Walter Banks, 51 years a Braves’ usher, pronounced “Play Ball!” Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn smooched for the Kiss Cam. Two Bits the Drill, who hadn’t won the Tool Race all season, won the Tool Race. Fifteen minutes after the final game’s final out, Hank Aaron threw Turner Field’s absolute final pitch – and Bobby Cox caught it. You can’t beat fun at the ol’ ballpark.
And this really was fun, albeit fun wrapped in finality. When Cox and John Schuerholz peeled the “1” off the Home Games Remaining sign in left field, the logo of SunTrust Park, which is in another county, was revealed. Also this: “Opening Day: April 14, 2017.”
Say this for Turner Field: It went out in grand style. The stands were filled. The weather could have been pulled from a postcard. Schuerholz wore a pink bow tie and pocket square and opened his jacket to display a set of Ryder Cup suspenders. (“My baseball braces are green; they didn’t match,” he said.) He was in a great mood. Everyone was.
Brian Snitker, the interim manager who could soon be named permanent manager, was asked if the day felt different. “A little bit,” he said. “There was a cameraman in the parking lot when I got out of my car.”
As for the Braves themselves: They were really, really good. They won 1-0 Sunday to finish 68-93, which meant they fulfilled general manager John Coppolella’s spring forecast that this team would better last year’s 67-95. Julio Teheran struck out 12 over seven scoreless innings, outpitching the famous Justin Verlander, whose Detroit Tigers needed to win to keep playoff hope alive.
Let the record show that the final out in Turner Field was Jim Johnson’s strikeout of the former Brave Justin Upton, who didn’t offer at the pitch. (He took a lot of third strikes in his two seasons here.) Let it also reflect that the final game in Turner Field had the same score as the last game at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium – with a happier result. On Oct. 24, 1996, the Braves lost Game 5 of the World Series 1-nil to the Yankees and Andy Pettitte, the only run off John Smoltz coming after Marquis Grissom and Jermaine Dye misplayed a fly ball.
Not long ago, this correspondent was ready to concede that these Braves were the worst he’d seen in 32 years in Atlanta. But the motley crew that was 31-58 at the All-Star break went 37-34 thereafter, making a strong case for Snitker’s continuing employment and suggesting that these Braves aren’t as far away as we’d thought. (Next year, maybe? Next year, please?)
The announcement Sunday that Johnson had re-upped for two more years surely said something. Would a distinguished veteran cast his lot with a hopeless case? “There’s a good feeling around this team,” said Coppolella, whose merciless teardown angered many fans but whose work has begun to bear fruit. The farm system has become a bountiful thing, and the big-league product wasn’t half-bad these past two months. Better days are coming, folks.
When this rebuild comes to full fruition, it will be in different environs. Turner Field wasn’t around long enough for us to know it the way we came to know the antiquated spaceship across the street, but its last act reminded us that nice things happened here, too.
A hour after Johnson recorded the 27th out, some 40,000 of the announced crowd of 51,220 were still seated, watching the progress of Aaron and Turner Field’s home plate up I-75 via police-escorted van to SunTrust. For some reason that seemed riveting, too.
And this jaded correspondent must confess: When Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux appeared in the outfield before the game, Hall of Famers walking three abreast as members of the Turner Legends team … well, I gulped. In the history of baseball, has a last-place season ever reached a more moving end?