ATLANTA — Turner Field has aged well. It’s got all the expected amenities of a modern big league ballpark, from luxury boxes to a mammoth video board to the restaurant that hovers above right field to concession stands selling all manner of food and drink.
Want a gourmet steak sandwich? Step right up. Craft beer? No problem. Hash browns from local favorite Waffle House? Make ’em scattered and smothered.
Of course, at 20 years old, it’s not exactly a baseball relic.
But its time in the big leagues is over.
The Braves are heading to the suburbs next season, trading the ballpark affectionately known as “the Ted” — a nod to former owner and namesake Ted Turner — for 41,500-seat SunTrust Park , hastily being assembled some 15 miles away as part of a mall-like complex that will generate even more money for the team.
“It’s a little weird,” Atlanta catcher Tyler Flowers said. “But that’s kind of the modern day. Everybody has the expectation of the newest and biggest and baddest and greatest thing.”
Even with a plethora of new facilities that have popped up around Major League Baseball, 13 of 29 ballparks are older.
At least two teams — Oakland and Tampa Bay — would gladly take Turner Field over their current stadiums.
“I love this place,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker, gazing out from the home dugout during the final week of the season. “I think it’s one of the best ballparks in the National League.”
Not surprisingly, the move has sparked puzzled reactions around the country and plenty of debate in Atlanta, especially since it goes against the trend of teams moving closer to the inner city, not farther away. Turner Field is located just south of downtown, within site of the state Capitol at essentially the geographic center of the sprawling metropolitan area and the junction of three major highways, but the Braves say they will be closer to the bulk of their fan base in the mostly white suburbs north of the city.
Cobb County’s decision to fork over some $400 million in public funding to help build the new stadium, with only minimal debate and no vote of the electorate, helped send its top official, Tim Lee, to defeat in his re-election bid. There are fears of hellish traffic, since Cobb has a limited bus system and isn’t served by Atlanta’s rapid transit system, and concerns that the Braves are cutting themselves off from large portions of the gridlocked metro area.
There’s no turning back now, though.
Only 11 stadiums in the sport’s modern ballpark era hosted fewer major league seasons than Turner Field, and seven of those — from still-in-use Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to Houston’s long-forgotten Colt Stadium — were merely temporary homes for transplanted teams or expansion franchises. As for the others, Miami’s newly renamed Hard Rock Stadium and Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium were more suited for football and quickly faced calls to be replaced, while Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium and Washington’s RFK Stadium both lost teams to other cities.
None of those was an issue at Turner Field. But the Braves complained that promised development in the low-income neighborhood around the stadium never materialized, leading team officials to explore other options. Not long after the city of Atlanta reached a deal to build a new retractable-roof football stadium for the NFL’s Falcons, the Braves stunningly announced in November 2013 they were moving to the ‘burbs, having pulled off secret negotiations that caught nearly everyone off guard.
Turner Field will apparently live on in some downsized form, thanks to an expected deal in which the city will sell the stadium and adjacent land to Georgia State University and a development company. The plan is to convert the Ted into a 30,000-seat football stadium for the Panthers’ fledgling program (perhaps with a new corporate name to help defray costs) and surround it with dormitories and athletic facilities, as well as private housing and retail space.
In a way, the next phase will take the park back to its not-so-deep roots. Transformation was the plan all along.
Turner Field began its life as Centennial Olympic Stadium, an 85,000-seat facility that hosted track and field as well as the opening and closing ceremonies at the 1996 Summer Games. Muhammad Ali — stricken with Parkinson’s disease, his hands trembling as he held the torch — memorably lit the cauldron to start the games. Michael Johnson ran to a world record in golden shoes. Carl Lewis capped his brilliant career with the last of nine gold medals.
But the stadium was designed with baseball in mind, in hopes of avoiding the sort of white elephants that have plagued Olympic cities before and since. As soon as the games ended, work began to convert Turner Field into the 50,000-seat home of the Braves. By the following spring, it carried a new name and was ready for opening day.
In contrast to today’s 90-plus-loss team, those Braves had been to four of the previous five World Series, winning it all in 1995 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. They would never reach those heights in their new digs, even while winning nine more NL East titles through 2005 to extend their unprecedented streak of division championships to 14 in a row.
The Braves played only one World Series at the Ted, getting swept by the New York Yankees in 1999. Bitter disappointment became par for the course in October, along with a reputation for not selling out playoff games. They lost 12 of 17 postseason series, including the last eight. Their playoff record was 15-23, including 2-9 in decisive games played at home. Turner Field was the place where other teams came to celebrate, including the Chicago Cubs in 2003 after clinching their first postseason triumph in 95 years.
There were a few highlights for the home team. Most notably, Game 6 of the 1999 NL Championship Series.
After going up 3-0 on the New York Mets, the Braves lost two straight games at Shea Stadium and returned home suddenly on the ropes. The pressure only intensified when they blew an early 5-0 lead, falling behind in the eighth and 10th innings. But Atlanta rallied both times, and won in the 11th when Kenny Rogers walked Andruw Jones with the bases loaded for a series-clinching 10-9 victory.
Chipper Jones will always remember getting the first hit at Turner Field.
“That ball is still on my mantel,” said Jones, who retired in 2012 after a career spent entirely with the Braves.
Now, it’s time for the final hit.
After Sunday’s last game against Detroit, the Ted will be nothing but a memory.
Far sooner than anyone would’ve expected.