Take Me Out of Town to the Ballgame

 

PetCo1

Because of interleague play, the Boston Red Sox and the Atlanta Braves (formerly the Milwaukee and the Boston Braves) have become rivals. Last week, the Red Sox played their last two games at Turner Field, the 20-year-old downtown ballpark the Braves are vacating after this season for a taxpayer-funded spread in the suburbs.

I was in the kitchen when the Red Sox TV announcers started in on the topic of traffic. The new ballpark will be out of the reach of public transportation. Everyone will have to drive. They commented that Atlanta already suffers some of the worst traffic in the nation. But the bulk of the fan base is in the suburbs, they said, and that’s where the ballpark will be.

I’ve never been within a hundred miles of Atlanta. But I’ve seen a lot of games at Turner Field. When I moved from Maine to San Diego in 1983, cable TV was young and channels were few. Ted Turner launched TBS in 1979 and CNN in 1980. Turner, the former America’s Cup skipper known as Captain Outrageous, also owned the Braves, who were perennially terrible. But the nascent field of cable TV gave the team a national audience, years before ESPN and the saturation sports coverage of today.

Because I liked baseball, I watched, and became familiar with the players as they stumbled their way through one losing season after another. I also watched the Padres, Dodgers, and Angels on local channels. This was multi-market Southern California, and the Red Sox were many miles away, where they could no longer hurt me. (Or so I thought, until Game Six of the 1986 World Series.)

I bring up all this history, because by the time the Braves got good, I’d come to sort of like them. Throughout the 1990s, the Braves were the team to beat. And in 1998, the San Diego Padres did just that, besting them in six games to win the National League pennant.

It took me longer to warm up to the Padres. The credit goes mostly to Tony Gwynn, whose Hall of Fame career overlapped my sixteen years in San Diego. They played at Jack Murphy Stadium, later renamed Qualcomm Stadium, at the confluence of three freeways in Mission Valley. It was built for football, and had all the soul of a barracks. You could take a bus there, and later the trolley (when it was extended to the stadium for a Super Bowl), but there was no way to walk, and it was surrounded by an oceanic parking lot. Atlanta, in contrast, had a downtown ballpark.

The two cities have since gone in opposite directions. San Diego has built a beautiful, pedestrian-friendly ballpark down by the harbor. Atlanta has built a driving-only ballpark out in the suburbs, to which the Braves will move next year, dragging their fans in their cars behind them.

I’m not keen on public financing of sports facilities for big-league franchises, but I voted for the San Diego ballpark initiative, because I thought the plan was visionary, especially for car-obsessed Southern California. The ballpark is right on the trolley line, walking distance from the waterfront and downtown hotels. New pubs and restaurants have sprung up around it. There’s a neighborhood feel now, similar to the vibe around Fenway Park.

I moved before I could see a game there, and the Padres have had mostly bad teams since 1998. Gwynn retired after the 2001 season, and died of mouth cancer in 2014. A statue of him, frozen in the left-handed swing that produced 3,141 career hits (pi times a thousand) stands outside the new ballpark. On warm summer evenings, fans begin to gather outside the park several hours before the game; in the offseason, people come just to hang out on the grass near Gwynn’s feet.

But what of summer nights in Atlanta, when the Braves are home? The team is terrible again; the tomahawk chop chant has (thankfully) fallen silent. Ted Turner no longer owns the team; he has not been majority owner since 2001, coincidentally when the Braves stopped winning pennants. The 77-year-old mogul broke his silence recently to say that he wouldn’t have moved the Braves to the suburbs, citing the tradition of live baseball in downtown ballparks on summer nights.

The Braves are now owned by Liberty Media, the corporation that purchased them from Time-Warner in 2007. And like so many corporations that helped pave the way for the automobile’s takeover of America, they’ve moved to the suburbs. It’s a regressive move, and a regrettable one.

 

 

 

 

 

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