X

Every game they play in 2020 is a gift. It may not seem that way some nights. But that goes for each time the Braves take the field. Be it a 14-5 loss to Tampa Bay Monday inside a silly concrete mushroom that passes for a ballpark in Florida. Or the Braves 7-4 win over the same Rays team in the deserted home opener at Truist Park Wednesday.

Admittedly, as gifts go, Wednesday’s was far more in the bottle of single malt class, as opposed to Monday’s three-pack of white crew socks

Freddie Freeman, 0-for-4 with four strikeouts the night before, was 4-for-5 Wednesday, with a home run. The Braves had a lead, lost a lead and seized it back emphatically with five runs after the fifth inning. They went to 10-2 in their last dozen home openers. They won a Mike Soroka start, something that simply can’t be wasted considering the shallowness of what’s behind him. And here with already 10% of a shortened season done, they moved back to .500, at a solid if unspectacular 3-3.

How good was Wednesday? While teams dread daily which player the next coronavirus test will cost them, the Braves got one player back. Centerfielder Nick Markakis, who had opted out on July 6 over health concerns, returned to the team. Seems not playing was more detrimental to his well-being than playing.

Glory be, there would be at least one more night of baseball. That is all we are guaranteed as our games are as day-to-day now as any ailing athlete has ever been.

At least we made it this far, to the Braves home opener Wednesday, albeit one that bore hollow resemblance to other such celebrations of the past.

And when they play baseball, some will just be powerfully drawn to it. Some people are honeybees and baseball the sunflower.

It wasn’t just Markakis who couldn’t stay away. Three hours before game time Smyrna’s Kristen Peebles and her 7-year-old son Finley were setting up chairs on an artificial grass lawn just beyond Truist Park’s rightfield gate.

“Even if we’re just small voices out here, I wanted to come,” Kristen said, preparing to cheer or to agonize over what was going to be shown on The Battery’s big screen.

Finley tossed a baseball to himself, two gloves at his feet awaiting his father’s arrival. Another collection of boys played Wiffleball on the lawn. An idyllic scene, so long as others kept their distance. That would be the concern as game time drew closer. “I do have faith in people doing the right thing,” Kristen said.

Did we mention that some baseball people are also rosy optimists?

On his 32nd birthday, Tyrone’s Kyle Johns didn’t want to be anywhere else other than just the general vicinity of a Braves game. “Baseball is back, and I just want to be as close as possible,” he said as he roamed the Battery with his wife Danielle and friend Kelley Queen.

They could look up and see a few fellow fans already taking up their perch on the Omni Hotel balconies that overlook centerfield, costly seats but the only ones offering any kind of live look-in on the Braves now that fans are banned from the park. Desperation is an innkeeper’s best friend.

The Braves manager noticed and appreciated the distant following even during intrasquad games the Braves played in advance of the restart of the season. And Brian Snitker just knew there’d be a sizeable crowd congregating around the Battery even if none of them had a hope of visiting the ballpark itself.

“I feel like we have fans because we have them out there,” Brian Snitker said.

When the Peebles family showed up for the Braves home opener last season, everything was different. For one thing, it was April 1, not here in the dying days of July.

They enjoyed a pregame parade of players who pressed up close to the fans on their way to the game. Such a thing is unthinkable now.

And the gates weren’t locked then. They were welcomed in along with more than 41,000 others to take in what was an 8-0 victory over the Chicago Cubs. The Braves have made a habit of making the most of their home openers, winning nine of their last 11.

No human bodies or live voices inside Truist Park Wednesday. As other teams have done, the Braves put up 1,400 cardboard cutouts in the seats ringing home plate. They featured the likenesses of fans and of Braves family members. “I saw my grandkids out there,” Snitker said proudly, hours before first pitch.

Baseball is just like everyone else now, trying to make the best of a ghastly time.

Fitting of an opening night, they dressed up Truist Park in red, white and blue bunting, decorating empty sections all around the park.

Following the pre-recorded National Anthem, a fighter jet flyover rattled the bones of the Braves smallest crowd ever. A crowd of none.

As well as they possibly could with celebration in such short supply these days, the Braves wrapped the gift of one more game.

About the Author

ajc.com