The last days of Turner Field, the stadium that could have been great

Big League Stew
The sun is setting on Turner Field. (AP)
The sun is setting on Turner Field. (AP)

ATLANTA, Ga.–There’s a strange vibe at Turner Field these days that has nothing to do with the baseball-like product that the Braves are playing.

The team’s touting a countdown of the final days at its perfectly serviceable stadium while pumping up the hope and promise of next year’s home, the still-unfinished SunTrust Park, and it’s … unsettling. The most charitable view is that it’s like a high school senior walking through the halls crowing how much more awesome next year’s gonna be at college. At its worst, it’s the awkward tone-deafness of a guy singing the praises of his new girlfriend while the old one’s still in the apartment they shared for years. Either way, the Turner Field story isn’t so much a story of what was, but what could have been.

One of several stadiums built in the wake of the early-’90s New Traditionalism that Baltimore’s Camden Yards inspired, Turner Field isn’t architecturally out of date. Thirteen stadiums in baseball are older. The stadium has plenty of skybox room, a video screen large enough to be seen from orbit, and decent enough vehicle access in the transportation nightmare that is Atlanta. The key with Turner Field isn’t whose name is on the marquee (former Braves owner Ted Turner) or whose name is on the “Home” line of the scoreboard, but whose name is on the property deed: the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreational Authority.

The Braves don’t own Turner Field, and so were shedding money with every lease payment. The tale of how the Braves fled Downtown Atlanta is a story of mutual insults, nine-figure sums, hurt feelings (how could you pick the Falcons over us?), civic mismanagement, back-room dealing, and political strong-arming, a story we’ll tell another day. For now, though, the team and the stadium are in the final games of a peculiar farewell, one that doesn’t feel particularly sad and yet doesn’t feel particularly hopeful, either. It’s more of a resignation to the way local politics and professional sports work in 2016: so we’re really doing this, huh?

Part of that ennui is because the Braves, recent win streaks notwithstanding, are in the midst of a dry spell that’s as bad as anything since the brutal, one-win-a-week 1980s. The Braves aren’t expected to be any good again until at least 2018, but they’re able to wring out two seasons’ worth of fan support by leveraging the cringeworthy baseball against a ceremonial last hurrah in the old digs and an inaugural season in the new place.

Truth: as far as stadiums go, it’s not like the Braves are leaving Fenway. Asked to recall his most memorable moment at Turner Field, Braves hero-turned-coach Terry Pendleton recalls, of all things, a walkoff grand slam by Brooks Conrad from May 2010. Eddie Perez, another ex-Brave now coaching, points to the 1999 National League Championship Series, one of the few postseason series the Braves won at Turner Field, and with good reason—batting 10-for-20 over six games, Perez was named MVP of that particular tilt.

It’s telling that Freddie Freeman, the lone current Brave most Atlantans would recognize at the local Publix, points not to a game, but a celebration of the past as his Turner Field moment: Chipper Jones’ retirement weekend in 2012. “Seeing all those 10s in the stands, seeing everyone cheering for him,” Freeman said earlier this week, “that still gives me chills.”

Freeman’s the last link in a chain of Braves stars that stretches back to Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and the worst-to-first team of a quarter-century ago. He arrived in Atlanta after the party was over but before the confetti and champagne bottles had been cleaned up. He—along with Braves who were born months or years after Sid Bream’s miraculous run in the 1992 NLCS—has spent most of his time playing for a franchise that continues to recall how great it used to be around these parts: oh, you shoulda been here. It was amazing back then.

Turner Field is dotted with such memories. Start with the long line of flags commemorating every postseason appearance in Atlanta, a line of yellow punctuated with one single red: the 1995 World Championship. Wander under the stands in left field and you’ll find a wall display showing just how high Otis Nixon had to jump to catch Andy Van Slyke’s near-homer in July 1992. You can try to leap to Otis’s heights, but you won’t:

The Braves have enshrined most of the leading lights from that era in their own Hall of Fame: Smoltz, Glavine, Chipper, Greg Maddux, David Justice, Andruw Jones, Bobby Cox, John Schuerholz. The team’s museum relies heavily on those glory years, and then stops hard at 2005, the end of the run.

Look, it’s not unusual—hell, in baseball, it’s the norm—for teams to glorify their history. The Yankees thrive on a near-century’s worth of veneration, and when the current Cubs run ends, Chicago will petition the Vatican to sanctify Wrigley as holy ground. But the Braves’ stretch of success exists in the living memory of all but the youngest Atlanta fans—Nirvana’s “Nevermind” came out a month before the Braves made that initial worst-to-first run—and the sad irony now is that most of the moments the team celebrates didn’t even happen at Turner Field. That 1991 World Series against the Twins, Bream’s miracle slide, the lone World Series championship, even Otis’s aforementioned catch—that all happened across the street at the now-vanished Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. All that remains of that squat ‘60s-era saucer are lines in a parking lot marking the layout of the old diamond, and the chunk of outfield fence where Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run.

You could argue that the two most notable moments ever at Turner Field have nothing to do with the Braves. Back during the two weeks it was known as Centennial Olympic Stadium, Turner Field saw one of the most moving moments in American sports history, when Muhammad Ali lit the cauldron to start the 1996 Olympic Games. (That towering cauldron was moved two blocks up the street where it now looms over a parking lot, just another roadside attraction.)

Three years later, Jim Gray would badger Pete Rose with questions before Game 2 of the 1999 World Series, hammering Rose on his gambling in a way that would have set Twitter on fire:

The Braves? Well, they played exactly two World Series games at Turner Field, losing both. They hosted the first-ever Wild Card game in 2012, a game notable for a controversial infield-fly call; a game that marked the end of Chipper Jones’ career; a game that was, yes, another Braves loss. The Braves won 55 percent of their games at Turner Field—1,783 of them heading into Thursday night—but the years since 1995 have been defined by the losses rather than the wins.

That’s not to say Turner Field didn’t create and host memories, they just weren’t of the epic, tales-told-for-generations quality. I love the place for what it’s meant to me; I learned the craft of sportswriting there—yes, you could argue that’s reason enough to level the joint and salt the earth—and I felt my daughter first kick in her mother’s belly when the Braves rallied for a walkoff extra-innings win and the crowd around us erupted. Others across the South have similar memories, of first and last games with loved ones, of bachelor raves in one decade and family outings the next. But these are far more personal than universal.

So with the Braves into their final homestand, where does this leave Turner Field? The facility itself will be converted into a football stadium for nearby Georgia State University. The Braves’ championship flags and retired numbers will come down, and the name will surely change. Perhaps the connection to a college within walking distance will give the area around Turner Field the economic boost it couldn’t ever achieve with the Braves, and their farther-flung fanbase, in residence. Perhaps.

The Georgia sun has bleached the edges of the once deep blue seats nearly white, and banners commemorating Aaron’s 715th and the Braves’ run of postseasons are fraying. Atlanta had a tremendous run of success here, but so much more went unfulfilled. Whether you see a stadium as half-full or half-empty, it’s still only at half-capacity. Turner Field was the first-apartment-after-college of baseball stadiums, not distinctive enough to warrant staying, not nostalgic enough to inspire poetry, an in-town rental that served its purpose well enough until the Braves could snag a place of their own out in the suburbs.

“We had some really good times here,” Perez said, looking out over the late-afternoon infield during batting practice earlier this week. “It’s not going to sink in until Sunday, but then it’s going to be pretty sad.”

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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