Braves stars draw big crowd in Warner Robins

wcrenshaw@macon.comFebruary 2, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- People visiting Academy Sports + Outdoors a little after 4 p.m. Saturday may have thought they had time warped back to Black Friday.

The parking lot was full and the store was packed. One difference from Black Friday, though, was that most of the people inside were wearing Atlanta Braves apparel.

They were there for the last stop in the annual Braves caravan, which gives fans a chance to get autographs from players and coaches. The event Saturday featured Braves legend Phil Niekro, whose rare mastery of the knuckleball earned him a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Fans were also able to get autographs from former first baseman Ryan Klesko, former catcher Eddie Perez, who is now the Braves bullpen coach, minor league pitcher David Hale, and hitting coach Greg Walker.

Logan Beek, 11, his 7-year-old brother, Landon, and his grandmother, Jillian Roach, came from McDonough to add to the collection of signatures on Logan’s wooden baseball bat. They have been traveling around the state to the caravan stops.

Logan’s prize signature for Saturday wasn’t one of the more recent Braves stars, but Niekro, who played his last game before Logan was born. He rattled off a litany of Niekro facts and statistics, however, when asked why he is a fan.

His bat also includes the signature of another Hall of Famer, Don Sutton, who is now the Braves radio announcer. That would likely make it fetch a good price on the collectors’ market, but Logan isn’t selling.

“Are you kidding, after all this?” said Roach. “I’ve been driving them all over the state.”

Cindy Bell drove even further to see her favorite Brave, Klesko. She, her husband and their three children drove about three and half hours from Summerville, and got to the store over six hours before the Braves. One of her sons, Ryan, is named after Klesko.

“I always thought he was a fantastic first baseman,” she said. “I’ve watched him on TV many, many times but this is the first time I have seen him up close.”

Although the caravan was about an hour late in arriving, it didn’t seem to have sent many people home. Shortly after the autograph session started, store personnel estimated that close to 500 people were waiting in the line that wrapped around the inside perimeter of the store.

The caravan has been traveling throughout Georgia and surrounding states for the past two weeks to drum up excitement for the upcoming season. Saturday’s stop in Warner Robins marked the last stop on the tour.

Pitchers and catchers report for spring training Feb. 11.

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

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