Legacy created by Hank Aaron and other Braves at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium loomed large over Turner Field. ( / ccompton@ajc.com)
Photo: Curtis Compton
Photo: Curtis Compton

In the end, Turner Field never quite measured up to old stadium

The Braves left Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium after the 1996 season and officials demolished the place on Aug. 2, 1997. Who knew its shadow would loom over Turner Field 20 years later?

Certainly not the Braves. During their last six seasons in the old stadium they won four pennants and the 1995 World Series championship. That remains the city’s only title among the four major pro sports leagues, and the Braves won just one pennant while calling Turner Field home.

Certainly not the team’s fans. The older among them saw Hank Aaron break Babe Ruth’s record. The younger fans could go to Turner Field to see a team loaded with stars and led by Bobby Cox on the field and John Schuerholz in the front office.

But with the Braves playing their last game Turner Field on Sunday, it turns out the new place never quite measured up to the old one. The team’s third ballpark in Atlanta, SunTrust Park, won’t have to deal with the specter of its predecessor in the same way as Turner Field.

Great players spent the prime of their careers at Turner Field but how could they ever deliver a moment rivaling Aaron’s historic homer? The Braves won nine consecutive division titles during their first nine years at Turner Field, extending their streak to 14 years overall, but leave it with three consecutive losing seasons and no playoff series victories since 2001.

And while there were great Braves teams at Turner Field they only made the World Series once, in 1999, and were swept by the Yankees.

“We won the World Series at the old ballpark and we all thought we would win another one at the new ballpark,” said Tom Glavine, who was MVP of the 1995 World Series and now is a Braves analyst for Fox Sports South. “We certainly had a string of success there that was pretty incredible. It’s a little unfortunate we didn’t win another World Series over there but we certainly won plenty of division titles and playoff games. The initial years there were all very successful.”

Most organizations would gladly take the run the Braves had at Turner Field. But when the Braves opened the stadium in 1997 it seemed as if repeated returns to the World Series was, if not inevitable, certainly probable.

The pitching staff included 1991 Cy Young winner Glavine, four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux and 1996 Cy Young winner John Smoltz. The lineup featured veteran All-Stars Kenny Lofton and Fred McGriff. There also was budding young superstar Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones, who the previous fall became the youngest player to homer in a World Series (he did it twice).

But the Braves lost the 1997 NLCS to the Marlins, who won twice at Turner Field including the deciding Game 6. The Braves lost the 1998 NLCS to the Padres, who also won two games at Turner Field including the clincher.

The core of the team stayed together but the postseason disappointments continued.

The Braves made it back to the World Series in 1999 but the Yankees swept them while winning the two games at Turner Field by a combined score of 11-3. The Diamondbacks won three games at Turner Field during the 2001 NLCS, including a shutout and an 11-3 victory.

The Braves lost three consecutive division series from 2002-2004 and their opponent clinched at Turner Field each time. They lost a 2012 wild-card game to the Cardinals after Chipper Jones committed a crucial throwing error and umpire Hal Holbrook made a controversial infield fly call.

And so it went for the Braves during that era: great players, successful teams, postseason letdowns. Even the high mark, winning the 1999 pennant, happened somewhat anticlimactically: Andruw Jones walked to drive in the winning run in the 11th inning against the Mets at Turner Field.

Yet, in spite of the October dissatisfaction, there is no objective way to consider the Braves’ overall stay at Turner Field as anything but a big success.

“I know this team was special,” Andruw Jones said. “We came up short but we (gave) our hard work to achieve another (World Series). Through the whole years, Schuerholz kept the team together so we could compete.”

Those Braves fans disheartened by the lack of a World Series during the Turner Field years at least got to see plenty of all-time greats in the home uniform.

Glavine, Maddux, Smoltz and Cox are all members Baseball’s Hall of Fame. Chipper Jones likely will join them when he’s eligible. Andruw Jones was a defensive wizard in center field and clubbed 368 of his 434 home runs while with the Braves.

Many more good Braves teams played at Turner Field than they did at the old stadium. Hank hammered his historic home run back in 1974 and nearly all of the good Braves teams played at the old stadium near its end. In between, there was a lot of losing — not to mention three World Series defeats.

Perhaps fans have gained some new perspective with the Braves leaving Turner Field as postseason afterthoughts. Chipper Jones, who retired in 2012, recalled that each of his years at Turner Field the Braves went to spring training expecting to compete for the pennant.

Jones has repeatedly expressed his support for the organization’s decision to rebuild through acquiring minor-league prospects. He said it’s tough to to see the Braves lose but he views the closing of Turner Field as the chance for a rebirth.

“It’s an exciting time as well because it’s the dawning of a new age of Braves baseball and being able to correlate that with the move into a new stadium will be cool,” Jones said on Turner Field’s last Opening Day.

Only a few Braves figures share Glavine’s wide perspective on the two ballparks the team has called home.

Glavine broke in the majors with bad Braves teams in the 1980s and was there for the worst-to-first turnaround in 1991. Glavine pitched what he calls “the best game of my life” in the decisive World Series Game 6 against the Indians at Turner Field.

But Glavine also was there for the first six Braves division titles in the new place before signing with the Mets. He won the NL Cy Young Award again in 1998 and was a Braves All-Star four times from 1997-2002.

“Certainly I had some good moments at Turner Field but I don’t know if I’ll miss one (stadium) more than other,” Glavine said. “That’s a good question. Maybe I can answer that more down the line. It was easy not to miss Fulton County so much because I had the transition to Turner Field and I played there so long. But I might feel differently once Turner Field is gone.”

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