Spring’s arrival most timely for Atlanta sports landscape

Braves manager Brian Snitker (right) shares a smile with minor-league coordinator Chris Antariksa during spring training workouts at CoolToday Park, Friday, Feb. 16, 2024, in North Port, Florida. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



Braves manager Brian Snitker (right) shares a smile with minor-league coordinator Chris Antariksa during spring training workouts at CoolToday Park, Friday, Feb. 16, 2024, in North Port, Florida. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

The Braves’ World Series dreams crashed, then burned. With hopes of a playoff berth, the Falcons instead offered their fans another losing season and then a coaching change. With anticipation for a step forward, the Hawks thus far have retreated.

In short, the fall and winter were kind of a dud for professional sports in Atlanta.

In February, we turn again to the Braves and Atlanta United, wondering if they can be worthy vessels of hope and obsession. The process of discovery takes significant steps next weekend, which will bring a happy confluence of sporting events for the local populace.

They are a sign of spring, like the first sighting of a robin or your car getting coated in tree pollen.

That Saturday, the Braves will play their first game of spring training, traveling a few miles from their North Port, Florida, complex for their exhibition-season opener with the Tampa Bay Rays.

On the same day, about 900 miles to the north, Atlanta United will begin their regular season at the Columbus Crew, the defending MLS champions.

And to round out the schedule, the next day NASCAR will stop in town at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton for the Ambetter Health 400.

That promises to be an A-plus weekend for the A – Acuña (Ronald, the reigning National League MVP), Almada (Thiago, Atlanta United’s brilliant midfielder) and … axles (front and rear, the connectors of wheels).

Atlanta United will begin their eighth season, the 2018 MLS champions aspiring for more than the good-not-great seasons that have become their habit in recent years. A lineup that was bolstered in the offseason has lent reason for optimism.

“It seems like they’ve done a good job of retooling, so really hopeful that we’ll be back to the upper echelon of the league,” said Brian Stone, an Atlanta United fan from Johns Creek.

A season-ticket holder since the club’s inception, Stone and his son Justin will be among the Five Stripes supporters in Columbus, Ohio, continuing Justin’s quest to watch their team play in every stadium in the league.

“It’s going to take us a while,” the elder Stone said.

Braves pitchers and catchers assembled at their spring training home this past week. Position players are due Monday. Reports emanating from spring training speak of a clubhouse of players intent on redeeming themselves from consecutive early exits in the postseason. Reliever A.J. Minter boldly offered a mantra for the season ahead: “World Series or bust.”

That was many degrees bolder than what the Hawks’ slogan appears to be: “Playoffs or, possibly, not the playoffs.”

After a month of rehearsals and roster-shaping, the Braves will begin the season for real in Philadelphia on March 28. The 162-game march starts where the 2023 season breathed its last. (Braves fans presumably remember, with some dismay, falling short to the Phillies before their boisterous crowds.)

The final event on the weekend agenda, the 400-mile stock-car race on the 1.5-mile AMS track, is the first of two NASCAR visits this year, the latter coming in September.

We’ll yield the floor to a most passionate NASCAR fan and AMS regular. Since 1992, Brandon Bain of Savannah has camped out in an RV on the race-track infield with family and friends, arriving on Thursday before race weekends and returning home Monday.

He has become a part of a community (Bain calls it a family) of perhaps 25 to 30 race fans that calls itself the “Turn 2 Crew,” sharing beer, laughs and trash talk.

“We cook really good, we drink really good and we love rooting on our NASCAR,” Bain said.

At a race about 10 years ago, he created the character of “Atlanta Man,” tying an AMS flag around his neck like a cape. (It probably does not need to be clarified that Bain birthed Atlanta Man while in a state of inebriation and also that Bain has a podcast, “Rubbin’ and Grubbin.’”)

“It’s just like a persona – put it on and go up and root the cars on really hard, yell and scream at ‘em on top of the RV for 400, 500 miles,” Bain said.

The poetry of Emily Dickinson observed that “A little Madness in the Spring/Is wholesome even for the King.”

She might find it wholesome, too, for Atlanta Man and his state’s sports-hungry masses.

Said Bain, “I’m already set on ‘go,’ bud.”

Verily so.