On September 16, a day that will live in infamy in Atlanta sports history, the worst thing that could have happened to the city occurred. After a grueling regular season and a lot of tough luck, the Atlanta Braves were defeated by the San Francisco Giants in Game 7 of the National League Division Series, resulting in an incredible blow to the city’s pride. A few days later, it was announced that the team had been sold to a group of New York investors, effectively ending the longest playoff drought in MLB history. But even then, the pain wasn’t over for Atlanta. After the sale was officially approved, the Giants and their fans started the “We’re Going to the Playground!” chant repeatedly, upsetting more than a few Braves fans in the process – including me, a diehard native Atlantan who had hoped that my team would go all the way. The fan unrest boiled over following the victory parade in San Francisco, resulting in two nights of violent protests in which dozens were injured and one man was killed by police.
A Moment Of Silence
It was a somber Monday morning in Atlanta when I woke up to hear that the man I had hoped to see win that night wasn’t going to be representing our city anytime soon. After a career that had seen him rise from an upstart rookie to one of the best pitchers in baseball, Dontrelle Willis suddenly found himself on the wrong side of 30, his star disappearing slowly as the years went by. Inexplicably, the team that had made him a star had decided to give up on him, trading him to the Cleveland Indians in exchange for a package of minor leaguers – including Francisco Lindor, the young standout I had hoped Willis would help lead us to the promised land.
Weeks later, as Lindor was making his MLB debut and Willis was preparing for his first start with the Tribe, I found myself standing in the on-deck circle at Camden Yards, watching a man I had grown up idolizing throw the first pitch of the game. The mood in the stadium was electric, with fans singing and chanting “Let’s go Get ’em!” as they always do before a game, their emotions spilling over as the game progressed and Willis turned in an impressive performance. Towards the end of the game, as he was being relieved by a relief pitcher, a fan shouted, “This one’s for you, Donnie!” Seconds later, the grounds crew came out and removed the tarp covering the mound, revealing a sea of red, white, and blue as thousands of orange and black clad fans erupted in cheers and applause.
The next day, as I was headed to work, I found myself thinking about how much that game had meant to me. It was September 2016, which happens to be the same month that the Atlanta Braves played their last game at the now-famous (if you’re not from Atlanta) Atlanta Motor Speedway. The club had been around for more than 70 years and had not missed a game in that time, even through the occasional “lame duck” season when they were playing in a smaller park. As an adult, I had never been to a game at the speedway, but that day, there was no question that I wanted to go. The last regular season game there was on September 19, which ended in a 6-4 win for the home team. As I stood in the parking lot that day, I couldn’t help but wonder: What was happening there that made it so significant to the city?
As it turned out, the team was playing their final game at the speedway in front of a sellout crowd. About a week earlier, it had been announced that the Braves were filing for bankruptcy, putting the end to an era in which the team had made seven postseason appearances and won the National League pennant in 1966. The move had been a long time coming: The team had been losing money hand over fist and the former owners, who also owned the Hawks and the Sounds, had recently cut the baseball operations staff down to the bare bones, leading to the eventual demise of the team. With the sale of the team to New York, there was no question that both the Mets and the Lightning were going to be playing at the speedway in the near future. It was going to be the perfect opportunity to say goodbye to an organization that I had grown up loving, and to have one last hurrah with the fans who had stuck by the team through thick and thin.
The Stadium Is Going To Be Reworked
When the news broke that the Braves were moving to the suburbs, I felt the sting of betrayal all the way to my Southern roots. After all, the club had been my baseball team my entire life, and the thought of losing it was painful. Like so many other diehard fans, I had hoped that my team would be the one to break the trend, win the World Series, and bring the fans hope and joy. But it seemed that my team had lost their way, while I found myself questioning the very foundations of my fandom.
With the departure of the Braves to become the twelfth team in Major League Baseball, the now-vacant stadium stood as a testament to the organization that had used it as a punching bag for more than a decade. Following the bankruptcy filing, the stadium had been put up for sale and it looked like a new owner was going to move in, changing the face of the speedway forever. Fortunately, the fans had spoken, and a grassroots movement had started, with many people banding together to save the stadium. Led by John Eaves, a local entrepreneur, a group of fans had pooled their money and bought the stadium, committing to paying off the team’s creditors and renovating it into a beautiful, state-of-the-art baseball venue. On December 1, the new ownership group, led by Eaves and including several notable businesspeople such as Len Rhodes, Stan Kasten, and Kevin Plank, broke ground on the renovation project, vowing to have the new stadium ready for the 2018 season.
Renovation In Progress
At press time, construction crews were still pouring concrete and leveling the grass, as they worked to upgrade amenities that had been lacking in the stadium for years. With the construction zone occupying a large portion of the property, fans were limited in their time there, as it was only open to the public on game days. Parking was also a major issue, with the lots frequently being full on weekdays and empty on weekends. The fences were being taken down, with the intention of having the whole stadium embraced by the community.
Like many other sports fans, the thought of going to a game without being able to park securely and comfortably was more than a little frustrating. There were also reports that the new owners were looking into moving the location of the stadium, forcing everyone to find a different, more inconvenient parking spot. While I didn’t want to give up on going to games, it was clear that the situation was dire and that it was going to be a while before the renovation was done.
With all the uncertainty surrounding the future of the stadium, it was no surprise that the conversation around going to games had evolved from “Where am I parking?” to “What is this game going to be like?” Even more surprising was the amount of fan engagement that the owners had seen, with surveys showing that more than 80% of fans had either participated in or were aware of the renovation effort. A concerted social media campaign had also helped drive traffic to the website, atlantamotorspeedway.com, with the campaign’s hashtag, #Braves2028, leading to a 30% increase in website traffic. This was in addition to the website’s already-full social media channels, which were active and bustling all the time, with stats showing that the Braves were the third most followed club out of the thirty MLB teams.
While the renovation was progressing, the team had found a new home in 2017, with the new SunTrust Park easily becoming the favorite of both fans and opposing club representatives. With the ballpark being built with tons of modern and state-of-the-art amenities, it was no wonder that several MLB teams had inquired about the possibility of playing there, especially with its open layout and the difficulty of blocking out opponents with nets, as was done at the Atlanta ballpark from the 1960s until the early 2000s.
The Road Ahead
On a sunny day in mid-March, I found myself headed towards SunTrust Park, excited about the upcoming season and about getting a first-hand look at the progress that had been made so far. As I approached the stadium, I couldn’t help but notice the changes – the new signage, the bars being added to the outside of the building, and, most significantly, the new batter’s eye in left field, which had been added during the offseason.