Opening Day at SunTrust Park: ‘This is a baseball city’

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Back in my comic-book days — sorry if I’m divulging too much information here — the Marvel mags would offer this tease, usually whenever a major character would die therein: “Not a hoax! Not a dream! Not an imaginary tale!” Call me weird — you won’t be the first — but that bit of hard sell kept flashing across this fevered brain Friday, and not in an impending-death way.

The Braves opened SunTrust Park, and it wasn’t a hoax/dream/imaginary tale. It was reality, big and shiny and new, even as it didn’t seem quite real.

“I never doubted this would be nice,” I told John Hart, the Braves’ president of baseball operations. “But I never thought it would be like this.”

Said Hart: “I’ve heard that from a lot of people.”

Then he pointed to the big turning “A” that rises above the right-field foul pole. “My apartment is right behind that,” he said, and if that’s not mixed use … well, what is?

Let’s be clear. Much of what will comprise The Battery Atlanta isn’t open — Wahlburgers, to name one establishment; the Omni hotel, to name another — and the not-awful traffic flow of this Friday might have been a red herring. It was Good Friday, which meant a lot of people didn’t go to work. Still, an eyeball check of the surrounding roads — I-75 and the Perimeter and Circle 75 and Windy Ridge — at 6:20 p.m. showed (gasp!) traffic flowing freely in every direction, surely a 21st Century Atlanta Friday first.

Let’s be clear about this, too: This is not a stadium complex designed by Clark Howard. If you’re going to come here, you better be prepared to spend money. (Catfish tacos for this Catholic correspondent on Good Friday: $12.) But there are, we note again, only 30 major-league franchises in operation, and there’s only one that’s south of Cincinnati and north of Tampa and west of D.C. and east of Houston. Like it or not, that one is based in Cobb County, Ga.

This is largely about baseball, but it’s not entirely about baseball. This is about civic — OK, suburban — development. This is a $1.2 billion outlay that wouldn’t have been laid out had the Braves not upped sticks, but The Battery could/should have a life beyond 81 home games. “This,” Hart said, gesturing around him, “is a baseball city.”

Then: “We have a lot of fans from out of state. We’re a regional franchise. You can come here to watch the Braves and stay right here and see all this. It’s a place to go.”

Then: “Let’s say it’s a football weekend (beyond September) and you’re coming to Atlanta. You’ll come here. This is the newest, coolest toy on the market.”

Bill Acree, for 52 years a Braves employee — long as traveling secretary, today as a senior advisor — was asked his impression of the new digs. “Fabulous,” he said, marking one of the few times the gruff Acree has used that word and meant it. “My wife and granddaughter came to the exhibition game and spent an hour just walking around outside.”

Not to sound any more Chamber-of-Commercey than I already have, but that’s the lure here. People were walking and talking and gawking — and stopping to eat and drink — in The Battery three hours before the ballpark’s gates opened Friday. Not to cast aspersions on jilted downtown, but that couldn’t have happened at Turner Field, which was essentially a stand-alone. If you’re seeking the biggest reason the Atlanta Brave now play in Cobb, it’s that.

“This is the first sports facility intended to open simultaneously with a mixed-use element that did not need curation or maturation,” said John Schuerholz, Hall of Famer. We can’t yet know how SunTrust Park will be if/when the Braves are 20 games out of first place and it’s 95 degrees at first pitch, and we can’t know if The Battery will be so bustling if the Braves themselves never get good, but we can know this: On Good Friday of 2017, the place looked great.

“Phenomenal,” said Chipper Jones, a year from being a Hall of Famer himself.

“It’s very nice,” said Frank Wren, the Braves’ general manager when this place was being designed, on hand Friday in a scouting capacity as the Red Sox’s senior VP of baseball operations. “It’s very well-planned.”

Wren also offered this: He left his home in Peachtree City and made it to SunTrust Park in 45 minutes — and he stopped for gas.

Back to Hart and his “baseball city”: When he was the Indians’ GM, he saw what the opening of Jacobs Field did for downtown Cleveland. “It was a game-changer for that franchise,” he said. “This is a game-changer for this franchise.”

Even Schuerholz, not given to public displays of emotion, conceded it was a big day for him. “I was so excited I put this on,” he said, fingering the lapels of his blue blazer, “before I showered.”

So: Was this Braves’ pillar taken aback by the splendor around him? “If we’re surprised that this is nice,” he said, reverting to form, “then shame on us.”