Braves’ success thrills fans, even some once disgruntled about move

Njema and daughter Iyanla Williams enjoy their first game together at SunTrust Park.

Njema and daughter Iyanla Williams enjoy their first game together at SunTrust Park.

When the Atlanta Braves left their longtime home in the city and headed to the suburbs, Njema Williams’ love for the team evaporated like summer rain on a hot sidewalk.

No more trips to the ballfield for him, he vowed. No more watching on TV. No more checking player stats and team standings.

He couldn’t even stomach listening to commentary on sports radio. To him, it felt like the move took “took the heart and soul out of the team.” He was done with the Braves — or so he thought.

Then came an infusion of young, talented players. And before Williams knew it, his two-year boycott was over.

This season, as the Braves won 97 games and clinched the National League East, they did more than secure home-field advantage in the playoff series against St. Louis Cardinals, which begins Thursday. They also won back many fans who, like Williams, thought that they were done with the team when it left the city and took up residence at SunTrust stadium in Cobb County.

What a difference a few years — and a winning team — can make. The Braves have power, speed, fire-throwing arms. They have youth, experience and lauded chemistry. And while their playoff run last year was unexpected, even ahead of schedule, this one has a different feel.

“They sucked me back in,” Williams said during the team’s final regular season homestand, as he and his youngest child, 8-year-old Iyanla, relished their first game at SunTrust Park under pale blue skies and wispy clouds.

Of course, there are throngs of people who never left the Braves, those who waited patiently or not so patiently for a return to dominance by a franchise that produced one of the greatest runs in sports history with 14 straight division titles from 1991 to 2005.

The team’s new location afforded some fans, like Gary Talamini, more access to games. The west Cobb resident became a season ticket holder and enjoys hours before and after the game at the stadium’s adjacent development, The Battery, dining, enjoying a drink and taking in the festivities.

The Atlanta Braves Breakers dance crew performs in the Battery before Thursday's season opener. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

The team completed its regular-season home schedule with an attendance of roughly 2.65 million, the highest in 12 years.

The Braves’ revenue has also increased, reaching $442 million in 2018, according to full-year financial results released earlier this year by team owner Liberty Media. That’s up 15% from revenue in 2017, the Braves’ first season at SunTrust Park, and up a whopping 69% from 2016, the final season at Turner Field.

An Atlanta Braves fan holds a sign in honor of center fielder Ronald Acuna (not pictured) after the Braves’ 6-0 win against the San Francisco Giants to clinch the NL East division at Sun Trust Park Friday, Sept. 20 in Atlanta. (JASON GETZ/SPECIAL TO THE AJC)

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Erin Tarver, author of the book “The I in Team: Sports Fandom and the Reproduction of Identity,” said moving is one of the very few ways a team can lose devotion from deeply loyal fans. But that typically applies to major changes like moving a team from Milwaukee to Atlanta — not merely relocating a team across town. And in this case, the team moved about 15 miles, and Turner Field was not really in the heart of the city, but rather south of downtown Atlanta.

Even so, Tarver said, one could argue that, for some fans, moving the Atlanta Braves from the city of Atlanta to the suburbs of Cobb County might as well be picking the team up and moving it to another state.

“The city of Atlanta and Cobb County have demographic, political, geographic differences,” said Tarver, an associate professor of philosophy at Oxford College of Emory University. “I can imagine those kinds of differences would be enough for some in Atlanta to feel a sense of abandonment.”

Atlanta Braves fans do the wave while their team clinches the National League East title with a 6-0 victory over the San Francisco Giants in a MLB baseball game on Sept. 20 in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/

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Even so, the attachment to a sports team runs so deep, passing through generations, that it can usually overcome a change in address in the same metro area. A self-described sports enthusiast herself, Tarver argues that loving a team and being a fan is important to our psyches. “It’s one of the primary ways in which we tell ourselves who we are — and just as importantly, who we are not.”

Sports, she said, is how we connect with our community. And winning certainly helps.

“It’s not as superficial as just the winning and I am a fan again, but I imagine for most people with a long history with the team … it’s a key part of their memories growing up. I feel like winning can help nudge you over the edge of anger and gets you over the negative emotions,” she said.

That was certainly the case for Williams and other fans including Kisha Lindsey, 34, who “was on the edge” about the move. She’s now all-in. At a recent game, she reminisced about her first Braves game with her father when she was 5. He bought her a box of Cracker Jack and a red foam Tomahawk that she still has.

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There are some fans who haven’t found their way back yet. Shannon Fain’s fondness for the Braves ended the moment he got a phone alert in late 2013 about the Braves picking up and setting up in Cobb County. The 42-year-old, who moved to Atlanta mostly to go to Braves games, walked out of his Midtown apartment and handed out all his Braves hats and shirts to homeless folks along Peachtree Street.

“It broke my heart,” said Fain about the move. “It wasn’t what they just did to me as a fan. It was what they did to Atlanta.”

The location of Turner Field was never ideal. Surrounded, even cut off by highways, the communities around the ballpark never flourished as hoped.

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And there were several obstacles: The lack of easy access to public transportation was an ongoing, nagging issue. And the Braves were unable to secure control of city-owned property around Turner Field in order to turn it into a mixed-use development that would buzz with activity even when the ballpark was empty.

So the Braves moved into a new stadium with an expanse of green with about 9,000 fewer seats and noticeably less foul territory, placing seats closer to the action. It is surrounded by the Battery, luring fans hours before games.

Hazel Hugueley, a long-time fan of the Atlanta Braves, is excited about the postseason.

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Hazel Hugueley, 95, was disappointed the Braves vacated Atlanta, but her affinity for the team has never wavered. She started rooting for the team even before its very first home game at the Atlanta Stadium in 1966.

“I loved baseball, and I was waiting for them to come,” said Hugueley, who grew up in Chicago and moved to Atlanta with her husband, Charles, in 1955.

For decades, she, her husband and two sons attended several games every season. For home openers, she packed a special picnic – fried chicken, deviled eggs and chocolate chip cookies.

From the dismal droughts in the 1970s and 1980s, and the golden era of the 1990s, with Chipper Jones and a dominant trio of pitchers in Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, she’s been a stalwart.

The Atlanta Braves Breakers dance crew performs in the Battery before the 2019 season opener. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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On April 8, 1974, she was among the record-breaking crowd of 53,775 people in Atlanta Stadium when Hank Aaron hit his 715th career home run, breaking Babe Ruth’s legendary record of 714 homers, sending fans into pandemonium.

“I remember this feeling like, nothing could top this,” she said.

And, while the 1995 World Series was a thrill, she hardly paused before saying “but they should have won more.” She rattled off some costly mistakes at the end of games that resulted in numerous excruciating losses. The pain from 1992 still seems fresh when she talks about Otis Nixon’s two-out bunt attempt that led to the final out. She has questions — Why did he bunt? Why didn’t Manager Bobby Cox have him hit?

In more recent years, Hugueley, who is widowed, schedules her life around games, watching on a flat screen TV inside her apartment at an assisted living residence in the Decatur area. She sits on her deep red couch, clutching a teddy bear in a Braves jersey. When she occasionally gets sleepy during late games, she’ll head to her bedroom and listen to the last two innings on the radio.

Atlanta Braves Ozzie Albies reacts to the fans after hitting a 2-RBI double to take a 9-1 lead over the Philadelphia Phillies during the fifth inning in a MLB baseball game on June 16 in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/

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“I can get mighty nervous when it is close in the ninth inning and the opponent is threatening to score,” she said. “That has kept me from going to sleep.”

She said she knows this team isn’t perfect; their pitching, she said, may not be as strong as she would like. But there’s something about this team — Freeman, Acuña, Albies, the manager Brian Snitker.

“They play with such joy,” she said. “It’s a joy to watch. I just can’t wait.”

— Staff writer Tim Tucker contributed to this article.


April 9, 1965 – The Milwaukee Braves played the Detroit Tigers in an exhibition game at Atlanta Stadium, one year before the Braves moved to Atlanta. Because of a court order, the Braves had to stay in Milwaukee for the 1965 season, despite an Atlanta ownership group buying the team in 1964 with the intent of moving the franchise to Atlanta.

April 12, 1966 – The Atlanta Braves opened the 1966 season, their first in Atlanta. The Braves played the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first regular-season game at Atlanta Stadium and lost 3-2 in 13 innings.

Sept. 30, 1969 – The Braves clinched the National League West Division championship by defeating the Cincinnati Reds at Atlanta Stadium. The Braves played the New York Mets that season in the first-ever National League Championship Series, then a best-of-five series. The Mets won the NLCS by sweeping the Braves.

Braves outfielder Hank Aaron takes a swing of hist bat at Atlanta Stadium, circa 1969.

Credit: AJC

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Credit: AJC

April 8, 1974 – Braves outfielder Henry Aaron hit his 715th career home run, surpassing Babe Ruth for the all-time major league record. Aaron was traded to Milwaukee after the 1974 season and played two seasons for the Brewers. He finished with 755 career home runs.

Jan. 6, 1976 – The owners of the Braves sold the team to Turner Communications Corporation, headed by Ted Turner. The presence of Turner brought a promotional and financial boost to the franchise – and eventually millions of TV viewers through the channel known as "SuperStation TBS."

Bobby Cox managed the Blue Jays from 1982 to 1985. The Blue Jays finished above .500 in three of four seasons and won the AL East in 1985. He posted a record of 355-292.

Credit: AJC file

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Credit: AJC file

Oct. 22, 1985 – Bobby Cox was introduced as Braves general manager. Ted Turner hired Cox after his successful stint as manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, which included the American League Manager of the Year award for 1985. Cox was Braves manager from 1978-81 before Turner fired him. Cox managed in Toronto from 1982-85.

June 22, 1990 – Bobby Cox returned to the dugout as Braves manager. He would remain as Braves GM until John Schuerholz was hired Oct. 10, 1990. Though the Braves finished in last place in 1990, they went from "worst to first" in the division the next season, and Cox managed the Braves to 14 division titles before he retired after the 2010 season.

Oct. 19, 1991 – The Braves played Game 1 of the World Series at the Minnesota Twins. This was the Braves' first World Series appearance since moving to Atlanta and the first for the franchise since 1958. The Braves lost to the Twins in seven games in what many baseball observers have called the best World Series ever played. The Braves' NL West title was the first of 14 consecutive division championships that continued through the 2005 season. (No division titles were awarded for the strike season of 1994.)

Tom Glavine, the MVP of the 1995 World Series, waves to the crowd during the victory parade following the Braves' World Series win over the Indians. (AJC file photo)

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Oct. 28, 1995 – The Braves defeated the Cleveland Indians 1-0 in Game 6 of the World Series, giving the Braves their first World Series championship of the Atlanta era and the first for the franchise since 1957. The Braves' starting pitcher, Tom Glavine, allowed one hit in eighth inning in Game 6 and was voted the Most Valuable Player of the World Series.

Cox is tossed from the game by home plate umpire John Shulock in 2000. Cox was arguing a catchers balk.  In 2007, Cox made the all-time record for most ejections in the majors. Perched in a fire truck, Cox and wife Pamela wave to fans along Peachtree Street during the city's parade for the World Series champions in 1995. Cox played two seasons with the New York Yankees, and his position was mainly third base. He poses  in 1968 at Washington Ball Park, Washington.D.C.  He also started his managerial career with the Yankees farm system in the early 1970s. There were fireworks on the field as Bobby Cox argues with home plate umpire Derryl Cousins over balls and strikes in game  against Montreal in 2000. In September 2008, Cox earned the 150th ejection of his career. One of Cox's favorite moments was when Sid Bream scores the winning run in the bottom of the 9th inning of Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS against the Pittsburgh Pirates, giving the Braves the NL Championship. The lumbering Bream scored from 2nd on a Cabrera single to end the game. Bobby Cox's Hall of Fame plaque goes beyond the wins and division titles to describe what cemented his legend as the Atlanta Braves' manager. Bobby Cox humbly told the crowd that "[Not] in my wildest dreams did I ever think this would happen, but I'm sure glad it did," regarding his induction into baseball's Hall of Fame Sunday, July 27, 2014, in Cooperstown, N.Y. Braves fans cheer loudly for Bobby Cox during induction ceremonies Sunday, July 27, 2014, in Cooperstown, N.Y. Braves manager Bobby Cox waves to the crowd as he is applauded by former players Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux during introductions Sunday, July 27, 2014, in baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y. <p>John&nbsp;Schuerholz&nbsp;(right) and manager Bobby Cox share a laugh in the dugout in 2010. Curtis Compton</p> <p>Schuerholz&nbsp;looks on as Bobby Cox waves to the crowd during a ceremony for the retiring manager in 2010. Brant&nbsp;Sanderlin&nbsp;/</p> <p><span style="color: rgb(255, 255, 255); font-family: arial, sans-serif; font-size: 14px; line-height: 16px; background-color: rgb(36, 34, 34);">1996: Manager Bobby Cox (center) and Schuerholz announce that Cox&#39;s contract has been extended through the year 1999 with an option for the the year 2000. Schuerholz kept Cox at the Braves&#39; helm during his entire tenure as GM.</span></p> <p>Schuerholz&nbsp;(right ) and Cox watch from a cart during spring training in 1997. (PHIL SKINNER /Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff photographer).</p>   <p>Bobby Cox is greeted by Atlanta Braves right fielder Jason Heyward (left) following the Cox&#39;s #6 Retirement and Pregame Tribute before the Braves home game against the Chicago Cubs at Turner Field on August 12, 2011.&nbsp;Hyosub Shin,</p> <p>Bobby Cox waves to the fans as his wife Pam Cox (right) looks on during the Cox&#39;s #6 Retirement and Pregame Tribute before the Braves home game against the Chicago Cubs at Turner Field on Aug. 12, 2011.&nbsp;Hyosub Shin,</p> <p>Bobby Cox waves to the fans during the Cox&#39;s #6 Retirement and Pregame Tribute before the Braves home game against the Chicago Cubs at Turner Field on August 12, 2011.&nbsp;Hyosub Shin,</p> <p>Bobby Cox, head coach of the Atlanta Braves, glances over at President Clinton Monday during a White House ceremony honoring the 1995 World Series champions. (Photo by Rick McKay/Washington Bureau)&nbsp;</p> <p>FILE:&nbsp;Bobby Cox poses for a portrait in his office at Fulton County Stadium by a large collage of Braves&#39; newsclippings honoring the 1995 World Series winners 2/12. The team is the odds-on favorite for a repeat performance.<span style="display: none;">&nbsp;</span><span style="display: none;">&nbsp;</span><span style="display: none;">&nbsp;</span><span style="display: none;">&nbsp;</span><span style="display: none;">&nbsp;</span><span style="display: none;">&nbsp;</span><span style="display: none;">&nbsp;</span><span style="display: none;">&nbsp;</span></p> <p>Bobby Cox during tense moments in Game 6 of the World Series. October 24, 1992. (David Tulis / AJC staff)</p> <p>Atlanta Braves Manager Bobby Cox is all smiles as he, his wife Pamela and the players and staff of the Braves board a charter flight to Cleveland Monday, Oct. 23, 1995, at Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport.&nbsp;(AP Photo/Tannen Maury)</p> <p>Atlanta Braves president Stan Kasten, general manager John Schuerholz, owner Ted Turner and manager Bobby Cox hold the 1995 World Series trophy. (AJC photo/David Tulis)</p> <p>Bobby Cox. August 4, 1981. (Nancy Mangiafico / AJC staff)</p> <p>Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox heads for the Braves&#39; dressing room Thursday night, Oct. 1. 1981. (Joe Benton / AJC staff)</p> <p>Bobby Cox after the Atlanta Braves board meeting. September 30, 1981 (Andy Sharp / AJC staff)</p> <p>Ted Turner, owner of the Atlanta Braves and Bobby Cox, former m

Credit: � 2019 Cox Media Group. � 2019 Cox Media Group. � 2019 Cox Media Group. � 2019 Cox Media Group. Getty Images Hyosub Shin, Hyosub Shin, Hyosub Shin, (Photo by Rick McKay/Washington Bureau) � 2019 Cox Media Group. (David Tulis / AJC staff) (AP Photo/Tannen Maury) (AJC photo/David Tulis) (Nancy Mangiafico / AJC staff) (Joe Benton / AJC staff) (Andy Sharp / AJC staff) (Bud Skinner / AJC staff)

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Credit: � 2019 Cox Media Group. � 2019 Cox Media Group. � 2019 Cox Media Group. � 2019 Cox Media Group. Getty Images Hyosub Shin, Hyosub Shin, Hyosub Shin, (Photo by Rick McKay/Washington Bureau) � 2019 Cox Media Group. (David Tulis / AJC staff) (AP Photo/Tannen Maury) (AJC photo/David Tulis) (Nancy Mangiafico / AJC staff) (Joe Benton / AJC staff) (Andy Sharp / AJC staff) (Bud Skinner / AJC staff)

 July 27, 2014 – Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Bobby Cox were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. They were joined by John Smoltz in 2015, John Schuerholz in 2017 and Chipper Jones in 2018. Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz formed one of the great starting pitcher trios in baseball history. Jones represented the final member of the Braves' great run of consecutive division titles to enter the museum of elites in Cooperstown.

April 14, 2017 – The Braves played their first game at SunTrust Park, the team's new home in Cobb County. The Braves moved there after 51 seasons in the city of Atlanta. The Braves called Atlanta Stadium (changed to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in the mid-1970s) home from 1966-96, then played at Turner Field from 1997-2016. Both of those sites were located a short distance south of downtown Atlanta.

Compiled by staff writer David Wellham.