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Braves set up for a brighter future

11/11/2013 - Atlanta Braves

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Turner Field in Atlanta isn't a particularly distinctive or noteworthy ballpark, but it's collected its share of memories since hosting its first major-league game in 1997.

Randy Johnson threw a perfect game at the site, and Ubaldo Jimenez tossed a no-hitter there. Sammy Sosa made jaws drop with some 500-foot shots at the 2000 Home Run Derby, and Hank Aaron welcomed Jason Heyward to the fold with a ceremonial first pitch in 2010. Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz enjoyed some Hall of Fame-caliber moments at the park, and Chipper Jones and Bobby Cox both said goodbye amid cheers and tears at the end of their farewell tours.

For baseball fans who double as cinephiles, Turner Field also played home to an inexplicably far-fetched sequence near the end of the 2012 Clint Eastwood flick "Trouble With the Curve."

But in the final accounting, there's no place for sentiment when tickets need to be sold and revenue amassed. The Braves are intent upon competing with the Philadelphia Phillies, Washington Nationals and (at some point) the New York Mets and Miami Marlins in the National League East. So they've charted a new course, and it won't be long until "the Ted," as Turner Field is known, will be referred to in the past tense.

On the first day of the Major League Baseball general managers' meetings, the biggest news came 400 miles north of Orlando in Atlanta, when the Braves announced that they'll be leaving Turner Field in 2017 to move into a new ballpark about 10-15 minutes northwest of the city in Cobb County.

In a website devoted to the news, the Braves detail the insurmountable obstacles they face at Turner Field (from a lack of public transportation to inadequate parking to a decaying infrastructure) and the economic benefits the community will realize from construction of the new park. They also emphasize that while they'll be moving, they will still be the Atlanta Braves.

"Our vision for the future is grand," president John Schuerholz says on the website. "The new stadium site will be one of the most magnificent in all of baseball. It will thrive with action 365 days a year."

The news came as a shock primarily because the Braves negotiated with Cobb County under a cone of silence, and there wasn't a smidge of a hint of a breadcrumb that something this momentous might be in the works. It was also a surprise because Turner Field, at 17 years of age, is younger than U.S. Cellular Field, Camden Yards, Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Progressive Field and Coors Field -- all stadiums that have been built during the ballpark "renaissance" that's taken place in baseball over the past two decades.

The move will take some getting used to for the locals, given that the Braves have basically played on the same patch of turf since April 12, 1966, when Pittsburgh's Don Schwall beat Atlanta's Tony Cloninger in 13 innings in the grand opening at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Joe Torre hit the first home run in the new park -- eight years before Aaron made history with No. 715 off Al Downing.

But the Braves' long-range plan also reflects the practical realities of the situation. The Braves have enough data in hand to know the majority of their fans come from the northern suburbs. And even though traffic is a potential concern, the team says the new park will be more readily accessible to the people who buy tickets and help keep the franchise economically viable. Those fans will now be able to attend a game, go to dinner before or afterward, and have access to the restaurants, shopping and other attractions that are lacking near Turner Field.

During baseball's ballpark explosion, teams in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver and numerous other cities have built beautiful new parks that have revived or enhanced the appeal of their downtowns to various degrees. Turner Field, in contrast, sits in a netherworld, close enough to the city to see it, but far enough not to realize any benefits. There's anecdotal evidence to suggest that some fans stayed away because of the lack of public transportation, fears about the area's high crime rate or the lack of pre- and postgame amenities.

In the long run, the Braves' new park should be a boon to the team's on-field fortunes. Even as some Braves fans lament the team's October failures, general manager Frank Wren and his group have done a nice job cranking out the results from April through September. Since 2010, the New York Yankees lead the majors with 372 regular-season victories. The Braves are tied for second with Texas with 370 wins despite routinely fielding sub-$100 million payrolls under Liberty Media ownership. Tampa Bay is next in line with 369 wins, amid much greater economic hardships.

"The new stadium and this whole project will allow us to continue to remain competitive," Wren said Monday from the J.W. Marriott, site of the general managers' meetings.

While some downtown residents might contend that the Braves are deserting Atlanta, other observers of the city's business and entertainment scene think the news will be popular once local residents recover from the initial shock. Before Monday, the Braves had a bad TV deal and a less-than-optimal stadium situation. Now they've reduced their problems by half.

"The signal I take from this is that the Braves want to be a more competitive ballclub in Major League Baseball," said Ron Starner, a writer for Site Selection Magazine in Peachtree Corners, Ga. "They're never going to compete with the Yankees in terms of payroll, but they needed a stadium deal in a new location to maximize their revenues. The revenues were always going to be limited if they had chosen to remain at Turner Field."

As the news made the rounds Monday, baseball officials in Oakland and Tampa Bay could only be left to wonder how the Braves came up with a $650 million partnership out of nowhere while they're still dealing with catwalks, plumbing issues and a seemingly never-ending cascade of politics in their quests to build new ballparks.

"What are you thinking if you're the Rays?" a general manager said. "They can't even get one stadium -- and the Braves have two?"

As the Braves herald a new era for baseball in Atlanta, that's a question for another day.