Braves fan asks: Is it still my team?
With the move to Cobb, some fans struggle with change
Photo: Ed Thomas (right) and his friend Sam Halberson share a smile as they watch batting practice before Atlanta Braves home game against the San Francisco Giants.
At a twilight ballgame under glowering skies, Ed Thomas looked over the Braves outfield, as he has for 25 years, and began shelling peanuts.
He noted with doleful certainty that the thin two-run advantage the Atlanta Braves carved out in the first inning would disappear with the setting sun as the Milwaukee Brewers came alive.
Ah, but there was good news, too. When a visitor worried about being beaned with a fly ball, Thomas, 58, waved away concern.
“We’re safe here,” he said. “Especially when the Braves are at bat.”
The miserable start to their 2016 season (nine losses in a row!) made the Braves prey to more such jibes lately. This kind of affectionate abuse is part of the compact between a baseball team and the city that claims them. They may be bums, but they're our bums.
Yet this year, the Braves tested the ballclub/fan relationship to its core, with their move to Cobb County just around the corner.
A tale of two fans
How you reacted to news of the move, which will take place with the 2017 season, depended largely on where you live.
Consider 32-year-old Braves fan Matthew Woods.
In 1991, when the Decatur native was 7, Braves baseball took over his life.
Matthew watched with delight as the Braves rose improbably out of the National League basement, and into the top of the division.
The youngster watched on television, went to games with his parents, and insisted that he be allowed to wear his own homemade Braves uniforms. Every day. At home. At school. At church. In bed.
He began pitching in recreation league baseball. He excelled, and played college ball at the University of the South. After graduation, Braves baseball became a major way to hang with his buddies: They would meet and tailgate at one friend’s house in Peoplestown, then walk to Turner Field to catch the Braves.
But things have changed. “I haven’t been to a game this year,” said Woods, a consultant for a financial software company. “I did not go to one game last year. There were sour feelings … I thought they were abandoning the city.”
Photo: Braves fans Ed Thomas (left) and his friend Sam Halberson share a laugh as they watch batting practice before Atlanta Braves home game against the San Francisco Giants.
Contrast Woods’ reaction with that of Ed Thomas.
Thomas, who manages his family’s warehouses and commercial real estate in Marietta, began going to games as a teenager. He bought season tickets in 1992, and has held them ever since, going to 15 to 20 games a year.
When he found out that the Braves were building a new stadium a few miles from his home, he was practically delirious with joy. “I felt like I did the day that it was announced that Atlanta had won the Olympics. I thought, ‘Wow! The best sporting event in the world is coming to Atlanta in 1996.’ And now the Braves are going to be in my backyard. I probably will be able to see fireworks from my house.”
Photo: Braves fans Al Wansky and his daughter Skyler, 12, cheer during Braves home game against the San Francisco Giants.
How far will fans go?
Two decades of Braves fans made their spiritual home at Turner Field. They saw romances bloom, friendships form.
Parents found common ground with their children. They saw the team win nine of its 14 consecutive division titles.
Now a new generation of fans is waiting in Marietta for the new Braves stadium. While old fans grumble in Atlanta, new ones thrill in anticipation. Is this move a betrayal, or the beginning of a beautiful friendship?
“I don’t know if it was the best move, politically,” said Al Wansky, a program manager at Intercontinental Exchange, “but personally, it’s 2 1/2 miles from my office. I’ve already bought a separate bicycle I can ride to the games from the office when it’s too hot to walk.”
Wansky and his daughter Skyler, who were at a recent Braves game against the San Francisco Giants, have watched SunTrust Park rise up in their neighborhood. “The new stadium looks great,” said Skyler, 12, as the Braves proceeded to lose again. “I can’t say the same thing about the Braves.”
Many intown fans shudder at the prospect of traffic jams in the already-congested super-intersection of I-75 and I-285.
“They’ve gotten themselves a major league team, but they’ve also gotten themselves a major league traffic jam,” said longtime fan Nelson Ross, 61, of DeKalb County, who doubts he’ll visit the Cobb park.
Nobody’s commute was messed up worse than that of Sister Marian, a Hawthorne Dominican nun who serves the terminally ill residents at Our Lady of Perpetual Help home.
The home is literally across Bill Lucas Street from Turner Field. From their open windows, the nuns and residents can hear the crowd at Turner Field doing the tomahawk chant. Atlanta Braves games are a 60-second walk from Sister Marian’s yard.
Sister Marian is the consummate fan. She had, at one time, a Braves “shrine” in her room, packed with the memorabilia of a lifetime, until 2003, when she was transferred north (she returned last October), and gave many of her keepsakes away. She frequently wears a baseball-themed apron over her habit, and once had a parakeet named Tommy Hawk who could say “Go Braves!”
She’s extremely unhappy about the move. It will mean she will need a car to get to games, and that will have to happen on days off.
But she will never give up on the Atlanta Braves.
“I am so true blue,” she said recently, before the Braves battled the Giants, and won. “Every year, they say to me, ‘What do you think? How do you think they’re going to do?’ And every year I say, ‘They’re going to the World Series!’
“I never give up. I never give up.”
‘Through thick and thin’
While Thomas shelled peanuts, Jeremy Chin, 26, stood by the concessions stands up behind Section 201, cheering Tyler Flowers’ two-run homer. A resident of Sydney, Australia, Chin agreed to come to Dallas to attend a friend’s wedding on the condition that he get to make a side trip to Atlanta to catch some Braves games.
“I’ve just always been a fan, since 1995,” Chin said. The young Ozzie demonstrates the fact that Braves fans can be found in every corner of the globe, due in part to the worldwide reach of Ted Turner’s Superstation, which broadcast games until 2007.
Photo: Mary Snelson and Tyler Dodd are both big Braves fans and they decided to tie the knot at a ball game. They had to wait until a non-game day, however, to get a photo on the field. Photo by Drew Stawin
This is one reason the Atlanta Braves, despite their recent blunders, have worked their way into the hearts of many, including couples who get married at the ballpark, of which there are about 10 or 20 every year. “I’m a fan, but she’s a fanatic,” said Tyler Dodd, 49, of Marietta, whose first date with Mary Snelson was at Turner Field. Mary wore a strapless white wedding dress when she and Tyler were married by a magistrate court judge on May 2, 2015, in the 755 Club. That evening, the Braves fought a losing battle with the Cincinnati Reds on the field below. (The Reds won, 8-4.)
This may be part of the reason that many intown fans, though they may be disgusted with the Braves’ exit, aren’t going to stop watching. Or criticizing. Woods said he will eventually go to another game — even way up in Cobb County. “I’m still a big fan, for better or for worse,” he said, “and it’s a lot worse this year.”
That most far-flung fan, Chin, agrees. A bad season won’t turn him away. “Nevah,” Chin said. “You’ve got to support the home team, through thick and thin.”
The Home Team
This is the third in a series of articles looking at Turner Field in its final season and those affected by the Braves’ move to Cobb County next season.
Coming later this season
A look back at the legacy of Turner Field beyond the Braves
Behind-the-scenes look at ballpark cuisine and the folks who serve it.