Our group of friends has been going on a baseball road trip every summer since 2000. It has evolved from a leisurely 9-10 day driving trip to a four-day sprint usually involving a flight as we have gotten older and started having families, but we have gone every year since its inception.
The trip never had made it to Atlanta until this year, when we decided to give the southeast part of the country a try. Aside from a rainout, some humidity and heat — things one can reasonably expect — we had few complaints and generally had a great time as usual.
But I did not leave Atlanta without mulling over these two observations:
• Attending a Braves game on Sunday, I was confronted with just how much of a stadium boondoggle exists here. I was a massive Braves fan growing up in North Dakota in the 1980s and early 1990s (thanks to TBS showing almost all their games back then), and I once spent 30 hours in a van (each way) to see the Braves play the Phillies in Game 3 of the 1993 NLCS at the old Fulton County Stadium.
The Braves moved out of “the Launching Pad” in 1997 and into Turner Field. That stadium was built for the 1996 Summer Olympics and converted into a ballpark, but it still was very new when the Braves moved in. They lasted 20 seasons — 1997 to 2016 — before leaving and moving in this season at SunTrust Park in suburban Atlanta.
That means I missed an entire ballpark era in 20 seasons. That is not nearly enough of a shelf life for a stadium, and I imagine there is a fair amount of well-earned bitterness among folks in the Atlanta area. At least that’s how plenty of Minnesotans would feel if the Twins started angling for a new ballpark in not too long and opened a new stadium in, say, Eagan in 2030.
• Georgia can build new ballparks, but they can’t make Georgians watch baseball.
Because of the aforementioned rainout, we saw only three games on this year’s trip: Friday in far northeast suburban Atlanta for the Gwinnett Braves, the Class AAA affiliate; Saturday in Chattanooga, a couple of hours north of Atlanta just across the Tennessee border and of course the Class AA affiliate of the Twins; and Sunday’s big league game between the Brewers and Braves.
The Gwinnett ballpark is nice enough, having opened in 2009 at a construction cost of $64 million. There is not much atmosphere there, though, and the Friday night crowd was sparse. Chattanooga drew 6,000-plus fans into a packed stadium Saturday. Sunday the Braves’ new ballpark had a typical showing, with most sections half-full despite the new ballpark, an improving Braves team and pleasant (for the south) weather.
Atlanta came into that game ranked 13th in MLB in average home attendance at a little less than 30,000 fans per game. That’s about 5,000 more than last year at Turner Field, but hardly the surge the Twins and others received when they opened new ballparks.
People in the Atlanta area seem to like baseball enough to justify new ballparks — just not enough to actually fill them up.