Centerfield Market in the SunTrust Park concessions area. SunTrust Park is the new Cobb County home of the Atlanta Braves. (Chris Hunt/Special)
Photo: Chris Hunt
Photo: Chris Hunt

Torpy at Large: Braves backtrack after biting the fans who feed them

What were the Braves thinking?!?

At first, when the team announced it was prohibiting fans from bringing food into the new SunTrust Park, I thought that for a supposedly clever billion-dollar organization, it sure has thick-headed management.

Bill Torpy is a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Photo: AJC

And those execs don’t have a sense of history, seeing how badly this same business strategy backfired 20 years ago during the move to Turner Field. In fact, it made the Braves seem downright ungrateful each time, seeing that the team got a vastly discounted new stadium in 1997 thanks to the Olympics and another vastly discounted stadium this time thanks to $300 million-plus from Cobb County taxpayers.

I know, the fat cats in the suites and Lexus seats drive the profit margins. But how much does it hurt to let a family carry in some peanuts or sub sandwiches? The Regular Joes fill the park, the folks who make conscious choices to spend hard-earned money watching grown men play a kids’ game.

The Braves’ backtracking this week shows somebody on the payroll has a heart and/or a brain. Or more probably, someone knows a bit about damage control.

In a statement Tuesday, the team said, “Over the past few days we have heard feedback from our fans … and have decided to amend our approach.”

Fans can now bring food inside the park as long as it fits inside a clear, gallon-sized plastic bag. And they can bring a sealed plastic bottle of water. Singular, that is. But be thankful of that as you broil in the August sun.

When the policy was first announced last week, the team talked about new security protocol and alluded to some sort of sweeping change in Major League Baseball policy. But the AJC’s food editor Ligaya Figueras quickly determined that franchises such as the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Yankees still let fans bring in food. The team then backtracked, saying it was changes in the Braves’ security protocol.

Security and safety are oft-used excuses to push through all sorts of initiatives. I mean, what sane person opposes people being safe? And if you argue that this policy was profit-driven rather than security driven, then you are somehow siding with the terrorists.

Back in 2003, the Philadelphia Eagles tried a similar tack when banning outside food at the new Lincoln Financial Field.

Team president Joe Banner talked about the post-9/11 landscape, saying the ban was security-driven and “in our opinion there is no room to debate that, at this time in our history.”

When some had the audacity anyway to debate and suggested “money-grubbing,” the Eagles’ exec doubled down: “It is patently irresponsible in this day and age to question the motives behind a policy driven by and recommended by security experts.”

Then the Philly Daily News weighed in with the headline, “Hoagies of Mass Destruction,” and the team dropped it.

Channel 2's Ross Cavitt reports.

Marietta resident Scott Rismiller has brought his three kids to games and often did so with a bucket of outside-the-park chicken or store-bought subs and peanuts. In fact, after getting laid off last year and finding a job paying less, Rismiller was furious when he heard about the food ban.

“I lit them up on Twitter,” he said.

Later, in our conversation, he added, “Anyone with half a brain knows they’re hiding behind security. It’s a money grab, it’s that simple. I’d respect them more if they just said it.”

Later in the day, I called Rismiller with the news of the Braves’ change of heart. It seemed he regained some respect for the team. “I’m glad they listened,” he said. “I’ll give them credit for acknowledging they made a mistake.”

MAY 1997 — ATLANTA: Fans enter Turner Field, where they were banned from bringing food to the Braves’ then-new home. A public uproar soon changed things. (Jonathan Newton / AJC file photo)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Twenty years ago, when the Braves tried a similar food ban after moving to Turner Field, they employed some fibbery, just as they did last week. In 1997, a spokesman said the team was keeping with “fairly standard industry practice” when, in fact, it was anything but. Most teams allowed outside food.

The team backed off three months later after a mother got turned away bringing in some baby formula. That Turner Field screener, I’d wager, now works for TSA.

Braves fans can get a pretzel in the shape of an A from Sandlot Snacks at SunTrust Park, but they can also bring their own snack. CHRIS HUNT / SPECIAL
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In 1997, Atlanta attorney and Braves fan Wade Malone wrote then-MLB commissioner Bud Selig in protest. “It’s a small issue, but to me it symbolizes the arrogance of the Braves,” he told the AJC at the time.

This week, he said, “I’m delighted that the people rose up 20 years ago and did it again today.”

These days, the vast majority of teams allow outside food. I checked the websites of all 30 MLB teams and found that 22, including the Braves, allow food. Several others don’t mention food but do allow soft-sided coolers, which seems to indicate edibles may be OK.

As for fans, I talked to or got emails from about a dozen, including a car dealership worker, to a lady who takes care of an elderly woman, to a couple of lawyers. All said they use the same game-day strategy: Bring in a few items, which leaves you with enough money to A) buy tickets, B) park and C) buy overpriced concessions.

Benjamin Rachelson, a season ticket holder since 1993, was surprised at the about-face. “I didn’t think Liberty Media would back off,” he said, referring to the faceless out-of-state corporation that owns the Braves. “I thought they’d strong-arm us like they did with everything else connected to the stadium.”

Keith Davis, a quality control employee at the Kia plant in West Point, Ga., drives 80 miles to attend Braves games. He brings with him some edibles so he can afford to buy his son cotton candy, his daughter some French fries and himself a Tomahawk ale.

The Braves, he said, learned a couple of valuable lessons.

“You don’t mess with what is working. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”

I’m just glad I won’t have to hide a hoagie in my pants.

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