Braves fans bring high hopes to Chop Fest

Knox Borgerding, 4, performs with Atlanta Heavy Hitters during Chop Fest on Saturday, January 19, 2019. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM



Knox Borgerding, 4, performs with Atlanta Heavy Hitters during Chop Fest on Saturday, January 19, 2019. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Scattered showers and overcast skies couldn’t dampen the mood Saturday as Braves fans welcomed the new season with vigor at Chop Fest at SunTrust Park.

The booming of the drums from Heavy Hitters, the Braves’ drumline, filled the soggy air as fans stood watch in a makeshift amphitheater outside the ballpark. The first rendition of the Tomahawk Chop rang out around 10:30 a.m., and at its conclusion, fans rushed through the gates to get photos with players, run the bases, shop for team gear and a host of other festivities.

The attitude among fans was overwhelmingly optimistic. After an overachieving 2018 season that included 90 wins and an National League East crown, the Braves added veterans Brian McCann and Josh Donaldson to an otherwise young team. The balance of youth, experience and success had fans craving more.

“Nobody picked the Braves to win the division last year, but they did,” said Alex Mathison of Dawsonville. “With the energy, talent and experience in the team, they should only be better this year.”

Mathison was at Chop Fest in 2018 as well, where he said the expectations were high, but not necessarily based on a great knowledge of the team and what it could do.

“Last year at Chop Fest, people didn’t even know who Ozzie (Albies) was. We’re in a much better place already this year,” Mathison said.

He thought of the playoff appearance as something that would make the Braves more comfortable going forward.

“It’s just like a job interview. Once you get a couple of those under your belt, you get better at it and you get more composed and you have more success,” Mathison said.

For other fans, Chop Fest represented a chance to build a connection with the team. Andrea Calabrese lives in Buffalo, N.Y., where she became a die-hard Braves fan by watching them on nationally televised games.

She took the two-hour flight from Buffalo to Atlanta so that she could meet players from her favorite team and get photos with them at Chop Fest. She has another trip scheduled to see the Braves play the Giants in September, when she hopes they’ll have an eye on the playoffs.

“I’m hoping they make it back to the (Division Series) since they made it there last year. There are a few players who are older now that can really bring the team together,” Calabrese said.

The Braves are not without their critics. Jordan Goss, a fan from right down the road in Smyrna, is the type of person who lives, eats and sleeps baseball year-round. He is skeptical of the $23 million Donaldson signing in the offseason, and he feels that the Braves have a big hole at right field.

But even for Goss, it’s hard to ignore the great things the Braves have going. In all his time as a Braves fan, Goss said his favorite memory was Ronald Acuna’s grand slam last season in the NLDS against the Dodgers, a moment that he said brought tears to his eyes. Last year’s upstart team has brought new excitement to this season that simply wasn’t there before.

“From last year to today, there is definitely more hope and optimism of bringing another championship to the city,” Goss said.

With the Braves back to their winning ways, the fans are back as well. As the gates closed at SunTrust Park at the conclusion of Chop Fest, the timer unofficially began ticking down to opening day. The message from the fans: The sky is the limit.