Monday, June 11, 2012

Toronto Blue Jays at Atlanta Braves - June 8-10, 2012


After a brief return to Singapore to move into my new apartment, I have again made my way to North America to do yet another sports road trip. The catalyst this time was the Blue Jays playing in the Marlins' new stadium in mid-June, but when I saw that the Jays' other interleague road matchups included Atlanta, I decided to start the journey with that 3-game set at Turner Field before heading to Florida.

Turner Field



Located just south of downtown, Turner Field was originally built for the 1996 Olympics, hosting all track and field events as well as the opening and closing ceremonies. Prior to the Olympics, baseball games were played at Fulton-County Stadium next door,where Hank Aaron hit his famous 715th home run.  Once the Olympics ended though, the Braves' owner at the time, media mogul Ted Turner, paid $45 million to retrofit the stadium to make it suitable for baseball. In exchange, the name of the stadium became Turner Field. One of the remnants of Olympic Stadium can be seen at the main entrance along Ralph D. Abernathy Street - the columns that now form the gates used to be the columns which supported the seats in the old stadium.

Of course, when Turner Field was created, Fulton-County Stadium had to be knocked down to make room for parking. Fortunately, the Braves preserved the most historic moment at the stadium, Hank Aaron's home run fence. In the large reserved parking lot known as the Delta Medallion lot, there stands a portion of fence with the 715 plaque that is so familiar to baseball fans everywhere.



Getting to the stadium is very easy. Take any Marta train to Five Points Station, from where you can get a shuttle right to the ballpark. Service begins about two hours before game time and lasts for an hour after the game. The shuttle is free if you took a train to get there, or $2.50 otherwise. On the way back, the shuttle is free as you can board via the rear door. For those of who you prefer to drive, parking is $15 but there did seem to be a lot of traffic both before and after the game.



Before you enter the stadium, take time to tour around Monument Grove, the large open plaza next to the ticket windows. This area is decorated with statues of Aaron (above), Ty Cobb, and Phil Niekro as well as all the Braves' retired numbers, including the newly added #29 belonging to John Smoltz.



Take note of the 100-foot large baseball photo on the back of the scoreboard gate is Hank Aaron's 715th home run ball; the real thing is on display in the Braves Hall of Fame and Museum.



Buying tickets here is easy as Atlanta is not a great sports town and the fans rarely fill up the ballpark. I recommend the General Admission seats which are the cheapest, with prices varying depending on opponent. Once inside, you can pretty much sit anywhere in the upper deck though, which gives good views of the downtown area about a mile away, including the gold dome of the State Capitol (below).



If you prefer to be closer, there are standing rails on the lower level, which I love as I can place my scorebook and drink there while watching the game. After a few innings, the ushers will let you sit down in the top rows of the 200 level.



The plaza gates open 2.5 hours before the game begins, which gives you plenty of time to see all the attractions here. Above left field is a small area called Sky Field, which has little other than a baseline where kids can test their speed. Behind the left field seats is Scouts Alley, which has a few batting games and the entrance to the museum.



The 100 level has a huge concourse with team pictures from every year since 1966, when the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta. Below is the 1966 Braves, including a young Phil Niekro. The 200 level concourse is where you will find more food options. There is more than enough space to walk around here and I never felt crowded at any time.



The main scoreboard above centre field is called Braves Vision, while the the out-of-town scoreboard is located above the 755 club in left field. There are also a couple of stats boards that are updated in real-time. The Braves impressive collection of pennants just beneath the  club, but they have cheapened it somewhat by including their 2010 wild card berth.



Food here is plentiful but there is little that is unique. However, prices are more than reasonable, especially for season ticket holders who enjoy a 33% discount on most food options. My recommendation is the BBQ turkey sandwich platter at the Smoke House located just inside the plaza entrance. For just $9  you get a big turkey sandwich lathered in your choice of BBQ sauce, as well as two sides, with mac'n'cheese and cornbread muffins a couple of possible choices.



When I first visited Turner Field in 2001, I thought it was a typical new ballpark and ranked it 14th out of 30 parks that year. My opinion hasn't changed in the past decade, but several new ballparks have knocked this place down the list to the bottom third. I like the history here outside the gates and the Braves certainly do have a long and storied past to commemorate, but inside the park there is little of note other than free wifi available throughout the seating bowl. Regardless, it is definitely worth a visit and take the time to talk to the staff here; they are very friendly and really made my stay here enjoyable despite the Jays' playing less than ideal baseball for most of the weekend.

Game 1 - Atlanta 4, Toronto 3 (10)

John Smoltz, Braves Hall of Fame Induction

Before the game began, the Braves honoured John Smoltz, who pitched as both a starter and reliever for 21 seasons for the team. He is the only hurler in history with over 200 wins (213) and 150 saves (154). The Braves set up a large stage in front of home plate and introduced several past stars, including Phil Niekro, Dale Murphy, Greg Maddux, and Bobby Cox. A few speeches were made describing Smoltz's competitiveness and talent, and Smoltz himself spoke to a standing ovation from the fans.



His 29 was added to the long line of retired numbers above left field (below) as fans continued to cheer. The whole thing took about 20 minutes and was handled with class by all involved. I was glad to be able to see this; the question now is when will Smoltz be welcomed to Cooperstown.




The Game

The Blue Jays are so frustrating to watch this year. Talented but lacking that killer instinct and poor on fundamentals, they are struggling to stay above .500 in a year when the playoffs are within reach. This game was like so many others, where they had chances to win but couldn't get the key run when they needed it.

With the Braves up 1-0, Jose Bautista crushed a Brandon Beachy pitch to lead off the 6th inning (below). Edwin Encarnacion then singled and Kelly Johnson walked to end Beachy's day. Ex-Brave Yunel Escobar sacrificed and J.P. Arencibia grounded into a fielders choice to give the Jays the lead 2-1.



Starter Kyle Drabek had struggled through 5 innings and when he walked Dan Uggla for the third time to open the 6th, I felt it was time to call in the bullpen. Toronto skipper John Farrell disagreed though, and Jason Heyward proved me right, doubling home Uggla to tie the game. One batter too late, Drabek was removed, no longer in line for the win. After Luis Perez got pinch hitter Matt Diaz to fly out, advancing Heyward to third, he walked Andrelton Simmons, and Chad Beck was brought on. He struck out pinch-hitter Freddie Freeman and it looked like the Jays might escape the jam, but then Beck faked the pick-off move to third and didn't throw to first, getting called for a balk, which allowed Heyward to score. I just sighed in resignation.

In the 8th, Encarnacion doubled to lead off, advanced to third on a Johnson groundout, and scored on an Escobar chopper to tie the game. After Darren Oliver pitched a scoreless 8th, the Jays had a chance to win it in 9th off fireballer Craig Kimbrel. Rajai Davis beat out an infield hit and stole second and third with just one out. But Brett Lawrie struck out swinging on a 99 MPH heater and Colby Rasmus flew out to end the threat.



The Braves also left the winning run at third in their half of the 9th and we went to extra innings. The Jays got nothing against Cristhian Martinez in the 10th and Francisco Cordero came on to pitch in the bottom half. Oh well. Heyward legged out a high chopper to second (above) and was sacrificed to second by Jack Wilson. With Simmons batting, Heyward broke for third and Arencibia's throw got past Lawrie, allowing Heyward to trot home with the winning run, sending the fans into an extended Tomahawk chop. Sadly, none of the fans had a real tomahawk that I could jam into my brain to end the nightmare, so I just sat there in silence enduring the pain.

This was just an ugly game with 14 total walks (7 per team), the balk, the error, and taking nearly 4 hours to complete. I could only hope that was the low point of the weekend.

Game 2 - Atlanta 5, Toronto 2

The Braves play Saturday games at 4:05, a rather odd time that essentially prevents you from doing much else that day if you want to get there early to tour the park. It was another celebration, this time featuring Sid Bream's slide that won the 1992 NLCS. A very cool bobblehead (below) was given to the first 20,000 fans and Bream, Francisco Cabrera, and umpire Randy Marsh participated in a pre-game ceremony. No word on Pirates' catcher Mike Lavalliere's absence, but he must have OK'd his likeness. All 3 figures are bobbleheads by the way.



Once the festivities were over, the Braves sent Tommy Hanson to the mound (below) while the Jays countered with rookie Drew Hutchinson. Hutchinson only gave up one walk, but it hurt. With two out in the 3rd and a runner on, Brian McCann drew the free pass. Uggla was up next and crushed a 1-1 offering to centre for a 3-run dinger and the lead.



Jose Bautista hit his 2nd homer in 2 days (below), a 2-run shot to make it close in the 6th, but Hutchinson gave up a solo shot to Simmons in the 7th, his first MLB home run that made it 4-2.



The Braves added one more in that inning and Hanson pitched a 3-up 3-down 8th to finish his strong outing. Kimbrel closed with his league-leading 18th save and yet again I sullenly returned to my hotel after a Jays' road loss.

Game 3 - Toronto 12, Atlanta 4

This battle began in a light drizzle with Ricky Romero taking on Baseball America's #5 prospect Julio Teheran (below), called up for a spot start in place of Tim Hudson, who was battling bone spurs.



Teheran was solid, yielding only a broken bat single to Encarnacion (below) through four frames, while Romero struggled, giving up four runs in his four innings before being lifted for a pinch hitter in the top of the fifth.



At this point, Teheran seemed to hit a wall, giving up 3 hits and a walk as the Jays plated a run. Livan Hernandez came in with the bases loaded and promptly gave up three singles and a double that allowed five more Jays to score and suddenly it was 6-4! Romero was off the hook, but could the bullpen hold the lead?

Fortunately, the Jays' offense had finally come to life. With 2 out in the 6th, the Jays elected to let reliever Carlos Villanueva hit for himself. He managed a lucky single off Hernandez and then Lawrie crushed a ball to left for a 2-run shot. Rasmus followed with a homer to right and the rout was on. Toronto added two more in the 7th and another in the 8th to win 12-4 and take one of three, a usual occurrence when I see them on the road.

The Jays had managed only 11 hits in the first 22 innings of the weekend, and then pounded out 17 knocks in the last 5 frames. They are such a streaky team this year and are 31-29 now. Hope they are on a hot streak in two weeks when I see them in Miami.

Notes




The second most historic moment to take place at Fulton County Stadium was the Blue Jays' 1992 World Series victory, but for some reason, this is not commemorated. Thankfully, the Braves maintain the outline of the basepaths in the parking lot and so you can visit where first base once lay. This is the spot where Joe Carter took the toss from Mike Timlin to clinch the series. I was by myself so could not re-enact the famous moment but did take pictures. Above is home plate and the first base line. Below is first base, the site of the happiest moment of my life. 

This is the Mecca for Blue Jays fans!

I really want to hate Braves' fans with their stupid Tomahawk chop (they also do the wave at times), but they were so friendly when they saw my Blue Jays jersey, amiably chatting with me at the ballpark and around the city, so I have to give them grudging respect.

The big Coke bottle in left field has its label changed during the national anthems. The singer on Sunday messed up the words to O Canada as well.


MLB.com says the Jays' record in interleague play is 54-82, so maybe I should rethink my plan to see them play in every NL ballpark.

Next Up

I'm on my way to Jacksonville to begin nearly three weeks in the Sunshine State. Every day will see at least one ballgame on the schedule, so check back often for updates.

Best,

Sean

2 comments:

  1. Great shots of Turner Field. Other than the result, looks like a wonderful weekend Sean...

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  2. Ive been a Braves fan ever growing up. Since I live in North Carolina and my family has all of our life, it kinda had become my states 'home team' if you can call it that.

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