Hank Aaron was in attendance Sunday for the grand opening of the Braves’ new spring home, just 45 miles — and a world away — from where he reported to spring training as a young player in the 1950s.
“It was in Bradenton, Fla. There were two players to each locker,” Aaron said with a laugh. “There is space galore here.”
The Braves opened CoolToday Park — located in the southwest Florida city of North Port — for a 4-2 exhibition win Sunday against the Tampa Bay Rays. The $125 million complex will be the Braves’ spring-training site for the next 30 years under terms of their contract with Sarasota County.
After a pregame ribbon-cutting and a ceremonial first pitch by former National League MVP Terry Pendleton, former Braves manager Bobby Cox faced part of the crowd with microphone in hand and proclaimed: “It’s time for Braves baseball. Let’s play ball!”
The occasion was momentous enough that Aaron, 85, flew in from Atlanta at the invitation of Braves chairman Terry McGuirk.
In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a suite that bears his name — the Aaron Suite — the Braves icon marveled at the evolution of spring-training facilities through the decades.
“I played in so many of them. They all were minor-league ballparks,” Aaron said. “Then you turn around and look at this thing, and this is a major-league facility. This is gorgeous.
“It’s a long way from Bradenton and West Palm Beach,” Aaron added.
The Boston and Milwaukee Braves held spring training in Bradenton from 1948 through 1962. The Braves, who relocated from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966, trained in West Palm Beach from 1963 through 1997.
On Saturday, they played their final game at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex near Orlando, their spring home since 1998. That 22-year-old stadium still seems perfectly fine when viewed from the exterior or within the seating bowl, but behind the scenes it had become cramped, outdated and inefficient.
On Sunday morning, for their final exhibition game in Florida this year, the Braves bused the 135 miles from Disney to North Port.
“What they have done down here is pretty spectacular,” first baseman Freddie Freeman said shortly after arriving at CoolToday Park. “We’ll be able to get our work done more efficiently here. I feel like there was so much attention to detail in the little things, and that is going to make us even better through the years.”
Said catcher Brian McCann: “It’s top of the line. They thought of everything.”
One of the first things Freeman noticed was the spacious and well-appointed clubhouse, which lacks the wall that divided players into essentially two different rooms at Disney.
“Now you’re going to be able to see everyone,” Freeman said. “That is what you want.”
“The clubhouse is probably nicer than the majority of major-league (regular-season) clubhouses,” manager Brian Snitker said. “It’s going to be a really good working atmosphere here.”
Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos hadn’t seen the new facility until Sunday.
“I’d heard about it being the best (spring training) place in Florida, and it exceeded every expectation,” Anthopoulos said. “The clubhouses, the lounges, the offices, the work space — fantastic. You can just tell with the players there are a lot of smiles right now.
“This is just such a significant improvement on all levels.”
Also in attendance for the opening was former Braves president (now vice chairman emeritus) John Schuerholz, who was a leader of the organization’s long search for a new spring-training home. In fact, one of the first serious discussions between the Braves and Sarasota County came at baseball’s winter meetings in Nashville in December 2015, when Schuerholz and others sketched potential plans on napkins over breakfast.
“It was a labor of love,” Schuerholz said of how it all turned out.
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