ATLANTA -- On Monday, I made the trek from my home in Athens, Ga., to SunTrust Park, the Atlanta Braves' new stadium in Cobb County. Traffic was epic (even more than usual in Atlanta, thanks to a gas leak that closed off I-20 and backed up I-285), but I've been told to get used to that. To the frustration of many Atlanta residents, the Braves went out and built a new stadium right at the corner of I-75 and I-285, perhaps the busiest section of interstate in the country and not a pleasant place to be in your car during rush hour. If you want to see the Braves play, you have to plow through it.
But it is baseball. It is almost always worth it. I might not enjoy driving two hours from Athens to get there every trip, but I'd have waited two days to see a new ballpark for the first time.
SunTrust Park itself is a marked, obvious improvement over Turner Field in just about every way. It's open in the way that Turner Field felt closed off and monolithic -- traversing the concourses no longer feels like spelunking -- and it's constructed in a way that assures solid views from every angle. The upper deck feels closer, more intimate than it did at Turner Field, or at most stadiums; it has that Citi Field attribute of feeling like a Minor League neighborhood ballpark, just on a grander scale. You feel like you are outside and unencumbered; it does, in many ways, actually feel like a park.
The stadium can't help having a bit of a Frankenstein's monster feel, though, with its different sections seemingly stitched together from other venues' features. Notice how stadiums have more stuff for kids these days? Well, here's a whole expanded kids area, complete with a carnival section (with Whack-a-Mole!), a climbing wall and even a zipline. How about the Pepsi Porch? Try "Coca-Cola Corner." Into the fancy gourmet celebrity chef spots like Danny Meyer's Shake Shack? Here's "Hugh Acheson's First and Third Hot Dog and Sausage Shack," featuring fancy sausages from Acheson, Athens' own reality show star. Like the Monument Park at Yankee Stadium? Here's "Monument Garden," with a whole section devoted to Hank Aaron. (There's even bobbleheads of Braves legends throughout the park, though it is probably worth noting they don't look even slightly like those Braves legends.)
Those features may not be particularly original, but that doesn't make them bad. I'm not sure there's a massive audience for gourmet hot dogs at a baseball game, but the Kobe Beef dog was undeniably tasty. They've tried hard to give the place a local flavor -- there's even a Terrapin Taproom; go Athens! -- and that's not even including the Waffle House out in right field. The place is clean and clear and a perfectly pleasant place to see a baseball game. You get a sense it will be outdated sooner rather than later; it's organizing principle is "everything is new and better!" which is only the case until it stops being new -- but it is still a lovely ballpark.
It's a bit odd, in an age where Commissioner Rob Manfred is working with the Indians to get rid of their cartoonish Smiling Native logo, to see a brand new stadium, in the year 2017, built with a massive drum out in center field; I had thought that was the sort of thing baseball was trying to legislate out. Not to mention the "honorary Tomahawk Chop" that begins the bottom of the first inning, with a "celebrity guest" kicking off the war chant. (It was a couple of random PGA players on Monday night.) I don't expect that to age well, either.
Again, it's a great place to see a game, though -- particularly now that the initial curiosity crowds have abated a bit and the concession lines are more manageable. I'll look forward to going again. The traffic was an aggravation, sure, but I'll give that time to improve. Ultimately, traffic is more of a high-class problem for popular venues.
However, I'd like to make an argument for not leaving your city center on a different level. Only worrying about your most loyal customers -- as the Braves have done, arguing that they already have a large percentage of fans in Cobb County -- runs the risk of preaching only to the converted. Neighborhoods change all the time; Cobb County itself has changed dramatically just in the past 10 years. But cities aren't going anywhere. Look at the success that Arthur Blank has had doubling down on downtown Atlanta, at least if he ever gets his new place finished; there is a civic pride for those teams in Atlanta that, one worries, might not exist for the Braves so far away from downtown. It's not always easy to cheer for a team that wants to use your city in its name but doesn't want to actually live there.
More to the point: This goes against the current trend. I just spent a full week in Detroit for our Sports Tourist series.
Next year, all four major North American professional sports teams in the Detroit area will all play downtown, within just a few blocks of each other. It has led to an undeniable sense of civic pride in Detroit; it has made people feel tied to their city, and their teams, like their fortunes are all linked. It leads to loyalty, and commiseration, and a sense of community. You cheer for the Tigers not just because they are a baseball team, but because they are a part of your neighborhood, every night. You live with them.
There is a pop-up community that has been built around SunTrust Park, with nice bars and shops and even a theater, and there are nice places to drink before the game. But afterward, you'll go home, back to where you actually live. The complex reminds me of Glendale, Ariz., where the Arizona Cardinals and Arizona Coyotes play, a little outdoor-mall type area that you visit just for games. It's also a place that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the Coyotes "cannot and will not remain" a part of. The Braves are a place to visit, and, currently, a nice one. But baseball -- and really all sports these days -- are about living with your team in your community.
Seeing the Braves is a fun trip, a novel trip. The team is now an island vacation destination. But baseball should be a daily part of your life, a river that flows through it, the background noise. You can go visit SunTrust Park, and you'll have a pleasant time. But then you'll go home. And in my experience, in the long run: People like to stay close to home. I'll go visit SunTrust Park again. But that's all it will be: a visit.