. Then it’ll be time to close the book, even if its binding is still perfectly good and its pages not even dog-eared.

Later, Turner Field. We enjoyed the ride.

• Six games left at Turner Field beginning tonight. I’ll close today with this one by Johnny and Hag.

“I’M LEAVING NOW” by Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard

Haggard and Cash.

Haggard and Cash.

Hold on honey I’d like to say
I’m busting out and breaking away
I’m letting you go like a hot horse shoe
I can’t take another heart ache from you

Think about how it’s gonna be
When you start back to needing me
When your dancing shoes have lost their shine
I’m gonna be gone in mine

I’m leaving now
I’m leaving now
Get out of my face
Get out of my place
I’m leaving now, adios
I’m leaving now

And the time it comes when you trim the fat
Feed the kitchen scraps to the front seat cat
Bye bye baby when the bills come due
You might have to give up a jewel or two

Eat your heart out anyway
It’s hard as your head and it’s cold as clay
It’s all over now you won’t have me
Your sugar daddy or your money tree

I’m leaving now yeah
I’m leaving now
Get out of my space
Get out of my face
I’m leaving now, hey hey
I’m leaving now

Pull up the collar on my traveling coat
Sell that miserable pleasure boat
I wouldn’t give another nickel for another buck
I’m living on muscle, guts, and luck

If anybody asks where did I go
Tell ’em I went where the wild goose goes
I wouldn’t have me an area code
Don’t have a number, don’t need a row

I’m leaving now, me to
I’m leaving now
Get out of my face
Get out of my space
I’m leaving now, adios
I’m leaving now

I’m leaving now
I’m leaving now
Get out of my space
Get out of my face
I’m leaving now, adios
I’m leaving now

 


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