A eulogy for Atlanta Braves baseball at Turner Field.
Just over 20 years ago, I attended my first baseball game – during Turner Field’s inaugural year, no less – and I was hooked.
What I remember most are the colors: the vivid green outfield grass, the sharp brown infield dirt, the bright white baselines and the dark blue night sky. For the first time, at the age of three, I felt what I still feel every time I step onto a baseball field: This diamond of dirt and grass becomes a refuge as the rest of the world slips away.
I remember learning how to chant “Go Braves!” The calls and responses of a PA system and a sold-out crowd. Running the bases at Sky Field, up past the left field bleachers. Hearing “Cotton-Eyed Joe” or “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” or “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” during the 7th inning stretch. Eating frozen lemonade or Dippin’ Dots and watching the Braves win.
The ‘90s and 2000s were a perfect time to grow up a Braves fan. Most kids idolize home run hitters, but I wanted to be the next Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine or John Smoltz. My favorite kind of team was arguably the most boring – great pitching, good defense, just enough hitting to eke out a win.
Small ball, which was fitting, because I was always pretty small.
I grew up at Turner Field, and then I moved away. But I came back for one last remembrance: October 1, 2016. The second-to-last game the Braves would ever play at the stadium of my childhood.
Small ball: three straight bunts to set up a two-run single. A headfirst dive into first base. A couple of home runs. Stellar pitching, and the defense showed up when we needed it. The Detroit Tigers loaded the bases with no outs in the eighth inning, and sent Miguel Cabrera – one of the game’s best hitters – to the plate. A strikeout and a jaw-dropping layout double-play from rookie phenom (and hometown kid) Dansby Swanson saved the inning, and the game.
Swanson’s enthusiasm running off the field – pumping his fists, yelling in celebration, patting his teammates on the back – was infectious.
John Schuerholtz, the general manager and architect of those old famed Braves teams, pulled down the number two on the left field wall to reveal: one home game remaining.
I caught the end of the final game the next day. My family was ostensibly gathered for Rosh Hashanah dinner – and we were running late – but everyone could only crowd around the television. The sold-out stadium, every fan on their feet, was so loud during the top of the ninth that the TV’s speakers started clipping. It was a playoff atmosphere for a ball club that finished 68-93. My uncle said he had flashbacks to game seven of the 1992 National League Championship Series (Sid Bream’s famous slide).
Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz opened the day by jogging to the mound from the bullpen in stride and delivering three simultaneous, ceremonial first pitches. Julio Teheran followed by holding Justin Verlander and the Tigers scoreless for seven beautiful innings. The old trio was surely proud.
The Braves delivered a 1-0 win, and as they secured the final out, Swanson’s enthusiasm was again infectious. The season – a fairly miserable one – was over, and he seemed happy just to be out there. Playing baseball.
Finding refuge on this diamond of dirt and grass as the rest of the world slipped away.