David Clark toured SunTrust Park six times before Friday’s exhibition game. Even so, he couldn’t wait to step inside the new ballpark to enjoy his first game in his green seat right above the bullpen.
He arrived extremely early, standing inside The Battery Atlanta, a mixed-use development adjacent to the ball park, at 2:30 p.m., five hours before opening pitch. Sure, he avoided traffic, cruising here by Uber in about 15 minutes from his house less than 10 miles away. But Clark, a long-time season ticket holder, made his way early not only to avoid traffic, but to relish in the festive atmosphere at the brand new SunTrust Park.
“This is awesome,” said a happy, even giddy, die-hard fan strolling around the plaza. “It looks like a train village with a ballpark. Everywhere you go, you see something super cool.”
A steady stream of early arriving Atlanta Braves fans dotted the plaza: fathers and sons threw baseballs on a grassy field. Couples sipped beers from the Terrapin Taproom and walked around the plaza, snapping photos underneath a baseball-shaped sphere.
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Once inside, under a blue sky, wispy clouds and perfect temperature of around 70 degrees, fans gushed over the new ballpark: the water features which include an outfield waterfall and a cascading fountain in Monument Garden in front of the Hank Aaron statue; a new scoreboard stretching 64 feet tall and 121 feet wide; a 28-foot climbing tower for the kids.
But above everything, fans seemed to quickly fall in love with the feel of the new stadium, an expanse of green with about 9,000 fewer seats and noticeably less foul territory, placing seats closer to the field – and the action. The 41,000 green seats — a change from Turner Field’s blue — awaited eager fans.
“It feels so cozy,” said Clark. “It feels like home.”
Friday marked the beginning of a new home for the Braves and their fans, who had filled the large brick-and-limestone structure of Turner Field in Atlanta for 20 years. And while some fans were disappointed, even disgusted by the move to Cobb County, fans, at least those at Friday’s game, had moved on.
“It was kind of sad for the Braves to leave Turner,” said Johnny Walker of Tucker who was attending the game with his 9-year-old son Eli. “But I understand why they did it. And I like what I see here. Also, you have to follow your team.”
Fans were greeted Friday by happy crew members. Some ushers and fans even hugged each other upon seeing a familiar face.
High on everyone’s mind heading to SunTrust Park was traffic. The potential for major-league traffic tie-ups in the Atlanta Braves’ new neighborhood has long weighed on the minds of commuters and officials tasked with addressing it. The Braves have delayed game times, dispersed parking lots, and deployed traffic apps to ease congestion.
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Then on the eve of the Braves’ debut at SunTrust Park, a piece of I-85 disappears. The I-85 bridge collapse is expected to snarl traffic for weeks, even months ahead.
Complaints about traffic were minimal Friday night, but this exhibition game against the New York Yankees may not serve as best indication of what’s to come since the game was limited to season-ticket holders and only about 20,000 people came, filling only half of the seats.
The Braves expects 12,000 to 13,000 vehicles per game, according to Mike Plant, the Braves’ president of development. There are 81 home games a year with just under half on weekends. Cobb County hasn’t announced any changes to parking or traffic-routing plans as a result of the I-85 disaster. The team has urged fans to come extra early and emphasized its parking advice.
“Due to the bridge incident on I-85 in Atlanta, we encourage our fans to plan before they leave for the game,” the Braves said in a statement. “Traffic patterns in Atlanta will be adjusted for everyone, so please listen to local authorities as they direct you around the metro area. Also, we encourage all fans to purchase their parking before they leave today at braves.com/parking and trust (traffic app) Waze to get you directly to your parking lot.”
Many fans heeded that guidance and arrived very early.
For Walker, he and his son headed to the ballpark as soon as his son got out of school. He used a traffic and navigation app to get from Tucker to SunTrust Park, and arrived in 35 minutes.
“We took all back roads. The app said to avoid all highways,” he said.
Even Robert Scheer, who traveled closer to game time from Kennesaw, arrived in under 40 minutes. He took a little uptick in traffic along I-75 in stride. He barely waited in line for a beer and bottled water.
“I expected it to be nice and had high expectations,” said Scheer, “And it is living up to my expectations. I like Turner too, but the (ballpark) needed a little update, and this is very nice.”
Meanwhile, Philip Gallagher of Alpharetta also raved about the new ballpark and surrounding businesses and hotels. His one complaint: figuring out the parking situation. He said his designated parking lot didn’t open until 5:30, forcing him to obtain a spot at another parking lot (with the help of a friend) at the red lot, which opened earlier, he said.
On a warm spring afternoon, he and and his son arrived early to throw a baseball and walk around the plaza before going into the stadium. His wife and younger son would join them later, shortly before opening pitch. He said family will likely get a hotel room occasionally. Gallagher added it will be nice to be a short walk to a hotel and not worry about drinking a beer and driving home afterwards.
“My wife is not a huge baseball fan, and there was nothing to do around Turner,” he said. “I think she will like it here.”
So much so, he’s predicting she’ll be a fan by the end of the season.