By Barry Blair
The Atlanta Braves started their 2018 season on the weekend of Jan. 26-28 at SunTrust Park and The Battery, the adjacent neighborhood built around the new stadium, in suburban Atlanta.
While it was cold and sometimes rainy outside, everywhere you looked, the fans were having a great time. It was a weekend that created much excitement for the Braves fan base, following up on a week that saw Chipper Jones announced as one of four new members of the Baseball Hall Of Fame in Cooperstown, and 20-year-old Ronald Acuna being named by Baseball America as its No. 1 prospect for 2018.
With most of the players on the 40-man roster, and lots of former players on hand and accessible, it was a great opportunity for collectors of all ages to meet and get pictures and autographs of all their favorites. You just had to do a little prep work, check the schedules for who was going to be where and when throughout the weekend, and also be a little bit lucky at times.
It all started on Friday night with the MLB Network premiering its newest documentary, “Atlanta Rules, the Story of the ’90s Braves” at the Sports & Social sports bar and restaurant in The Battery. Amongst those on hand for the red carpet premier were key members of that era, including Hall of Famers John Schuerholz, Bobby Cox, John Smoltz, and former National League 1991 MVP Terry Pendleton. The film tells the story of the team’s rise from one of the worst franchises in baseball in the late ’80s, to quickly becoming one of the best, if not the best, in the ’90s.
On Saturday and Sunday, the first “Chop Fest” was held for fans throughout the ballpark and the surrounding Battery area. One of the great things to see were the number of kids and young families in attendance throughout the weekend. There were several activities and clinics going on all day for the youngsters, giving them the chance to intermingle with the Braves’ current players. Included were the opportunity to catch and throw balls on the big league field, and there were numerous chances for them to obtain free autographs and photos.
It was obvious that most of them were having the time of their young lives. Hats off to the Braves and Major League Baseball for helping to build a new generation of fans. Stars such as Freddie Freeman, Nick Markakis, Ender Inciarte, and Dansby Swanson were all over the ballpark engaging with the kids.
New General Manager Alex Anthopoulos met with the media on Saturday morning to talk about his vision for the team going forward. I thought it was interesting when he said that “even though I don’t own any stock, one of the people I look up to is Warren Buffett, and I keep several of his sayings on my phone.” He then talked about how he tried to adhere to Buffett’s philosophy “to chase value, and not the price, when you look to make an acquisition.”
Next to speak was Manager Brian Snitker. He talked of his excitement to get to Florida and work with players like Acuna, and the many up and coming pitchers they have. One of his comments that stuck with me was when he said that major league teams “used an average of 11 starters last season.” Think about that for a moment. He also talked about how “we need to be better defensively, with so many young pitchers, we don’t need to make errors and be giving our opponents extra at bats.”
For collectors, there were several opportunities available over the course of the weekend. The Braves Foundation, for a $30 contribution, allowed attendees the opportunity to get the autographs of six current and one alumni player, at several different sessions each day. Attendees had to buy their tickets for this in advance as each one quickly sold out.
Each session had a good mixture of established stars, along with top younger players and prospects, plus one famous alumni. It appeared that most of the current Braves players participated in this program throughout the weekend. Tickets could be bought for more than one session, and the players were rotated so they didn’t overlap.
The Braves Foundation also conducted a “Yard Sale” that included signed balls, bats, jerseys, helmets, hats, and photos of current and former players. A lot of items appeared to be going at great prices. The tables were certainly crowded with fans digging through the available items. The jerseys, most of which were from former players, were a hot item, being sold for $50 each. There were boxes and boxes of signed balls available that were going for $20 apiece.
Also of note, in the stadium’s “Game Used Shop,” an autographed Hank Aaron ticket from the game with the Dodgers in which he passed Babe Ruth to become the all-time home run leader was available for $250.
A wide variety of signed items from last season, ranging from game used bases to dugout line up cards were also available.
Out in The Battery, there was a sports card and memorabilia show, with most of the vendors selling items related to the Braves. There was a large crowd there as well, as collectors had to wait their turn to get a look at the tables.
Some of the former Braves players spotted at one or more of the events over the weekend were Dale Murphy, Tim Hudson, Pete Smith, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Andruw Jones, David Ross, Brian McCann, Walt Weiss, Terry Pendleton, and manager Bobby Cox.
Fox Sports was set up in their broadcast area where they do the pregame and postgame shows next to the right field gate stadium entrance. Members of the Braves broadcasting teams were scheduled to be there at different times, and on Sunday they did a live two-hour show. They also gave out postcards of the players throughout the weekend as well.
Over in the brand new Omni Hotel, which is located just outside the center field gate of the stadium, there was an art show and history exhibit in the hotel lobby. One item I found of great interest was HOFer Warren Spahn’s Purple Heart that he earned in World War II. It was part of an interactive exhibit.
With your phone, you could click on an app and obtain the story behind the pieces they had on display. When you got back home, you received an e-mail thanking you for participating in this program, along with a 20 percent discount for a future stay in the hotel. If you go there for a game, it is a great place to stay, as you can literally step out the front door and walk right into the ballpark.
In the art exhibit, I met Richard Sullivan, a former Braves minor leaguer who now makes his living as an accomplished artist. One of his stops was in Danville, Virginia of the Appalachian League.
“I was a teammate of Freddie Freeman and Craig Kimbrel,” he told me.
A former pitcher, he is a graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design. On this day, he had paintings of Hank Aaron, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Chipper Jones, and Warren Spahn on display. Later that day, I saw several of his paintings hanging in the stadium. Maybe he didn’t make it to Atlanta as a pitcher, but his works are on display in the area of the Braves Hall of Fame and Museum, for all to see.
To me, that is pretty neat for a guy who once rode the buses and toiled in the minor leagues. He made it to the big leagues, just in a different way. If you want to see his work, go to www.richardsullivanillustration.com. You will be impressed, I promise.
On Saturday night, the Braves held their annual Hall Of Fame ceremony at the Coca-Cola Roxy Theatre, which is adjacent to the ballpark, located right across the street from the ticket office. In the past, this event has been held during the season, but has now been moved to coincide with Chop Fest.
Inducted were former pitcher Tim Hudson, who won more than 200 games in his big league career with Oakland, Atlanta, and San Francisco. He spent nine seasons pitching for the Braves and won a World Series with the Giants. One of the most popular players to ever play in Atlanta, he and his wife have also done great things in the community through their foundation.
Hudson spoke about “growing up in Alabama and how it was a dream come true to play for the Braves.” In attendance for his induction were two of his former catchers; Brian McCann, now a member of the current World Series Champion Houston Astros; and David Ross, who retired after winning a World Series two seasons ago with the Chicago Cubs.
Joe Simpson, a 27-year member of the radio and television broadcasting crew, was also inducted. He joins his broadcasting partners from over the years: Ernie Johnson, Skip Carey, Pete Van Wieren, and Don Sutton. Simpson started his journey in the big leagues as a player for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Leaving no stone unturned, they closed things out on Sunday afternoon participating in a fashion show.
My hat is off to the Braves for putting together a great weekend that brought thousands of fans of all ages to the ballpark and the surrounding area to enjoy all things baseball.
Barry Blair is an author/writer who is a contributing writer for Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out his website www.rightfieldpress.com.