Baseball stadiums should not be built and abandoned in less than two decades. On a cool Sunday afternoon in Atlanta, Braves fans said goodbye to Turner Field. Neither my son Scotty nor I were there. We do not like goodbyes. Over the last 20 seasons, we have witnessed some great moments on that historic field. All true Braves fans will miss what was not so long ago called the “new stadium.” It seems as if it was only yesterday when my son Scotty and I climbed into the upper deck of right field to say hello and catch our first glimpse of the new stadium, one which, just seven months before, had hosted the greatest athletes in the world. We were so high up and so far away that we could barely see the batters for the foul pole.
This time, future Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux shut out those damnable Yankees 2-0. We were ready for a new start in a new stadium. The most touching moment we ever witnessed came when a fan with a glove snatched a foul ball out the hands of the guy next to him. The other guy was holding his child. The fans booed! On the very next pitch, the batter hit a second foul ball directly to the guy with the glove. He caught it and gave the first ball back to the fan with the kid. The fans cheered! I still cry when I think of it.
Scotty and I returned several times to Atlanta that season. We were there when the Braves played Cal Ripken and the Orioles in the first Interleague regular season game in Atlanta on June 13, 1997. Chipper Jones hit a home run and Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux pitched well, but the Iron Man, Cal Ripken, and his Baltimore team took the game 4-3.
In a game which we would like to forget, the Braves lost to the Marlins in a 1997 NLCS game. From our seats behind home plate, I lost track of which batters box the batter was standing in. I knew that I needed Scotty’s glove on when left handers were batting. Jim Eisenreich of the Marlins launched a screaming, sinking, round missile which ricocheted off the hand of the man standing next to me. The bullet struck my right pinkie finger and bent it backwards before nearly destroying the seat back behind me. I learned that day that it is much easier to pick up a foul ball instead of trying to snare a blazing one.
In an event which featured the most standing ovations ever staged, Williams and Aaron drew the loudest. But, surprisingly one of the loudest and longest came when one of my least favorite players was announced. Vin Scully announced his name and nearly the entire full capacity crowd stood and applauded. I could only think back to the summer of 1962 when I sat between my father and legendary New York Yankee pitcher Lefty Gomez as each member of the Macon Peaches came up to our box seats at Luther Williams Field in Macon, Georgia. One by one, the players shook Gomez’s right hand in front of me. My libeling love of baseball was born that night. I remembered a 21-year-old kid from Cincinnati, Ohio coming up and my father telling me that this man was going to be really good one day. So on that magical night, I stood up and applauded Pete Rose, a man I grew to despise because he was always beating my teams. Because on this night, despite all his trials and tribulations, Rose rightfully took his place along side the greatest living baseball players of all time.
Johnny Bench and Yogi Berra
Ted Williams (seated) surrounded by Tony Gwynn, Ken Griffey, Jr. Cal Ripken, Juan Marichal, Frank Robinson and Joe Torre.
When the excitement waned, we sat down and hoped the Braves could pull even with the Yankees in Game 2. Playing for the Yankees were present or potential Hall of Famers Derek Jeter, Roger Clemens, and Mariano Rivera. For our hometown Atlanta Braves, we knew that one day, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine would be enshrined in Cooperstown and likely Chipper Jones, too. By the midpoint of the game, the Yankees were leading 7-0 and the fat lady was warming up in the bullpen. It was time for Scotty and me to start looking toward next season. After all, we had just witnessed the greatest assembly of living baseball players in the history of the world. We got out ahead of the traffic. All hopes of listening to a miracle comeback on the radio were dashed when the Braves managed to score only two runs in a bottom of the 9th inning rally.
We returned to Atlanta, this time in good seats, for the 2001 MLB All Star Game on July 11, 2000. The game started on a sour note when Greg Maddux, Cal Ripken, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey, Jr., Mike Piazza, Mark McGwire and Manny Ramirez were unable to play due to injuries. The game ended on a disappointing note as well with a 6-3 American League victory.
As time went by, I lost count of the games I went to, how many we won and how many we lost - some with Scotty and some with my friends, David Gay, Ben Bradshaw and others.
I was there on April 8, 2014 on the 40th anniversary of Hank Aaron’s 715th home run. While the others in our group were making their way into the ball park, I convinced David Smith to come with me over to the parking lot where Fulton County once stood. We found the area where Hank Aaron stood that night exactly four decades ago when he made baseball history.
It was on that same night in 1974 when my seventeen-year-old friends and I got in our car and drove to the Braves game. During the preseason, Bill McLees began his analysis of the game in which Hank Aaron would break the all time home run record. Bill bought us tickets and we took our seats high in the upper deck behind home plate. Then in the 4th inning as the crowd roared and sighed with each pitch, Aaron swung and shear pandemonium ensued as the ball flew over the fence. So, for a moment I stepped into the right-handed batters box, took my stance, glanced over my shoulder and imagined where we were standing that night when Hammerin’ Hank achieved baseball immortality.
My last game at Turner Field fittingly came with my son Scotty at my side on Father’s Day 2014 in the best seats we ever had, nine rows from the field. We talked about all the good times we had in that park. We talked about baseball and life that day, on the way up, during the game and all the way home. We talked about seeing the first Olympic game played in the old stadium between Cuba and Nicaragua. We talked about his and my first Braves game and the night the Braves blew the World Series. And we talked about the day when John Smoltz stayed much longer than he had to at an autograph show on Opening Day of Turner Field, just to sign a ball for Scotty and two smaller kids.