Atlanta gets burned again

First the Astrodome—and now Turner Field! The first was foreseeable, the second was not.

The Astrodome, of course, was a white elephant. Sure, it had historic significance, but it was just sitting there empty. The voters turned down a bond issue to fix it up for some nebulous future, so now it will be torn down.

Personally, I’d like to see it continue to moulder away so tourists two millennia from now could visit the ruins, just as visitors to Rome wander around the Colosseum today. But I guess that isn’t an option. Houston has plenty of urban blight but doesn’t want it next to Reliant Stadium.

But Turner Field? It originally was built for the 1996 Olympics but designed so it could be renovated for baseball in 1997. It’s hardly a relic. And while not as historic as the Astrodome, the 2000 All-Star Game was played there, and the Braves played quite a few postseason games at Turner Field, too, including the 1999 World Series.

I guess it will go down in ballpark history as the first post-Camden Yards park to be deep-sixed. Well, there’s a first time for everything, but in this case, I didn’t figure it would happen till much later in the 21st century, and probably not in my lifetime. (Full disclosure: I will be 64 in February.)

Actually, most Olympic facilities have a short shelf life. It’s so expensive to build all the venues necessary for a modern Olympics that a lot of cities have dropped out of the running. Yes, it focuses attention on your city; yes, the whole world is watching; yes, it is a real boost to civic pride … but damn, it costs a bundle!

At the time, Atlanta’s plans to host the Olympics made sense. With the Braves first home, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, right next door to the new Centennial Olympic Stadium, there was plenty of room in one location to hold outdoor events. The relatively new (1992) Georgia Dome wasn’t that far away, either.

After the Olympics, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was superfluous (the Atlanta Falcons, who had shared the facility with the Braves, had moved to the Georgia Dome), so it was razed while Centennial Olympic Stadium, renamed Turner Field (sometimes referred as The Ted by locals), was downsized (about 35,000 seats were removed) and renovated for baseball. Technically, it was baseball-only, but it had not been designed as such.

Turner Field was a big upgrade over Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, but it didn’t receive the reverent reviews the other post-Camden Yards ballparks got.

My experience at Turner Field is limited to two games. I was there (along with 52,000-plus others) on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, 2003, for the first two Division Series games against the Cubs (this was just before the infamous Steve Bartman incident in the next round of playoffs).

Granted, it was crowded, and I was there only twice, but if I didn’t know better, I would never have guessed the place wasn’t originally designed to be baseball-only. Perhaps additional visits under less-crowded conditions would have uncovered flaws.

When the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was ready and waiting. So the Braves have been playing in the same location, if not the same facility, since they first hit town. In fact, the last year on their current lease will be their 50th anniversary year. Due to the move, I’m guessing the Braves will be soft-pedaling that milestone. Imagine a couple celebrating their golden wedding anniversary while their divorce is pending.

Like any other structure, a ballpark has a useful life, and unless constant attention is paid, it deteriorates. The other classic ballparks of the early 20th century were not so fortunate as Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. The multi-purpose stadiums that replaced them had plenty of parking and were structurally sound, but they were denounced as hopelessly sterile, so they too were replaced.

So now it seems we’ve reached a point where an existing ballpark, though not outmoded, is adjudged less than ideal, and that’s reason enough to move—if you can find another location willing to cut you a good deal.

It’s not unlike home ownership. Your place of abode may be perfectly adequate, but you can’t help but notice that other folks—no better than you—are living larger. So you move up … to more square footage, a ritzier zip code, a tonier neighborhood, a better school district, or whatever.

But as nice as your home may be, it’s still not your dream home, so you abandon home sweet home for home sweeter home. That’s the American way, and, like it or not, keeping up with—and hopefully surpassing—the Joneses drives the economy. After all, tearing down old ballparks and building new ones creates jobs!

But is it really all just about the money? By the end of the 2016 season, the Braves will have fulfilled their lease, and then they are free to go. So they owe the City of Atlanta nothing—at least, not in a legal or financial sense. What they owe the city beyond that is a matter of opinion.

And what about Cobb County, the home of the new stadium? Is it so flush with cash that it can embark on such a major undertaking? I thought times were hard and money was tight. Not that anyone asked them, but would the citizens of Cobb County rather put the money to some other use? Of course, if you’re a Braves fan, you won’t have so far to drive to see them play. If you’re not a Braves fan, then you face the prospect of traffic jams 81 times a year from April through September.

Today, the suburbs often have more clout than the city they surround. Atlanta, for example, had a population of around 443,775 in 2012. The Cobb County population, as of 2010, was 688,078. Atlanta may be the biggest city in Georgia, and Fulton County, which encompasses most of Atlanta, has more people than Cobb County, but Fulton County has more poor people.

And therein lies the rub. The money to update Turner Field just wasn’t there. So the Braves will no longer be there, either. Cobb County has more discretionary income.

After the move, the Braves will be in the northwest suburbs of Atlanta while their Triple-A team (the Gwinnett Braves) is in the northeast suburbs. Their Single-A affiliate, the Rome Braves, ise only about 50 miles away. So there will be three teams wearing Braves uniforms in northwest Georgia, yet the biggest city in the region will have no professional baseball! Maybe the Atlantic League or some other independent minor league will move in.

I’m guessing that the day after the Braves announced their move, a lot of other cities took another look at their stadium leases to see how much longer before they expired. If the Braves can go renegade, then what’s to keep any other team from doing the same?

Will other teams say to their hometowns, hey, if you don’t spend $XXX million to fix the joint up, we’re out of here? In such a situation, the team has all the leverage—if it has a place to go. No city wants to be stuck with a vacant ballpark. A stadium lease is not like a lease at a suburban strip center. You can’t just advertise for another tenant and sit back and wait for the phone to ring.

Unlike Houston, the City of Atlanta did not wait to pull the trigger on its (white) elephant gun. The city already has announced that Turner Field is coming down after the 2016 season so the land can be developed for housing. I hope Braves fans will refrain from taking away souvenirs of The Ted until then.

So is the Atlanta situation an anomaly, or the advance guard of another round of ballpark building? The Cubs threatened to move if they didn’t get what they wanted from Chicago. And one hears rumors of the Angels flying away from Anaheim and actually returning to Los Angeles. But who knows? I’d never heard anything about the Braves pulling up stakes, and now it’s a done deal.

Note that the Braves are moving from the city to the suburbs. That goes against the grain. Since Camden Yards, downtown ballparks have been all the rage (Cincinnati, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Seattle, St. Louis).

Most of the other new parks, though not downtown, are within the city limits (Miami, Milwaukee, both New York parks, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington). The Rangers are a special case, as their ballpark, albeit suburban, is midway between Dallas and Fort Worth.

Perhaps some day Rangers management will have a change of heart and decide the team would really rather be in one of the booming suburbs north of DFW airport. Maybe the White Sox will succumb to the blandishments of some ambitious suburb and decide that, yeah, U.S. Cellular Field is okay, but 35th Street on the South Side really isn’t the greatest location for a ballpark, even though it’s been the home of the Sox for more than a century.

Of course, every move brings up questions as to what will be moved and what will be trashed. I’m guessing the Turner Field statues of Phil Niekro, Henry Aaron and Ty Cobb will all make the move with the team. Same goes for the contents of the Braves Hall of Fame and Museum. The giant Chick-Fil-A cow likely would be more than happy to moooooooove to greener pastures.

As for the giant Coke bottle … the Braves could take that along or return it for deposit. Given the fact that Cobb’s longtime involvement with Coca-Cola made him wealthy, I’m thinking his statute and the Coke bottle should be positioned together. Hey, Ty, have a Coke and a snarl!

I suppose Scout’s Alley on the main concourse will not be recreated. This is a unique feature that doesn’t deserve to go down with Turner Field. It consists of enormous blowups of scouting reports on well-known Braves players. Of course, this type of paperwork is not normally available to the general public, so it is interesting to see what the scouts thought—rightly or wrongly—about the young players the Braves had signed long after they matured.

Hank Aaron Drive, however, cannot be moved. That name may remain, or the street may revert to Capitol Avenue. Certainly Hank Aaron Drive could be incorporated into the infrastrucure surrounding the new ballpark. So far removed from his 1974 record-breaking achievement, however, it isn’t quite the same.

That brings up another topic. Normally, one wouldn’t wonder about the fate of the stadium parking lot, but in this case, it is a bit more than 8,500 parking spaces. The diamond and the outline of the field of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium are outlined on the parking lot. The section of outfield fence cleared by Aaron’s historic 715th home run is still there.

Even though Barry Bonds has eclipsed Aaron as the home run king, I’ve got to believe a lot of seamheads still will want to visit this site, just as visitors to Pittsburgh make pilgrimages to the spot where Bill Mazeroski’s historic 1960 home run went over the wall at Forbes Field. I wouldn’t expect the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium outline to make the cut, but I suspect the tribute to Aaron will survive.

The Cobb County ballpark surely will attract big crowds. When the Braves first opened Turner Field, they were among the biggest draws in the majors, averaging around 40,000 fans for the first few years. Over the last decade, the average crowd has been 30,000, give or take. A lot of teams would take that and run with it, but the Braves think they can do better.

Considering they won their division handily in 2013 and averaged only 31,465 (13th in in the majors) attendees, they have a point. By contrast, the Tigers, who also won their division, drew more than three million fans and played to 92.3 percent capacity—in the most economically depressed metro area in the country.

The Braves’ total attendance and stadium capacity in 2013 was about the same as Rogers Centre in Toronto—and the Blue Jays finished last in their division.

The Braves’ strategy seems to center on making it easier for suburbanites to get to the ballpark. I’m sure they’ve done marketing studies and know just where their fans are coming from. Given a large metropolitan area, and as the only major league team in the southeast (aside from the Florida peninsula), the Braves are justified in thinking their attendance should be better.

Ironic, ain’t it? The A’s and Rays, badly in need of new digs, can’t find new homes after years of hunting. The Braves, after just 17 seasons in Turner Field, have no problem putting together a deal for a new home.

Meanwhile, somebody needs to call the Braves’ webmaster. Their web site still describes Turner Field as “An Atlanta landmark and the benchmark for future baseball park design.” If you’re interested, they’re still taking reservations for stadium tours.

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Comments

  1. Marc Schneider said...

    The problem the Braves have had in Turner Field is a lack of public transit to get to the park.  Atlanta is a very spread out-some might say segregated-city, with affluent suburbs to the north.  Turner Field is located in the inner city and, without reliable public transport (and, perhaps some trepidation about going into the city), people from those suburbs were simply not going to the games, especially during the week. And, realistically, the draw from the surrounding neighborhoods was pretty nil.

    That’s not to say that spending public dollars on ballparks is a good way to spend taxes.  But I have less trouble with an affluent suburb doing it than a less-affluent inner city. (Although it’s likely that the officials in Cobb County will find a way to do this without going through that nuisance called democracy.) I think the City of Atlanta made a smart move in not trying to throw away money to keep the Braves in the city limits.  I think the idea that cities need sports teams to be real cities is fairly pernicious; what these cities need is investment in infrastructure and education.  Sports teams don’t help that; at best, new stadiums lead to development of bars and restaurants that largely benefit suburbanites coming into the city.  If the team is in the suburbs where the fans are, so what?  I doubt that the inner-city residents of Atlanta are going to mourn the loss of the Braves.

    As for the Braves, they are, like any business, looking to make more money.  There is no point pretending they are a charitable civic endeavor. But they should be held to account like any business and not be given tax subsidies as if they are an altruistic organization.

  2. Jason S. said...

    The supposed “lack of public transport” is somewhat misleading.  There is indeed public transport to the stadium, but it’s buses only. 

    In my opinion MARTA (the local public transportation system) has not been particularly well managed, ever, so it’s no surprise that they never saw any value in building the trains out to the stadium, but now that the Braves are leaving, it looks like through sloth and laziness they actually made a wise decision.

  3. Johnston said...

    Atlanta did this to themselves. There’s no easy way to get to the Ted; MARTA should have a stop there and does not. The city was supposed to develop around the Ted and did not. Then there’s the very real crime and safety issues around the Ted, which the city did nothing about either. I have family in Atlanta, and the city’s failures made them stop going to Braves games. Goodbye Atlanta, and good riddance.

  4. John C said...

    Atlanta should just call up the Rays and A’s and invite one of them to move into Turner Field and make Atlanta a two-team, two-league city. With more than six million people just in metro Atlanta, they could support two teams there. Heck, even the Braves have to know that, which is why they moved their AAA team into the area.

    And yes, I know that the Braves would raise holy hell like the Giants are doing to keep the A’s out of San Jose right now, but maybe baseball can get a real Commissioner by 2016 who will act in the best interests of the game.

  5. Marc Schneider said...

    With all due respect, I am always amazed when people talking about baseball getting “a real Commissioner . . . who will act in the best interests of the game.”  By that, I assume you mean someone who will consider the interests of the players and fans on the same level as the owners.  Well, guess what, it’s not going to happen, any more than the ExxonMobil Board of Directors will elect a Chairman who is more concerned about the welfare of the employees and gasoline customers than he is that of the shareholders.

    MLB, NFL, NHL, NBA are really nothing but large corporations with 30 or so shareholders (i.e., the owners).  These shareholders select a person who is, in effect, the CEO of the corporation. They call that person a “Commissioner” because baseball gave that title to Kennesaw Mountain Landis in the 20s when the sport was reeling from the Black Sox scandal.  It was intended to convery a message of impartiality and concern with the overall welfare of the sport.  But it was nonsense then and its nonsense now.  I guarantee that Selig has done exactly what he was expected to do-increase the profitability of major league baseball.  That’s what the shareholders care about.  Corporations worry about the interests of their employees and customers only to the extent that those interests affect the profitability of the corporation.  That’s exactly what the Commissioner of baseball or any sport does. Yes, a Commissioner may, on occasion take an action against a specific owner-e.g., Frank McCourt, if that owner’s action threatens the interests of the other teams.  But the idea that a Commissioner is going to take actions that run counter to the interests of the owners simply because of some abstract concept of the “best interests of the game” is sort of beyond naive.

    Just who do you think MLB will hire in 2016 to “act in the best interests of the game?” And how much imput do you think players and fans will have in the decision?  Sports fans need to grow up a little.  Professional sports is a business; the problem is they are also monopolies and, therefore, can operate without any real constraint on their actions.  If you think MLB will ever select someone whose role is simply to act in the best interests of the game, I have some oceanfront property in Nebraska to sell you.

  6. Dave Cornutt said...

    I wonder where this is all going to lead to.  Are 15-year-old stadiums now considered obsolete?  Are teams now going to expect new stadiums, at public cost, every decade?  More to the point, are they going to have to have that to stay competitive?

  7. bucdaddy said...

    I’m more interested in what the next evolution in stadium design will be like. We’re pretty much through with the Camden Yards-style phase, almost everybody has one of those now. What will the baseball stadium of 2025 be like? How will new communications technology be integrated? Will there be an iPad or some similar interactive device attached to every armrest? Will you be able to listen to dugout chatter like NASCAR fans can listen to the communication between driver and crew? Will there be even bigger and more garish Home Run Structures? Will swimming pools and aquariums come to seem minor-league compared to future amenities?

    Somebody somewhere must be thinking about this already and putting plans on paper. Ideas?

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