“I thought we’d be an 80-win team. If everything broke right they’d win 83, 84 games. I you had told me when the season started that in six months you’re going to be standing here under that sign that says ‘Game Three NLDS tonight,’ as much as would have wanted to believe it, I couldn’t have.”
The baseball postseason experience in Atlanta was fully re-packaged and re-branded Sunday, when the playoffs landed for the first time, perhaps a bit ahead of schedule, at the Braves’ two-year-old SunTrust Park.
» Photos: New postseason food options at SunTrust Park
The team was on the ropes, having lost the first two games of a best-of-five NLDS series in Los Angeles. More than lost, the Braves didn’t score in either game out west. A deafening offensive silence had marked their return to the postseason after a five-year absence.
That silence was broken with a tense 6-5 Braves victory late Sunday night.
There were going to be some memories being made quite unlike any other around here, both for the baseball and the setting.
There was the virtual guarantee of a different kind of playoff vibe here in the house on the Cobb County line, where, since moving out of downtown, the Braves have established themselves as a thriving real estate company and a somewhat promising baseball enterprise.
Old Fulton County Stadium and Turner Field were urban islands of baseball. SunTrust Park is all about the mixed use. Restaurants, bars, new apartments, hotels ring the place. The playoffs represented a heightened opportunity to show off the relatively new digs, as near to a second opening night as any ballpark could have.
Team execs puffed out their chests, proud of all the options and entertainment they had built into the baseball experience.
“We’re obviously putting out a lot of effort to make this (playoff debut) as important as we think it is,” Braves chairman Terry McGuirk said in advance of the National League Division Series. “This is part of the payoff for moving for our fans. Everybody would love to come down to a big game at Turner Field, but there was nothing around there. You had to get inside the stadium to feel comfortable and to enjoy anything. This is the payoff here: You come early, stay late, lots of entertainment, food, for kids and adults. Just something for everybody.”
Businessmen keenly anticipated the impact of an extended season and a shot of playoff energy.
“The Battery is ticking up,” said Kevin Blond, general manager of the El Felix restaurant in The Battery. “I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say last year you were a little bit nervous. The Braves weren’t doing so hot, not as many restaurants open, the residential space was still under construction. Now it’s one of those things where we’re pinching ourselves we’re so lucky. The Braves games are just kind of a bonus.”
And the fans, especially those with experience at the former downtown parks back when the Braves were a postseason staple, were getting accustomed to baseball with a lot of sides.
“It wasn’t as much fun at Turner,” said Rich West, a Paulding County fan of such intensity that his Twitter handle is @bravesninja. He was out tailgating with his like-minded friend, Ellis. “Turner was a nice ballpark. It was fun to go sit in the ballpark and watch the game. But other than that, that’s all you were doing.”
“This is more than just going to a baseball game. You don’t just get out of your car and go to the baseball stadium. Here, you could be here all day long before the game even starts and have a good time,” said Smyrna’s James, the dad who was soft-tossing to his kids.
The new park and its playoff debut was a tourist draw, as well. The crowd strolling The Battery’s streets of commerce was an eclectic mix.
Remember little Bryce Young, playing in the fountain? His folks brought him here from Birmingham, the family just wanting to absorb the new experience of SunTrust Park in October. They didn’t have tickets to the game – the scene is what mattered more. “We come to Atlanta all the time,” said Young’s mother, Minerva. “We’ve done the zoo. We’ve done the aquarium. When I knew the playoffs happening, we had to do it.”
Bending an elbow at one of the outdoor bars was Dave Gilbert, a Braves fan from upstate New York. Sitting outside waiting to get in a burger joint were Joe and Shannon Kacik, displaced Dodgers fans from Virginia Beach. They arose before the sun to make the nine-hour drive to the ballpark.
And seemed pleased with their choice. “This is great. In L.A. you don’t get this. (Dodger Stadium) is in the middle of a parking lot. For us, it’s really nice. It’s an event, a happening,” Shannon said.
But then she had to add: “Unfortunately, the Braves don’t get to the playoffs every year like we do.”
The Braves had nothing going for them at Dodger Stadium in the first two games of this series. They had everything going for them to begin Game 3.
They imported cornerstones of team history to perform certain pre-game functions. Henry Aaron proclaimed, “Play Ball.” Chipper Jones threw out the first pitch. And a SunTrust record crowd of 42,385 stood and loudly cheered as the home team was introduced. An almost new ballpark had a fresh new energy.
“I think this is going to be the culmination of a lot of good feelings,” McGuirk predicted. “I see the community really coming together.”
“We want to show off our shiny new home and everybody have a great time,” he said.
And it turns out the only thing better than a first playoff game at SunTrust is a second playoff game there. With the Braves help, that happens late afternoon Monday.