Welcome to Flashback Friday: Take Me Out to 34 Ballparks, a celebration, critique and countdown of every major league ballpark one baseball fan has been fortunate enough to visit in a lifetime of going to ballgames.
BALLPARK: Turner Field
HOME TEAM: Atlanta Braves
VISITED: April 5, 1998
CHRONOLOGY: 20th of 34
RANKING: 9th of 34
By the final Sunday of the 1998 baseball season, I’d have nothing good to say about the Atlanta Braves nor anything good to think about their home ballpark — we would be swept there to end that star-crossed season and we would be defeated six out of six times in Dixie when all was said and done that year. But those feelings were still nearly six months from fully materializing on the first Sunday of the 1998 baseball season. I spent that first Sunday at Turner Field in Atlanta, and I came away thinking nothing bad at all about a team I was about to spend the next half-decade truly loathing and a stadium of which would provoke in me nothing but Met fear.
But this particular afternoon wasn’t about fear or loathing and it wasn’t more than peripherally about the Mets (who were represented by the cap on my head and my inveterate applauding of the visiting first baseman, ex-Met icon Rico Brogna). It was about extreme satisfaction with a venue and intoxication by the performance put on within.
Turner Field was that good that day. And the game was even better.
I developed a theory about Turner Field after spending nine sublime innings in its company. It had to do with the name on the door. Something about Turner Field looked and felt uncommonly perfect for baseball. It transcended what we were already calling “retro”. Turner Field didn’t feel retro. It felt traditional, like if you had to conjure a “ballpark” in your mind, you might come up with how this one looked while you were sitting in it.
Ted Turner, I thought. Ted Turner’s in the entertainment business. Ted, I decided, put his best showbiz people on Turner Field. He called in his set designers after the 1996 Olympics were over, before the stadium would be converted for the Braves’ use, and said give me something that allows our patrons to get lost in baseball as they watch our games: not gimmicky, nothing distracting, just appropriate.
If that’s the way it happened, then thanks Ted; it worked. And if it didn’t go down that way at all, it’s enough that I believe it.
Maybe it was the seats I had (Loge-like) or the shadows enveloping home plate (as they will anywhere in early April) or, ultimately, the kind of game I had the good luck to draw out of a proverbial hat when I ordered my tickets in the offseason (the date was keyed to a craft brewers conference I just had to cover for my magazine). However it happened, it all came together. My circumstances coalesced magnificently at Turner Field. Perhaps mine was a unique experience, as I’ve rarely heard anybody else include the Ted as one of the best ballparks going.
Turner Field went light on many of the flourishes on which its contemporaries rely. It’s got plenty of bricks (1.265 million of them, according to my copy of Braves Fan Magazine & Scorecard) and it features terraces and plazas and its share of modern-day distractions, but I never sensed any of it getting in the way of the game. Those things were there if you wanted them — I loved that there was a wall of TVs showing all other in-progress games from around the majors, particularly Pirates at Mets — but they didn’t pull you away from the action.
I also loved that only so many molds were broken in the building of this ballpark, architectural peer pressure be damned. Intimate? From my seat, absolutely, but the capacity was a shade over 50,000. What good is a team that wins its division with disgusting regularity if you can’t have everybody over whenever they want to drop by? And the dimensions of Turner Field were close to symmetrical: 335-380-400-390-330, not a sharp corner in sight. This wasn’t a popular tack to take in the 1990s, as everybody was going for quirky, desperately evoking what street grids made unavoidable when the old century got going. It was charming to a point, but it struck me as pretentious after it was repeated endlessly in ballparks that went up in parking lots. I appreciated Turner Field not forcing the matter.
It may not have been a lyric little bandbox à la Fenway and it may not have produced 289 different angles off its scoreboard like Ebbets, but it didn’t have to. Those places were the way they were because of where they were built. Turner Field did fine being what it was without being overly cute about it. It hit its marks is what it did.
It also served as a soundstage for what I’ve always referred to internally as The Duel in the Sun, which is probably the most compelling reason I left Turner Field feeling so good about the place. The starting pitchers for that Sunday game between the visiting Philadelphia Phillies and the homestanding Atlanta Braves were Curt Schilling and Greg Maddux.
How great does that sound? Not nearly as great as it actually was.
I was still glowing from the first game I saw in 1998: Opening Day at Shea, a classic in its own right. The Mets won 1-0 in 14 innings over those same Phillies. The starter for us had been Bobby Jones, the starter for them was Schilling. We won, but their starter pitched most sensationally: 8 innings, 2 hits, 1 walk, 9 strikeouts. That it was the first game of the season made it all the more impressive — aren’t these guys supposed to take it easy coming out of the gate?
Now I was following Schilling to Atlanta and realized Opening Day was just a warmup for him. As for Maddux…he was Maddux. He went eight innings against Philadelphia that sunny, shadowy Sunday at Turner Field: in 96 pitches over 8 innings, he allowed just 5 hits. His only walk was intentional and that was in service to untangling an eighth inning that went like this:
• Chipper Jones error on an Alex Arias grounder
• Curt Schilling sacrifice bunt, Schilling safe at first
• Doug Glanville sacrifice bunt
• Intentional BB to Gregg Jefferies (2-for-3) in hopes of teasing a ground ball double play out of Scott Rolen
Rolen overcame Bobby Cox’s strategy by lifting a fly ball to right for the second Phillie run — unearned. It broke a 1-1 tie. Philadelphia earlier scored on a 4-6-3 DP. So Maddux didn’t allow any opposing batter to drive in a run off of him. Pretty darn good, huh?
Nevertheless, Schilling, a very different type of pitcher, was better and it was still barely enough to top Maddux. After he struck out his first two hitters in the first, he gave up a pretty convincing home run to Chipper/Larry. Then he struck out Andres Galarraga, and he never looked back. Curt Schilling outpitched Greg Maddux in the fifth game of the season, just as he outdid himself from Opening Day against the Mets: 9 innings, 5 hits, 1 walk and just that solo blast early for the only Brave run.
And 15 strikeouts.
The thunderous Atlanta Braves couldn’t touch Schilling. Galarraga alone struck out 4 times. Jones and (bafflingly) Rafael Belliard were the only starting Braves who didn’t K. It was phenomenal watching this battle of styles unfold. Maddux the craftsman, Schilling the power thrower. On this unbelievably perfect early April afternoon in what would become the year of the home run, pitching ruled.
So did Turner Field.