After surprisingly little sleep, I hopped on a plane and headed for Atlanta. I met my mother and stepfather at the Atlanta Airport and collected Rachel Turow (and her cousin) -- who had flown in to join me for the final three games of The Great American Baseball Trip. After cruising around Atlanta and checking into our hotel, we grabbed some lunch and spent the afternoon exploring the city (including a stop at the Carter Presidential Library).
My mother and stepfather left the next morning and Rachel and I continued our exploration of Atlanta. We spent most of the morning at the World of Coca Cola -- a shameless advertising ploy disguised as a museum -- looking at the history of "America's most popular beverage" and purchasing neat presents. Next stop was CNN Center for a visit with James Foy (an editor extraordinaire of CNNSI Interactive and a tour of the CNN Studios. Essentially, it was Ted Turner's personal showcase -- complete with pictures of the media mogul with the Braves World Series trophies and other awards.
A torrential rain began to fall in the early afternoon -- just about the time we were heading back to the hotel to change clothes for the game. Rachel dropped me off at the ballpark -- still raining -- around 4:00pm.
Finding Turner Field is not as easy as you would think -- considering the fact that Ted Turner seems to own most of the City of Atlanta. There are no clear signs from the highway or from surface streets (instead signs point to Atlanta Stadium) and turn-only lanes force drivers away from the proper neighborhood. Of course, once you reach the ballpark, you are immediately accosted by scalpers looking to off load tickets at inflated prices -- one actually opened the door to my car for me.
Once inside the gates, Turner field looks like most of the new ballparks -- only more elaborate. Originally constructed for the Centennial Olympic Games, the park is large and lavish -- originally capable of seating more than 75,000 but now pared down to a more manageable 50,528. A large courtyard area sits beyond the center field bleachers -- complete with an action statue of Hank Aaron striking one of his patented homeruns -- and fans are encouraged to congregate near the dozens of food areas located within. The seats, which wrap around the stadium in three different levels, are a rich blue color (not standard for baseball -- though much nicer than most parks). The concourses are well labeled with overhead signs directing fans to every possible attraction. And, the food concession stands, bathrooms, and escalators are colorful, clean and pleasant to patronize.
There are several special areas that make Turner Field the most exciting ballpark for fans not interested in watching the former World Champions play -- the newest of which is the Coca Cola Sky Field (in left field above ALL the seats). Complete with mock ups of a pitchers mound, base line and dugout, the area allows fans young and old to pretend like they are major leaguers. Oversized trading cards highlight Braves players, a 42-foot coke bottle constructed of bats, jerseys, balls, and other game-used items spews fireworks after a Braves homerun, and cannons shaped like Coke bottles fire streamers after a round-tripper. The area is free to all fans who purchase tickets to a Braves game and is used as a standing room only area.
Other attractions include the "scouting corner" where fans can pay to test their abilities against some of the league's best electronic pitchers. A bar type restaurant located in right field gives fans an opportunity stand and watch the game while munching and drinking to their hearts desire. And, the 755 Club (located above the left field bleachers) offers sit-down gourmet dinners to members.
It's a beautiful park -- I think the most beautiful in the game. It is an exciting park -- I think the most exciting in the game. But, it has an elitist feeling to it, something about the comforts of southern living combined with the hi-tech, big-money accommodations provided by Mr. Turner. But, when you add the best team baseball has seen in over a decade, you get one full night of baseball.
Batting practice was delayed more than an hour as unbelievable amounts of water fell from the sky. A large blue tarp covered the field, and even the grounds crew was unwilling to emerge from the dugout to start their daily duties. As the rain began to subside, I took up residence in the visitor's dugout -- hoping to avoid many of the uncomfortable looks I get from the local media at each stadium. After only a few moments, I was joined in the dugout by several Cardinals' players including pitchers Andy Benes and John Frascatore.
After an awkward silence, Mr. Frascatore and I started talking about the trip and the various stadiums around the league. I gave my impressions of Turner Field. . .he gave his (he really liked the park -- although it wasn't his favorite). I talked about how some of the teams (such as Cincinnati) had been less than supportive of the trip. . . he nodded his head and agreed that Cincinnati was not a pleasant organization. The topic shifted to re-alignment and interleague play, and I finally got an honest player perspective about the state of baseball today. Mr. Frascatore explained (in some detail and with a fair amount of emotion) that the players were not in support of either interleague play or re-alignment. "It will kill the game. . .not having an American and National League," he said of re-alignment, ". . . I don't know what they are thinking." He mumbeled under his breath about how the players would be able to stop the proposals saying "I certainly ain't going to f*#%ing vote for it."
When the Braves finally took the field to begin batting practice, I sprung into action as a utility infielder. It seems that Chipper Jones was either targeting a certain security guard in front of the Braves dugout, or was unable to make a proper throw, because the balls regularly eluded coaches and bounced wildly towards the stands. On one occasion, a ball bounced very high over one of the coaches and I reached up to snare it (bare-handed I might add) just in time to keep it from hitting a little kid who was on the field in search of autographs. I retrieved several balls for the Braves coaches (and even a few for the Cardinals coaches when they took the field) -- each time making a fairly acrobatic move despite wearing camera equipment. As I left the field, some fans congratulated me on one of my grabs -- but were probably just sucking up as they proceeded to ask me if I could get Mark McGwire's autograph for their son (I explained how my press pass prohibited me from asking for autographs and left the field).
Somehow, right from the start of planning this trip, I got on the bad side of the Atlanta Braves front office. When I originally requested a meeting with the Braves General Manger, John Shuerholz, I received a letter saying that there would probably be no time for a meeting but asked that I forward my game schedule so they could be sure. A few weeks later, I forwarded my schedule to the Braves (along with all the other teams) only to receive a letter back (including a copy of their original request) re-iterating that the Braves would not have time to meet with me and scolding me for asking a second time. I was given a contact number to check with as my visit approached -- but my calls were never returned (three of them) in the days leading up to the game.
At the same time, getting a press pass was like pulling teeth. Originally, when I faxed a request to the Media Relations Office and called to follow up, I was told that my request had never arrived and was instructed to fax it again. After sending another fax and calling to follow up, I was told that requests are not accepted via facsimile and that I would have to mail a request in to the office in advance of my arrival. Several days after I mailed in a copy of the original requests, I spoke with Joan Hicks (the Director of Media Relations for the Braves) and arranged all the details. The saga finally ended several hours before the game (after a few more conversations about where and when to pick up the credential) when I finally met Joan Hicks (the first African American Woman front office representative I know of) and was presented with my field and press box pass. Quite an ordeal.
The Press Box at Turner Stadium is quite nice -- but awfully confusing. First of all, finding the press box is like playing "Let's Make a Deal" because you have to choose between three sets of unmarked doors just to gain admittance to the media complex. Once inside, a series of winding hallways and more unmarked doors eventually lead to a work room (with electrical outlets, phone jacks, and televisions) that is attached to the press box. The press box itself is pretty standard -- converted luxury suites used during the Olympics -- but designed as if it is in three parts. If you are looking for a seat in one of the upper levels, you had better choose the correct staircase or you will find yourself stuck on a level and doesn't connect to anything else. And, if you aren't careful, you will exit the press box directly to one of the outside concourses and have to go all the way back down to the field level (via staircases) to find the elevator back to the unmarked doors outside of the press box.
When I arrived in the press box after batting practice, I was immediately recognized by a reporter I first met on June 20th and then again at the Tigers Game on July 3rd. He asked how I was doing in my travels -- joking with me about the distances and how my car was doing (little did I know). He left to grab a bite to eat, and I was joined in my row by a radio person who monopolized the phone to call in his reports. When I tried to make a phone call (several of which I had to make to rescue Rachel from the side of the road) he glared at me and tapped his fingers impatiently waiting for me to finish. The rest of the folks kept their distance -- all very nice during our limited interaction -- mostly focusing on their laptops and phone calls during the game.
The food at Turner Field is essentially the same -- only in more abundance (like everything else at the park) than the other parks in the league. Of course, after the recent controversy involving the security guards at Turner Field and their "crackdown" on folks who tried to bring food into the park (apparently taking sugar treats from diabetics and formula from mothers with newborn children) a large number of fans chose to bring dinner to the park rather than pay the high ballpark prices. For those who do want to eat dinner at the park, the regular fare, cleverly disguised under the name "ALL AMERICAN BALLPARK FAVORITES" offers small hot dogs and stale popcorn -- all at elevated prices. Refreshments are sold in a separate area (with beer located across the concourse from the other stands. Thankfully, the courtyard/park area beyond center field offers fans barbecue, special sandwiches, real ice cream, and a whole host of other treats. And, speaking of treats, gourmet pretzels and bakery stands are located throughout the stadium on all levels.
Because of all the stress associated with finding a tow-truck and fixing my car, I wasn't able to find any time to eat the food at Turner Stadium. I was told that the hot dogs were "alright" but that the mustard and ketchup left something to be desired. The standard pretzel looked dry and tasteless (a fact backed up by the only fan I found who had purchased a pretzel) and were overpriced ($2.50) while the specialty pretzel stand had several different "exotic" flavors. The barbecue was given very high praise, the ice cream was eaten by almost everyone I could find (it was a cool night, but that didn't seem to matter) and the "Sweet Treats" booth was one of the most popular in the stadium (not to mention a rice krispies treat coated with chocolate that measure four square inches).
About twenty minutes before the first pitch was scheduled to be delivered, I received a somewhat frantic message from Rachel Turow, the friend of the family who had flown from Chicago to meet me for the last part of the trip, explaining that my car (which she was driving on the way to the ballpark) had "stalled out on the highway". I immediately called a roadside assistance company and arranged for a tow truck and contacted Rachel to make sure things were alright. After more than an hour, the tow truck finally arrived and the car was taken to a local Plymouth dealership. I'll tell you more later.
As for the fans who were able to make it to the game, a loud and excited bunch they were. The more than 46,000 fans who packed Turner Field created such a deafening roar at the slightest of occurences of action that it was almost painful to sit in the seats. However, they weren't exactly the smartest of all fans -- cheering loudly for every fly ball and sharp grounder as if they would help the Braves achieve a win. Similar to the fans at many of the other new ballparks, there was a definite "upper crust" quality to them -- each very sharply dressed and full of conversation about non-baseball related subjects. And, they seemed to lost a lot of their interest during the middle inning of the game (compared to the beginning when they were doing the wave and starting chants).
Of course, you can't really blame the fans for losing interest when the game on the field is one of the weirdest you have ever seen. In the second inning, Braves catcher Javy Lopez was struck on the elbow with a pitch and was forced to leave the game to get x-rays (they turned out negative). Only half an inning later, Home Plate Umpire Ed Montague was struck in the hand (a gruesome sight, especially when it swelled up to almost twice its normal size) and was forced to leave the game for x-rays (they turned out negative and he returned to umpire at third base). And, Cardinals shortstop Royce Clayton left the game before the bottom of the third inning because of "sickness". In the fourth inning, Braves starter Denny Neagle hit Cardinals catcher Mike Difelice. Then, in the bottom of the fifth inning, Eddie Perez (the backup catcher) was plunked on the elbow by Cardinals starter Todd Stottlemyre and a brawl almost broke out -- benches began to clear, profanities exchanged by both clubs.
When players weren't getting hit, they were striking out -- sucking much of the excitement from the game. Some nice defensive plays kept the game knotted at zero only to have the monotony end when Kenny Lofton ripped a lead-off double in the sixth inning -- he later scored on a single by Ryan Klesko. The Braves took a 3-0 lead after six innings, and that was all that Denny Neagle would need -- going on to win his 16th game of the season. The Cardinals did rally in top of the ninth inning -- but the Cardinals' Mark Lampkin was gunned down at the plate by Kenny Lofton to end the game in grand and exciting fashion.
In case you were still wondering, Rachel finally made it to the game -- shortly after the 7th Inning Stretch and joined me in our seats on the club level. After shopping for some much needed souvenirs we took out seats behind a mildly intoxicated (self- proclaimed) fan named Glen. After talking for a while about the trip, Glen showed Rachel and I some pictures of his daughter (adorable) and introduced us to his friend. The game ended about twenty minutes after we took our seats so we didn't get much of a chance to talk to Glen, but he made the whole evening -- which started off with some major problems -- very entertaining.
This is John Frascatore (on the left) talking to Andy Benes (on the right). Frascatore and I spoke extensively before the game about re-alignment, interleague play, and a bunch of other baseball related topics.
Here's a view of the big Coke Bottle located out beyond the left field fly pole. Constructed entirely of official Braves stuff (such as game-used bats, helmets, jerseys and baseballs), the coke bottle spews fireworks and lights up after each Braves homerun.
This is Glen. He sat directly in front of Rachel and I at Turner Field, and despite being intoxicated managed to have an interesting conversation with us about the trip, foul balls, his daughter, and re-alignment. Not bad.