Gwinnett Braves have become quite the draw

It's early in the Gwinnett Braves inaugural season, but one thing is already certain. The Braves are not in Richmond anymore.

Gwinnett opened a sparkling new stadium, a modern Roman Coliseum compared to the stadium in Richmond. Sure it was named The Diamond, but a lump of coal was more accurate.

So the Atlanta Braves moved their Class AAA affiliate closer to home. Looks like a good move. In 23 home dates through Monday, the G-Braves have drawn 136,494 fans, an 82 percent increase over last year, and they've had three crowds of over 10,000.

"We don't go into a season with expectations," general manager Bruce Baldwin said. "We've gone over 100,000 people so far. I'd day that's pretty doggone good."

Through Monday, the G-Braves averaged 5,934 per game. That figure ranks eighth in the 14-team International League, and the total attendance of 136,494 ranks sixth. With schools in Gwinnett County just beginning summer vacation, those numbers figured to improve.

"The weekend crowds, even the Sunday crowds, have been great," said catcher Clint Sammons, who went to Parkview High School in Gwinnett. "There are a lot of Atlanta Braves fans in this area, and there should be. People can come here and catch a game. It's a little bit cheaper. As long as we keep winning, people will come out, and it will be a great thing for us."

By comparison, in the first 23 home dates last season in Richmond, the Braves drew a total attendance of only 74,874, an average of 3,255 per game.

Baldwin emphasizes the fan experience. The fans have taken to it.

"It's a wonderful family environment," said Chip Carter, a season-ticket holder. "For me, it's the atmosphere and the logistics. The thing that's most impressive to me is that everyone makes an effort to make you feel at home."

Carter attended Thursday's game against Toledo with his son, Will. The 6-year-old held tightly a baseball given to him by a player. He would later serve as junior umpire of the game. His chore: to brush off home plate.

Josh Gaze was back for his second game with his five-year-old son, Brandon, who was also chosen to be a junior umpire at his first G-Braves game. His duties included running a bottle of water to the umpire between innings.

Then there is Chopper, the mascot. Everybody loves a mascot.

"It's a very family-oriented atmosphere," said Earl Bryant of Walton County. "It's a whole lot easier to come here [than Turner Field]."

All is not perfect. Some mention that fans cannot bring their own food items into the stadium and the price of concessions as negatives.

"I think it would be silly for me to suggest that every single e-mail or phone call we get are 100 percent happy," Baldwin said. "But I would say that 97 percent of everything we receive has been remarkably positive. If that's the benchmark of what we have to build on, that's really good."

Part of the appeal of minor-league baseball is that one day some of those players will make it to the majors. You know, "I saw them when ..."

It works for the players, too.

"People are going to get a chance to easily see guys here, and when they move to Atlanta, I think it will make it better," said Sammons, who spent time on the major-league roster when Brian McCann was on the disabled list.

"As guys start moving to Atlanta, people can look back and say 'Well, I saw him play in Gwinnett.' Even if they want to see them now, they can just drive 40 miles and go see them. People get a new perspective on it. As a player, in Richmond you're close to getting [to the majors] but you're miles and miles away."

Yes, you're not in Richmond anymore.