As gray blanketed the January sky and the sun struggled to break through the cloud cover, Braves fans eagerly descended on the newly named Truist Park on Saturday for the team’s annual Chop Fest.
High spirits were noticeable across the ballpark as fans played catch on the field, joyously danced the salsa, and interacted with players who circled the concourse meeting the devout fan base. A few attendees strolled through the Monument Garden, reminiscing on the past success of their beloved Braves.
Not only was the fan base excited about the event and its plethora of activities but also about the coming season. After a 2019 that resulted in a second consecutive National League East title, the Braves struggled to close out the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Division Series. In an all-important Game 5, the Braves allowed 10 runs in the first inning, eventually leading to their elimination.
“They were so much better than what happened in that game,” Cynthia Ford said.
Although the season came to a devastating end, supporters have put the past behind them to focus on the current roster and its high ceiling. Ford, who is from Dawsonville, summed up the feelings of many at Chop Fest about last year’s early exit, but was quick to compliment the development of the Braves’ young pitchers.
“Their pitching staff has gotten better,” Ford said. “I really like (Mike) Soroka going into this year, and I think the relievers have taken a step forward.”
Ford’s assessment of Soroka is one shared by many. The now 22-year-old led the Braves starters with a 2.68 ERA in 2019, resulting in an All-Star selection in his first full season. As for the bullpen, the Braves’ front office focused on strengthening the relief pitching, leading to the addition of Will Smith on a three-year contract.
Chop Fest gave the opportunity for fans outside metro Atlanta to get a glimpse at the personalities and storylines of this year’s iteration of the team. That reason led Jonathan Barnes and his mother Martha Barnes on a three-hour drive from Augusta to Truist Park to get excited about their 2020 season tickets.
Martha lamented the departure of Josh Donaldson, who signed a four-year contract worth at least $92 million with the Minnesota Twins, claiming she bought a shirt with his name on it toward the end of last season. Jonathan, however, focused on the ensuing competition at third base as a key position for the Braves to solidify.
Jonathan donned a Dale Murphy jersey and affectionately talked about past Braves successes. After a 20-year World Series drought, Barnes thinks the coming season is bound to be special.
“We’re extremely excited,” Barnes said. “I think they can take it all the way to the World Series and win.”
While Ford and Barnes look back fondly at the days of NL pennants and World Series appearances, not all fans at Chop Fest can remember being at the top.
At 22, Seth Everett is one of the unlucky young fans who can’t remember seeing the Braves reach the World Series. He recalled that his grandfather, a dedicated fan, had the opportunity to watch Hank Aaron in his prime, in addition to seeing overall team success.
“I love the history of the game, so it sucks that I missed the really good years of the 1990s and the early 2000s,” Everett said. “But I love the history of it, and I really love this team. Hopefully, they can turn it into another run.”
Despite not witnessing the heyday of the Braves, Everett stayed optimistic, celebrating the moves made by the front office in the offseason. He championed the deep outfield that was solidified by the acquisition of Marcell Ozuna from the Cardinals.
“If (Ozuna) can have any sort of production like he’s had the last few years, it’ll be a great addition,” Everett said.
As for his expectations for 2020, the young Braves fan couldn’t be any clearer.
“I expect them to get to the World Series,” Everett said. “If they can keep everyone healthy, they have the players so I’m excited for it.”
As Chop Fest neared its conclusion, rays of sun began to shine down on the field, appropriately matching the attitudes of those in attendance. For the fans present, the expectations are just as bright and point to one clear goal: winning the World Series.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.