Outside Truist Park, Braves fans supply positive vibe

Credit: Steve Hummer

Credit: Steve Hummer

As they say up in the broadcast booth, what a perfect day for baseball.

If only a tried and true fan could get inside the ballpark to see it. If no one pays to get in, did it really happen?

As a matter of fact, yes. The 2020 major league playoffs came to Truist Park on Wednesday for a cool, bright noon start to a best-of-three wild-card series between the Braves and Cincinnati.

It was the kind of day practically machine-tooled for sitting on a hard stadium chair with 40,000 like-minded souls while taking the edge off a tense pitching duel with a touch of expensive day drinking.

It was the kind of afternoon, apparently, when players never want to leave the field, these teams playing for more than four-and-a-half hours before Freddie Freeman delivered the game’s only run with an RBI single in the bottom of the 13th.

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What a waste of splendid weather and all this outdoor seating.

Instead, as Alpharetta’s Matt Roberson said that morning with a shrug from his folding chair a few hundred feet from Truist’s right-field gate: “This is the closest you can get to the game without being there.” And so, the season of making do, the season of compromise began its postseason.

Playoff excitement is now such a relative thing. No, the buzz around Truist was nothing like it would have been without the restrictions of COVID-19. No hum of a great crowd. No air charged with expectation, many thousand-fold. Why, the only chopping going on inside Truist was courtesy of Reds starter Trevor Bauer, in a mocking fashion as he exited the game in the eighth inning. He may want to re-think that gesture now.

But as Marietta’s Kelly Schnoor said while wandering the Battery Atlanta before first pitch, "We stay home so much, this is like excitement to us. Anytime out is special. We’re out in public, this feels exciting.

Somehow, some way, baseball will have its following, even when it is barred at the gates by a global pandemic. While a few of the Braves family members were able to take up seats near home plate that have gone vacant all season, it was up to all the other lovers of the team to find different accommodations Wednesday. The gathering spot, as it has been throughout this short, weird campaign, was the lawn of artificial turf that decorates one corner of the commercial district just outside the ballpark, the Battery.

Traveling with Roberson was Nick Yohn and his son, whose family tradition it is to go to the opening of every Braves season and the first game of any playoff run. And no pandemic was going to get in the way of that.

A year ago, for the start of a series against St. Louis they had standing-room-only tickets, standing shoulder to shoulder with strangers as they cheered on the Braves. Wednesday was all about setting up a seating area socially distanced from the nearest other fan and respecting boundaries.

The only good thing about the quietest ever playoff series? “I ordered food from (a Battery Atlanta restaurant) and they said it’s going to take 10 minutes. You order during a real playoff game without COVID, it’s going to be an hour and a half,” Yohn laughed.

Inside the park, as it has been all of 2020, the noise and ambience were manufactured. Cardboard cutouts don’t care to guess what song the organist matches up to a Cincinnati hitter’s name. They don’t play along with a mascot of unknown species as it cavorts uselessly for 13 innings. They don’t let the umpire know he is criminally mistaken.

Just outside, that’s where the spirit of the fans lived. By 11:30 a.m., a colorful group of maybe 100 fans set up on the lawn, drawn to the flame of playoff baseball.

Marietta’s Josh Leebow wore a “Party like It’s 1995” shirt that marked the Braves' World Series championship season. The party was definitely going to be more subdued in 2020. “You make the best of what it is,” he said. “If they win you got a hundred people out here being loud, there’s still energy. It’s just a different kind of energy.”

How will 4-year-old Cole Schnoor remember the Braves playoffs of 2020? If at all, it will be playing catch with his mother, Kelly, so close yet so far away from his idols' game.

As he hunkered down in far-away Oakland, “The thing that has kept me going during the pandemic has been watching Braves baseball,” Kenneth Suffernsaid. Visiting home, almost in gratitude, he just had to pay his team a visit, at least as much as he could. His mother, Yolanda Brody, came along for the company and to draw the scene in her sketchbook. Suggested title of the work: “A Pandemic Playoff.”

It has been 19 years since the Braves have won so much as a single playoff series, yet, optimism lived on beyond the Truist Park gates.

“I’m hoping we do something special this year. It might be a short season, they might want to put an asterisk by it, but I have high hopes for the playoffs,” Suffern said.

“World series or bust, man. No two ways about it, this is the year,” Yohn said.

So much positive energy from the other side of the gates surely didn’t hurt Wednesday.