Atlanta Braves begin new ballpark chapter at SunTrust Park

As Chipper Jones hung out in the Atlanta Braves dugout Friday afternoon, a few hours ahead of the Braves’ first regular-season home game at their new stadium, SunTrust Park, the future Hall of Famer fielded a question about what fans might be saying as they entered the ballpark for the first time.

“I would venture a guess the word mumbled the most — maybe not even mumbled — would be ‘Wow,'” the Braves’ icon said.

“I mean, look at that video board. Look at the LED lights, the incredible green grass, this incredibly orange clay. They watch how balls fly out of here and they see the skyline and everything, and they say, ‘Wow.’ I said it. Everybody else is going to say it. …This is very impressive.”

A sold-out crowd of 41,149 attended the Braves’ first regular-season game at SunTrust Park, a 5-2 win against the San Diego Padres. But the venue, where the city meets the suburbs in Cobb County, isn’t all that’s new. Thanks to public funding and the available land around it, a community is being constructed from the ground up, taking “ballpark development” to another level.

“I’d like to welcome you to baseball’s newest gem,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said to fans during the pregame ceremony.

In addition to Jones, Braves legends Hank Aaron, Bobby Cox, Tom Glavine, Dale Murphy, Phil Niekro, John Smoltz were present. They were honored as theirs and other retired numbers were unveiled. Aaron threw out the ceremonial first pitch to Cox. A prominent fan, former President Jimmy Carter, also was in attendance.

Braves starter Julio Teheran threw the first pitch of the game, which resulted in Manuel Margot flying out to center fielder Ender Inciarte. Inciarte, who led off for Atlanta in the bottom of the first inning, had the first hit, reaching on an infield single. He’d later score the first run, as Nick Markakis drove in Inciarte and Freddie Freeman with a double. Inciarte also hit the first home run, coming in the bottom of the sixth inning. It was his third home run of the season.

“I’m not going to lie, I had a good feeling about tonight,” Inciarte, who hit three home runs all of last year, said.

The action wasn’t just limited to the field. An area geared toward children has a zip line and a climbing wall. The three-story Chop House bar was packed full of patrons, some holding beers that were aged with baseball bat wood. In the hands of many were their phones, which could help locate the nearest concession stand or bathroom.

Just another day at the ballpark in the year 2017.

“It’s just amazing what they did with this ballpark,” Inciarte said. “It’s beautiful.”

From downtown to the suburbs

No longer in downtown Atlanta, the Braves (who technically still have an Atlanta address) now are northwest of the city.

They announced they were moving to the suburbs in 2013. At the time, Braves Club President John Schuerholz said that Turner Field, where the team played from 1997 until the end of last season, needed “hundreds of millions of dollars of upgrades.” (The Braves, in their 52nd season in Atlanta, played at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium from 1966-1996.)

Around the same time, city money was allocated for another stadium in downtown Atlanta, for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and MLS club Atlanta United. That venue, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, is scheduled to open this summer.

While one stadium construction started in downtown, the Braves started their plans.

In September 2013, the franchise created Braves Real Estate Development, LLC, the real estate holding company established by and operated as a subsidiary of the team. The Braves authorized BRED to acquire various parcels of property to build the proposed stadium and mixed-use development. The funding from Cobb County was approved not by a public vote but instead by county commissioners.

The new surrounding neighborhood, still a work in progress, is called The Battery. The Braves tout that the area, which includes housing, restaurants, a live music theater and retail, as “the first of its kind — a destination that will simultaneously build and integrate a state-of-the-art Major League Baseball ballpark with a multi-use development and community.”

The stadium has earned positive reviews from Braves players.

“I think it’s a lot more intimate,” Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “When you’re out there playing, it feels like the fans are kind of right on you, which at Turner Field, it was more relaxed. They were pushed back a little bit more. It’s going to be a better experience for the fans and obviously for us too.”

Atlanta traffic worries

It may be the latest installment in the history of MLB stadiums — the Texas Rangers have announced a new stadium plan — but there are concerns.

The top issue is traffic. A recent study showed Atlanta is in the top 10 of the worst congestion in the world, and the stadium is where two of the clogged interstates, I-75 and I-285, intersect, which means the rush-hour snarl could coincide with fans trying to get to the games.

And it might be even worse than expected, with the recent fire that caused a bridge collapse on Interstate 85 a few miles away. Repairs are targeted to be completed in June.

In a slight change, the Braves are starting their weekday home games at 7:35 p.m. ET this season, rather than 7:05 p.m. ET in previous years.

But logistics aside, will the team win at its new home? The Braves haven’t reached the postseason since 2013, and they’ve gotten off to a slow start so far this season.

“The stadium can’t do it; I mean, we’ve got to do it,” infielder Dansby Swanson said. “But I think this just allows us a fresh start, so to speak. Kind of a new beginning, how we can create our own legacy together in this place.”

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Atlanta Braves' New Stadium Is a Disaster for Taxpayers and Fans

It's an economic albatross, built because of an ethically questionable deal, and fans can't even get to the stadium without playing a human version of Frogger.

The Atlanta Braves christened Major League Baseball's newest stadium on Friday night with a 5-2 victory over the San Diego Padres in front of some 41,000 fans, most of whom seemed to actually make it into the stadium despite the nightmarish traffic jams and lack of parking at Sun Trust Field.

More on that in a moment.

First, let's keep in mind that none of this would be possible without Cobb County, Georgia, taxpayers kicking in more than $400 million. More accurately, none of this would have been possible without one of Cobb County's former top government officials negotiating a secret deal with the Atlanta Braves to have taxpayers pay that amount for a new stadium, and without the rest of the Cobb County commission voting to approve the stadium deal at a supposedly public hearing where members of the public were prevented from voicing their opposition to the secretly crafted deal.

And that's really only the beginning of the story of one of the worst stadium deals in American history.

When the Braves announced plans in 2013 to relocate from downtown Atlanta to the northern suburbs of Cobb County, Georgia (closer to Marietta, Georgia, than to downtown Atlanta), some observers were surprised. After all, baseball teams had been flocking to retro-style downtown ballparks ever since the opening of Camden Yards in Baltimore in 1992. Those downtown stadiums were supposed to be revitalizing portions of inner cities in return for massive public spending on the stadiums themselves.

The Braves had one of those downtown ballparks. Turner Field began life as the main Olympic stadium for the 1996 Summer Games, and the Braves moved in the following year.

Perhaps the biggest surprise, at least at first, was that the Braves were abandoning a relatively young ballpark. A ballpark that is younger, in fact, than Miley Cyrus, as Victor Metheson, a professor of sports economics at the College of the Holy Cross, points out.

At the time, the Braves said Turner Field was in need of upgrades that would cost as much as $200 million. It was a no-brainer, then, to move into a new facility that would end up costing $650 million—with taxpayers kicking in $450 million. The real reason for the move, later uncovered by the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, was a secret deal negotiated between Cobb County Commissioner Tim Lee and the Braves, which included the promise of $400 million in public cash for a new stadium in the northern suburbs.

Team president John Schuerholz later admitted that the deal had to be in private to avoid a public backlash.

"If it had gotten out, more people would have started taking the position of, 'We don't want that to happen. We want to see how viable this was going to be,'" Schuerholz told Atlanta's NBC affiliate. "We were able to get that all done."

When the deal was made public, there was a backlash—but that wasn't enough to change anything.

Unlike in Arlington, Texas, where voters last year approved a plan to build a replacement for the Texas Rangers' current ballpark (which opened in 1994, making it also younger than Cyrus, who was born in 1992), there was no referendum on the stadium in Cobb County. In fact, opponents of the stadium plan were prevented from speaking at a public meeting before county officials voted 5-0 in favor of the deal.

After the stadium was approved, things only got worse.

To pay for the stadium, Cobb County officials cut the budget for the county's park system. Then, they raised property taxes (and taxes on hotel rooms and rental cars).

The new stadium promised to bring an economic stimulus to the surrounding area, but businesses near SunTrust Park soon found out that they would be shut out of one of the major benefits of having thousands of people descend on the area for 81 home games each season. In 2016, businesses within a mile of the stadium site were told they would be prohibited from selling their parking spaces to fans. As part of the deal signed between the team and the county, The ordinance was requested by the Braves, the Journal-Constitution reported. The team said it was about public safety, because apparently fans' vehicles will only be safe and sound if those fans pay $40 to park in a lot owned by the team.

The team eventually backed down from that position and allowed nearby businesses to offer parking to fans—but only after it became apparent that a pedestrian bridge crossing Interstate 285, connecting the stadium to several nearby parking structures, would not be finished in time for this year's grand opening. Recently, county officials admitted the $3.5 million pedestrian bridge won't be ready until next year, leaving the team with an inadequate parking situation for the entire season.

As bad as the stadium deal has been for taxpayers, there's at least a silver lining. The backroom negotiations, ethics questions, and obvious lack of economic benefit for anyone or anything in Cobb County has laid bare the false claims made by teams, owners, and leagues in favor of new publicly funded stadiums.

"The reason the Braves say they want to move is because that stadium is in such a terrible neighborhood and they say 'we want to go somewhere else where we can develop that econoniy,'" Metheson told me on this week's edition of American Radio Journal. "Well, look, the original Braves stadium has had 20 years to redevelop the neighborhood that it's in, and it has been completely unsuccessful there."

The county commissioner who engineered the whole thing ended up under investigation for ethics violations and was voted out of office in 2016. That doesn't mean that taxpayers get their money back and doesn't fix any of the lingering problems at the Braves' new home, but, hey, at least it's something.

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