‘This is a special time’: Braves and their fans are back for more

Braves fans in The Battery Atlanta outside Truist Park before Game 5 of the World Series.

Credit: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta Journal-Constit

Credit: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta Journal-Constit

Braves fans in The Battery Atlanta outside Truist Park before Game 5 of the World Series.

A lot has happened since the Braves won the World Series – the lockout, the departure of Freddie Freeman, the arrival of several significant new players – but the team and its fan base hope to pick up where they left off last fall when a new season begins next week.

“I’m closing in on 50 years (with the team), which is a little shocking, and this is a special time,” said Braves Chairman Terry McGuirk, the organization’s top executive, who has been affiliated with the team since the mid-1970s. “I would dare say there has never been a time that I’ve seen the fan appreciation and the total euphoria about the team in this town and region greater than now.”

The Braves will begin the long road back to October without a franchise icon, Freeman, but with a new slugger at first base, reinforcements in the bullpen, a higher player payroll and a 22-year high in season ticket sales. They’ll launch the season with two more Truist Park celebrations of last year’s triumph: the unveiling of a World Series championship pennant high above right field before the opener against Cincinnati on April 7 and an on-field presentation of World Series rings April 9.

“I think (those festivities) will set the stage for a great year that we’re going to have here,” McGuirk said. “We can celebrate together and remind each other how much fun we had and how much fun we’re going to have. Because we’re certainly not done.”

“I would dare say there has never been a time that I've seen the fan appreciation and the total euphoria about the team in this town and region greater than now."

- Braves Chairman Terry McGuirk

Whether measured anecdotally or by ticket sales data, baseball’s contentious 99-day lockout and Freeman’s perplexing exit as a free agent didn’t seem to significantly dampen the enthusiasm of most of Braves Country amid the World Series afterglow.

“I think it would have been pretty hard to dampen the enthusiasm of this fan base,” McGuirk said. “Certainly, with the lockout or Freddie, there could have been opportunities to maybe have questions. But as we look around the league, I’d say virtually every other team we know of was going backward in ticket sales during the lockout. Our fan base was unique – we sold tickets every day of the lockout, many times in substantial numbers.

“It’s almost illogical, but it shows there is something really special going on here and that no amount of bad news or just not-quite-good-news-yet dampened anyone’s enthusiasm.”

Winning a World Series for the first time in 26 years can have that effect.

Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos (left) and Braves Chairman Terry McGuirk watch the first day of team practice at spring training on March 14 in North Port, Fla. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Braves fan Colin Lord, 38, grew up in Atlanta, attended his first game at age 7 in the worst-to-first season of 1991 and now lives in Nashville, Tenn. He and his wife, Katy, plan to be at Truist Park for all four games of the season-opening series.

Lord said the lockout didn’t bother him because he figured all along it wouldn’t affect the regular season much. He was more concerned about the Freeman situation until Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos acquired first baseman Matt Olson from Oakland, signed him to an eight-year, $168 million contract and followed that by signing free-agent closer Kenley Jansen to a one-year, $16 million deal.

“Like everyone else in Braves Country, I was refreshing my Twitter every five minutes when the lockout ended, waiting to find out about Freddie,” Lord said. “Then the Olson trade pops seemingly out of nowhere for everyone, including Freddie, and the next day they announce that huge extension for Olson, and then Freddie signs with the Dodgers. I’m a little fatigued from all that, but I’m excited for the new season.

“The Freddie thing would have been a lot harder to swallow if Alex doesn’t go and get Olson and then extend him. If Freddie was going to go somewhere else, what happened is probably the best-case scenario because we know who the first baseman is going to be for a long time. … It has been a bit more hectic of an offseason than you would hope after winning the World Series, but you can make an argument the team is in a better place now than when last season ended.”

Several other Braves fans expressed similar views on a recent sunny afternoon at The Battery Atlanta.

One fan said the team and Freeman “definitely” should have gotten a deal done, but added that the addition of Olson and the expected early-May return of Ronald Acuna from injury makes him confident the Braves can win a fifth consecutive National League East title. Another fan said she regrets that World Series MVP Jorge Soler wasn’t re-signed but likes the deepened bullpen and the return of NL Championship Series MVP Eddie Rosario.

“I’m looking forward to opening day as much as I ever have,” longtime fan Stephen Davis said as an LED screen, wrapped around a giant hanging baseball sculpture, displayed these words: World Series Champions.

A scene at The Battery Atlanta on March 28. The Braves will open the 2022 season at home April 7. (Photo by Tim Tucker/AJC)

Credit: Tim Tucker/AJC

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Credit: Tim Tucker/AJC

Nearby, two Braves executives, president and CEO Derek Schiller and senior vice president Jim Smith, stopped to chat near a Battery wall on which the 2021 World Series title has been inscribed alongside the franchise’s previous such triumphs in 1995, 1957 and 1914.

“There’s room for another one in 2022,” Schiller said, pointing to the wall.

There’s no assurance, of course, what the new season will bring. After all, who would have guessed four months into last season that the Braves, injury-ravaged and below .500 at the time, would remake their outfield at the trade deadline, get hot at the absolute best time and storm to an improbable championship? This season, they’ll try to do what no MLB team has done in the past 21 years: win back-to-back World Series.

“I’m certainly sad to see Freddie go,” former Braves pitcher and baseball Hall of Famer Tom Glavine said. “Matt Olson certainly is a good player who will – I hesitate to even say ‘fill those shoes,’ but it softens the blow, I guess. They’ve made some other good moves, too. They’re certainly in solid position to have another solid year and potentially defend (the title). And like every year, now it’s a matter of guys staying healthy and doing what you expect them to do.”

As they enter the unknowns of a new season, the Braves have substantial momentum on and off the field.

“There’s just not many more talented teams in baseball than what we have put together,” McGuirk said.

The Braves have sold their most season tickets since 2000, said Schiller, who wouldn’t disclose the number, per team policy. Club seats are sold out for the season, he said.

Secondary ticket marketplace StubHub said the Braves have surpassed the New York Yankees as baseball’s most in-demand team on that site.

“The Yankees are traditionally at the top,” said Michael Silveira, head of inventory strategy for StubHub. “It is highly unusual even for the World Series champion to overtake them, and the Braves have actually done so by a decent margin so far. They’re 10% ahead of the Yankees in total dollars sold (on StubHub).”

“There's just not many more talented teams in baseball than what we have put together."

- Braves Chairman Terry McGuirk

Silveira said the Braves game most in demand at this point, aside from the opening series, is June 25 at Truist Park against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Freeman’s new team.

“It certainly looks like Braves fans want to show him some love,” Silveira said.

McGuirk, the Braves executive to whom both Anthopoulos and Schiller report, got a glimpse of how much the World Series win continues to mean to Braves Country as he was driving through the town of Madison, about 60 miles east of Atlanta, during the winter.

“It’s noon, and I stop at the Chick-fil-A briefly to get lunch,” McGuirk said. “This fella comes up, taps me on the back and points to a big group of workers who are sitting over on the side, 20 or 30 guys. They’re absolutely nutty Braves fans, and they recognize me. They asked me to come over, and I ended up giving a little impromptu speech and then took pictures with everybody in the group.”

Of such fandom, he added: “Our job is to try and keep it like that.”

Even the lockout turned out well for the Braves in at least one respect, delaying the regular season just long enough for them to open at home, rather than on the road as originally scheduled. That only enhances the defending champ’s plans for banner-raising and ring-presentation ceremonies.

“We get to start it all off at home with this celebration,” McGuirk said. “The stars are all aligned for the Atlanta Braves at the moment.”