Stadium Split

In most ways, my last Atlanta Braves home game was like all the others I’d attended there.  On a hot and humid Sunday afternoon in July 2016, my dad and I drove to Turner Field, which is located about ten minutes from my childhood house. We parked at his office downtown and walked our ritualistic mile to the ballpark, past the state capital, the interstate overpass and the seat of the 1996 Olympic torch. We bought tickets at the window, picked up burgers and beers, scored the game from our seats, cheered, chatted, and went home.

But, in one crucial way, this time was different: this would be my last ever Turner Field game.  The stadium hosted its final home game on October 2, 2016, and this spring, the Braves begin a new era in suburban SunTrust Park. So why does a change in stadiums matter?

The move signals a deeper split with the neighborhood, the city, and the community— with concerns ranging from excessive traffic, bad parking, no public transportation, to  larger implications about the identity of a home stadium. In moving from downtown to the suburbs, echoes of white flight and symbolic associations with Cobb County’s intolerant past persist.

The Braves left a perfectly good stadium in Turner Field, one that was only 20 years old, built for the ‘96 Olympics and located downtown, on Hank Aaron Blvd. After a sweetheart deal the mayor made with the Falcons for a new football stadium a mile away, the city was strapped for cash when it came time to renew the Braves’ lease.  Liberty Media, the Denver media conglomerate that owns the Braves, sought land on which to develop restaurants, shops, offices, and entertainment venues: your basic suburban mall.

For many fans and sportswriters, this move (combined with two bad seasons) has triggered heartbreak, anger, and a divorce from their favorite team. One op-ed begins: “Dear Atlanta Braves, While most breakups start with lines like ‘It’s not you; it’s me,’ let me assure you that in this breakup: ‘It’s not me; it’s you’.” So, when so many Atlanta fans have readily declared their disavowal from this team as a matter of pride and principle, others of us, perhaps inexplicably, remain fans. Are our principles weaker? Our love of the team stronger? When confronted with this kind of betrayal, why do some of us remain Braves fans?

I’ve been trying to process the implications of this decision for over three years, and the intersection of sports and politics. More broadly, sports sometimes feels like a mirror of politics, and politics feels like a bloodthirsty sport. Shifting to football for a moment, there are Patriots fans who do not admire Tom Brady’s golf partner or Bill Belichick’s political leanings, but whose ideological disagreements do not seem to checker their fandom. The Milwaukee Bucks refrain from staying in Trump hotels while traveling. Colin Kaepernick famously refused to salute the American flag before games, and subsequently (at the time of this writing) is now unemployed. Before he was governor, George W. Bush offered the Texas Rangers’ stadium, which he helped build, as proof of his political viability, but plenty of W.-dissenters showed up to watch Nolan Ryan. These are all instances of players, coaches, owners and organizations forcing us to acknowledge that teams are corporations with political backing and political influence, that sports don’t exist in a societal vacuum, and that that as fans, we’re partially complicit in what these individuals and institutions represent.

So what happens when the team’s politics are different than yours?

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As we approach the dawning of the SunTrust Park era, the Braves’ home opener, for me, presents a fan’s reckoning: Are we rooting for the city even as the team itself is removed from the city? Are we rooting for existing players, however short their tenure with this current team, or the memories of older, better players on older, better teams? Can I be a fan of the Braves if I refuse to ever see a game played in Cobb County? And if I do ever see a game in Cobb County, does that make my commitment to my political beliefs weaker?

The Braves’ move to SunTrust Park is bad for many reasons. While only 25 minutes away from Turner Field on the interstate, it is light years away in symbolic space. Among the more figurative wounds the relocation exacts, perhaps most harmful is that the new venue will be unreachable by public transit, thus making it difficult for non-driving fans, older and younger fans, and those who can’t afford a car and car-related expenses, ensuring only a certain demographic of Braves fans actually get to see the Braves play live. It’s bad for a traffic-plagued metropolis. It’s bad for the image of an urban regional hub not to have their baseball stadium in-town. It’s bad for a city’s sense of itself, to have its winningest franchise depart for the suburbs, an echo of the city’s white flight in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

The choice to leave a diverse urban center for a historically intolerant suburb is problematic for multiple reasons, even if Cobb County has changed a lot in the last twenty years. In the nineties, Cobb County made national news for its condemnation of gays, its pro-firearm ordinance, and defunding the arts. There was even a movement to keep the 1996 Olympics events out of Cobb County. So while now, in 2017, “the culture wars are mostly over and those who once fought to keep Cobb anti-gay and all white lost,” the image of Cobb County as hateful suburbia persists in the minds of Atlantans, and the move stings that much more.

But even this image of Cobb County is more complex than I’m making it seem. Once deemed a Conservative mecca, rich and sprawling with strip malls and cul-de-sacs, in 2016, Cobb County actually narrowly broke for Hillary Clinton, the first time Cobb had voted democratic since Georgia native Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976. The face of Cobb County is changing; with increasing Latino and Asian populations, it’s getting more diverse, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports: “This is the same county considered bread and butter for Newt Gingrich and Johnny Isakson. The county’s registered voters this election were 59 percent white. Remember, it’s the fourth most populated county in the state. Cobb was dependably red. Until now.”

While the broader Cobb County (as opposed to just the Vinings neighborhood where SunTrust Park will be) is increasingly diversifying, for many, the move still privileges suburban (read: rich, white) season ticket holders at the expense of urban fans (and urban jobs). Furthermore, this is not just Atlanta’s team, but the South’s team, and the move privileges rural season ticket-holders in the broader Braves country (Alabama, Tennessee), who drive in for games and don’t want to encounter diversity downtown. “It’s impossible to talk about the fall of Turner Field without mentioning race,” claims Houston Barber in the Huffington Post. “The relocation has been criticized as a sort of baseball-themed white flight that keeps the mostly white fans from having to go into the mostly black city. Meanwhile, the MLB wonders why inner-city kids are losing interest in their sport…”

In some sense, the inside/outside the perimeter discussion (a discussion which itself is rife with stereotypes) is a placeholder for social tensions and concerns about race-relations that have long informed the city’s history and images of downtown. Hank Aaron himself hadn’t wanted to move from Milwaukee because of racism, stating, as “a black player, I would be on trial in Atlanta, and I needed a decisive way to win over the white people before they thought of a reason to hate me.”

But around that time, Atlanta was changing. In 1973, two years before Aaron’s arrival, Atlanta elected its first African American mayor, Maynard Jackson, who would go on to embody the seismic shift in political power from Atlanta’s white establishment to its growing black middle class.” Since Jackson, Atlanta has consistently elected black mayors and black city council members. City Hall is located downtown, less than a mile from Turner Field. [1] In some ways the move to SunTrust Park represents another indication that downtown Atlanta is just one of a number of commercial-retail-office centers in metropolitan Atlanta and not the dominant or major center where everyone goes to or feels that they belong. It is no longer the symbolic center of the city. Turner Field used to bring Atlantans to downtown— now Braves fans must head outside the perimeter.

Seen through this lens, the move to SunTrust Park, 15 miles away from downtown, is a much larger step backward for a thriving metropolis that in other contexts—the arts, peaceful protests, iconic religious institutions, creative cuisine—has much to be proud of, as it continues to redefine (mis)perceptions of the South.  

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But thinking strictly about the politics of the move to SunTrust Field doesn’t take into account the actual team on the field, which has been sub-par. This is a different sort of test for fandom, one that might be able to teach us something about what to do when a team’s politics betray our own.

In order to compile the best team for SunTrust Park’s maiden voyage, the last two seasons have been “rebuilding years” for the Braves, meant to clean out the team’s older, more expensive players and reload for the future. Beloved players were traded for prospects, and while promising to restock the farm system, many of those moves have yet to yield production on the major league level. Last season, a team that had once won the division 14 years in a row sunk to the bottom of the standings, with a particularly bad first half. It was the worst season I’d ever endured.

This was the question that worried me at the start: was I secretly a fan only when they were winning? What if, 25 years into my fandom, I discovered myself to be a fair-weather charlatan the whole time. Because winning doesn’t teach you as much about yourself as losing. This is true for players, and it’s true for fans. As a fan, I was being tested. You learn more about yourself when the team has hit the skids than you do when they’re racking up series after series, division title after division title.  I wasn’t trying to conflate myself with The Braves, but this is part of why we’re fans, right? The throwing of one’s small affection—a shiny, shimmering penny—into the larger pool of shared wishes? The shift from they to we.

Somehow, as fandom goes—Braves losses felt like my losses, just as, in summers past, I felt part of their victories. As fans, we are implicated in their failures as much as we delight in their success—secretly, superstitiously, somehow feeling just a tiny bit responsible for outcomes beyond our control.

The first half was bad. There’s no other word for it. It sucked (I could get into statistics right now, but those were dark days I’d rather not revisit)[2] I felt bad all the time, grumping around, feeling like a lover of losers. But, somehow, I stuck it out— with the same rate of watching/caring/following as in years past. There was no strategy— it’s just what we do.

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In the mythologies of youth, summer, baseball—a season like the kind the Braves had in 1991 (when they went from worst-to-first and all the way to The World Series) can provide a kind of origin story for fans like me. The whole summer the city had caught Braves fever, filled with stories of bright young pitchers and scrappy veteran infielders and handsome, heroic outfielders. Over 750,000 fans welcomed the team at the homecoming parade after they lost what was widely regarded as the best Game 7 ever played, a 1-0 pitchers’ duel fought over 10 innings. More than anything I’d experienced to that point, the Braves connected you to others. You could talk to anyone: babysitters, teachers, clergy, post-office workers, popular kids— suddenly there was new-found commonality where before there’d been none.  

In the years following that storybook season, certain players, fans, and sportswriters criticized Braves fans as fair-weather—failing to sell out for playoff games; a football city that would never fully convert, even with all those league-championship jewels in the crown. As the Braves moved from underdogs to perennial favorites, these critics lamented the loss of the fairytale ’91 fans. But I always knew that this wasn’t the full story. While the attention of some Braves fans may have wavered with the MLB players’ strike of ‘94, or tapered off after the one and only World Series victory of ’95, there were also always fans like me, fans who never stopped believing.

In July, the Braves invited the ‘91 team back for alumni weekend on the 25th anniversary of their worst-to-first-season—and, listening on my earbuds, walking the hot and tangled streets of Manhattan, I was transported back to that summer of ‘91. Hearing the announcers retell the highlights of that team was as soothing to me as a bedtime story. Being a fan isn’t technical—it’s about the stories we construct and the narratives we tell, and our relationship to personal, familial and communal histories as shared around those narratives. Fandom becomes a part of our identity, and in the act of identifying oneself in the fates of others, there is a kind of faith.

It was that ’91 season that made many of us Braves fans forever. And the reasons we stay are less analytical than they are a conduit to that feeling—in rooting for this team, you are remembering that first team you loved, and every team thereafter. You are remembering the people and communities you shared these teams with. Our knowledge of the game has deepened over the years, and accumulating information and trivial facts is also part of the fun—We’ve gotten geekier with stats and less attached to individual players. This accrued wisdom has made us even better at connecting with baseball nerds with whom we might not otherwise connect. We’ve learned about sabermetrics and the farm system and the infield fly rule and the trade deadline and all the other (un)sexy realities that being a fan offers. But the payoff of being a day-in/day-out fan is reconnecting on a daily basis with that 9 year-old who first discovered baseball joy, and baseball storytelling, and baseball community, and who hasn’t let go since.  

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That last game I saw with my dad at Turner Field? Bottom of the ninth, two on, two out—clutch hit.

We won.

But driving by the stadium now as it awaits demolition, I feel sad, knowing my dad and I will never again repeat that particular ritual.  It’s as if, in removing the team from the heart of the city, they’ve also drained heart from the team. Ghost of stadiums and seasons past.

I see shiny pictures of the new stadium on social media, and the images look sleek, airbrushed, empty of soul. It could be any stadium in any town—it looks nothing like the city I know.

Last season, after first being worried about how I would handle the constant losing, in the end, I just kept watching. I don’t know if this is choice as much as it is love.  Like love, fandom isn’t rational. It’s emotional. I watched every game, win or lose. There were decisions I don’t agree with, including the one to move to Cobb County. There were frustrations on micro and macro levels. There were many blown saves and anemic lineups. But fandom is less about integrity than it is about loyalty. It’s about a shared group of people who, as a community, partake in epic highs and heartbreaking lows.

My watching, like my love, felt more difficult than seasons past maybe, but impossible to refute. As in the years when we were winning, last season connected me to the people in my life suffering the same interminable losses, and it connected me with fans from other teams (Boston fans, Chicago fans, Detroit fans) who could speak to how fans stay fans during the toughest of times, and then the winning is that much sweeter. I started listening to a Braves podcast, whose hosts could articulate my misery even better than I could, and whose listenership reminded me I was not alone. Even when the team had diminished, the community was strong.

I think the tricky thing is when this kind of love or loyalty makes you blind to larger societal evils, particularly those cultural ills a team implicitly or explicitly nourishes— see, for example, in Braves history: 1) John Rocker and 2) the Tomahawk Chop. To be a fan, then, is to wrestle with these offenses and to discuss why they’re hurtful and potentially destructive to others, not to accept them as representative of your team or your values.  

I’m not that 9-year-old anymore. I can’t turn a blind eye to this move. This game and this team matter to me— the childhood fairy tale may have worn off, but the memory of it hasn’t. Rooting for a team whose politics are inconsistent with mine doesn’t make me less of a fan or less of a progressive.

Being a fan is complicated politically— we root for players all the time who, to varying degrees, don’t share our values or visions. But increasingly, as athletes, coaches, and owners make their politics known, and in an alarmingly polarized country, it’s all the more important to talk about and through these gaps— to realize that adult love isn’t blind, that baseball is imperfect, that fandom carries with it as much opportunity to learn about ourselves as it does about our teams.

More and more, I see sports as something (maybe the only thing) that can tentatively connect disparate parts of a shared community and get people talking to each other who wouldn’t otherwise; red-district to blue-district, old to young, rural to urban to suburban. It’s a space for shared heroes, shared heartbreak, shared triumph, and group mythology. It’s a starting place.

We need to preserve these psychic and physical spaces, not tear them down.

 

Jackie Reitzes follows the Braves as well as Michigan football from New York City, where she also teaches writing and is at work on a short story collection. You can read more of her writing here and here.

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  1. [1] Also, AUC, Atlanta’s consortium of historically-black colleges, is less than three miles away. The city and its suburbs have a thriving black middle class, yet economic disparities remain, largely divided along racial lines. The paradox is that new large office buildings represent corporate success and prosperity but not necessarily jobs for the poorer and mostly black residents in nearby neighborhoods. The other paradox is that during the day downtown is a vibrant mix of office workers and university students but at night and on the weekends it is largely deserted except for occasional homeless people.
  2. [2]The Braves began 0-9 and were 5-18 by end of April, with only two wins at home. At end of first half, the Braves were dead last in the majors is runs, home runs, average, and slugging.

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