Welcome to the pretty package. Stroll around. Take it all in. Look at the clean bricks and the new seats and the emerald green grass. Gaze at the video boards and the waterfall (not natural), the concession areas and the restaurants with the new crazy food that you surely will want to try, because you can’t bring in your own food. (Oh, wait, now you can. Never mind.)
We live in a time, and certainly a city, when new stadium deals create wonderful diversions for pro sports teams, particularly when it comes to steering attention away from the product on the field.
The Braves’ new pretty package, SunTrust Park, officially will be unveiled Friday night. On the undercard, there’s a game against San Diego.
It’s probably best to not spend too much time looking at the product inside the package. The Braves chose to tear down and rebuild at a time when they were preparing to move to The Big Chicken (both the timing of the rebuild and the shift to the suburbs went against the marketing grain). Now that opening night is here, the team isn’t quite ready yet, assuming the 2-6 road trip isn’t an aberration.
It seems like a good time for this reminder: Stadiums don’t make teams great. Teams make stadiums.
The most exciting time in the Braves’ Atlanta history came between 1991 and 1996. They went to four World Series and won the city’s only major pro sports championship. Those six seasons took place in the dump of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, which rocked like no Atlanta sports venue ever had.
The manager of those teams was Bobby Cox. He was immortalized in bronze with a statue that was unveiled outside the new stadium on Thursday. It was a well-deserved honor for a man who’s already in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and is most responsible for the organization’s uprising in the 1990s.
Cox has never liked being the center of attention, but he loved the statue and was moved by the ceremonies. The work of art shows him peering out onto the field while standing on a dugout step.
Is he accurately depicted?
“Yes. In deep thought and about 10 pounds overweight,” he cracked.
He was in a good mood, not just because of this latest honor but because he has a good feeling about the Braves’ future. He holds only an advisory role with the organization now but he spent almost all of spring training with the team, sitting in a golf cart on the back fields at Disney’s Wide World of Sports, watching prospects go through drills.
The scene in spring training reminded Cox of a time after he returned to the Braves in 1986 as the team’s general manager. It was he who rebuilt the player development system before moving back to the dugout as manager midway through the 1990 season, after the firing of Russ Nixon. The Braves were 25-40 when he took over. They improved to 40-57 the rest of the season. But nobody foresaw what would happen in 1991: The Braves went worst-to-first, winning 94 games and advancing to the World Series before losing to Minnesota in seven games.
Everybody chopped. Suddenly, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium wasn’t so bad.
This season’s Braves have an over/under win projection of 71 1/2 at sportsbooks. The team has lost six of its first eight games, ranks 29th in fielding percentage, has allowed a major-league high nine unearned runs on eight errors and has a pitching staff that ranks last in strikeouts and 17th in ERA.
So, no — they haven’t picked up where they left off. (The 20-10 finish last season was in all of the marketing soundbites.) But it’s early, really early. Cox, the eternal optimist, isn’t concerned.
“Let’s wait a while and see where we are,” he said. “We’re a lot better than we were at the start of the last two seasons. A lot better. I think we’re going to do well. I don’t know if we’re going to win the thing. But the Cubbies one year when Zim (Don Zimmer) was managing were voted the worst team in baseball in spring training. Guess what happened? They won the division (in 1989).”
Cox has two loves: His family and the Braves.
“Without both of them, I don’t know if I could exist,” he said
He has eight children and 22 grandchildren.
“Three under the roster limit. We have a lot of breeders.”
The youth in the organization also excites him.
“I spent a lot of time on the minor league side in spring training and loved what I saw,” he said. “We haven’t had that kind of talent in a long time. It’s not just one or two guys, but a lot. They all won’t hit but that’s baseball.”
He expected this year’s team to be better defensively. “I still think we will be,” he said. “You’re playing in some cold weather in Pittsburgh and not so good weather in New York. The ball got a little hot. It’s a much better defensive team than it’s showing now.”
For now, you may have to be dazzled by the past. A number of Braves’ greats from the past will be in attendance Friday night. Hank Aaron will throw out the first pitch. Julio Teheran, the only holdover starting pitcher who can be depended on, will start, thanks to a rotation shuffle.
Outside the stadium, there are statues of Aaron, Cox, Warren Spahn and Phil Niekro. Cox puts the honor alongside his plaque in Cooperstown “on the top of the mountain.”
New glory may take a while.