Opening night really wasn’t opening night.
The New York Yankees, who had just conquered the Braves in the previous fall’s World Series, did the honors as first visitors to Turner Field for a pair of exhibition games the weekend before the season opened. (They split.)
But by the time the Chicago Cubs came to town on April 4, 1997, to help inaugurate the Braves’ new park, the season’s first crisis had already arrived. The team was still regaining its balance after David Justice-Marquis Grissom trade to Cleveland the week before. John Smoltz and Greg Maddux had just lost back-to-back games in the season-opening series in Houston. The team was 0-for-15 with runners in scoring position.
And now the team had to drop everything to commemorate its new home, which was just eight months removed from hosting the Olympics and was an unknown commodity to the tenants. Pared down from 85,000 seats to 49,714, the Braves’ new park was vast departure from Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium across the street and to the team, the city and this writer who was covering the team in that era, new didn’t necessarily mean better, at least not right away.
“It definitely felt different going to the new stadium,” said Mark Wohlers, who was then the club’s 27-year-old closer. “You would think that most pitchers enjoyed pitching at Turner Field more so than Fulton County because the dimensions were so much favorable for pitchers at Turner Field. But there was something that was so much more comfortable at Fulton County that I really enjoyed. I don’t know if intimate is the right word or not but I really, really enjoyed Fulton County.”
Before the game, the team staged a ceremonial transfer of home plate. Hank Aaron appeared in center field, walked the dish to the mound where he met Tom Glavine for the final 60 feet and 6 inches to home. So moved was the late, great Ernie Johnson Sr., who was emceeing the ceremony, that he said, “Hank Aaron! What a guy!”
Ted Turner, who had the previous October sold the team to Time Warner, had already raised an eyebrow about the transfer. Informed that a cup of Coca-Cola was now being vended for $3.50, he delivered a vintage Ted broadside.
“Are you serious? I won’t buy one! That’s outrageous!” he said. “I think the fans are right. They don’t have to buy it and I won’t and they shouldn’t either. I’m going to drink water.”
The sight lines were better because the stands were closer to the field than the multi-use Atlanta-Fulton County saucer design. The open concourses were a vast improvement. Braves broadcaster Don Sutton proclaimed, “This is my 42nd major league ballpark and it’s absolutely the best one I’ve ever been in.”
Turner threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Denny Neagle, who would win 20 games that year, threw the first pitch that counted to Brian McRae. Chipper Jones recorded the first hit, a single to left off Kevin Foster in the first. Michael Tucker, acquired from Kansas City eight days earlier in the Jermaine Dye deal, hit the first home run, a solo shot to right in the third.
And still, the Braves were down 4-2 in the seventh to a Cubs team that would finish last in the NL Central. Then they weren’t. Keith Lockhart, also gleaned in the Dye trade, hit a pinch-hit RBI single in the seventh before the Braves won it in the eighth with three singles and a Shawon Dunston led to two more runs and a 5-4 win for reliever Brad Clontz.
Afterward, Jones, who drove in the fifth run, found himself saying, “It’s a big win for us. Three games into the season, you hate to say that, but it was.”
In time, folks began calling it The Ted. Left-handed power hitters — Fred McGriff, Ryan Klesko — learned to their grief that the park had the deepest right-field alley in the majors. The Braves would win 101 games but posted a better road record (51-30) than in their new home (50-31).
“I remember getting the save in that game but that’s about it,” Wohlers said. “I don’t know if I’m getting old or what.”
Now, 47, perhaps he is. Turner Field, age 21, alas is not.