Ron Seibel

Shiny new SunTrust Park’s time has come

Fans head to SunTrust Park before the Atlanta Braves open their new ballpark for a March 31 exhibition spring training baseball game against the New York Yankees. After a short 20-year stay at Turner Field, the Braves begin their SunTrust Park era on Friday night in their home opener against the San Diego Padres.
Fans head to SunTrust Park before the Atlanta Braves open their new ballpark for a March 31 exhibition spring training baseball game against the New York Yankees. After a short 20-year stay at Turner Field, the Braves begin their SunTrust Park era on Friday night in their home opener against the San Diego Padres. AP

About 13 or 14 years ago, I drove into Atlanta for the first time, taking a long weekend road trip from where I was living in the Florida panhandle.

In town to see a concert, visit a friend and to take in some of what the big city had to offer while not wanting to spend much, I stayed at a motel off Circle 75 Parkway. There wasn’t much in that neighborhood at the time, maybe a few office buildings and light industrial sites to go along with a couple of lodging places. It wasn’t dirty by any means, but it didn’t seem like much was going on there, either.

That area wound up being the spot where Atlanta Braves ownership placed its big bet, its bet that a baseball stadium doesn’t have to be a one-off piece of construction and instead can serve as the centerpiece of a project that will have people living, working, shopping and eating every day of the year in the area surrounding the ballpark.

Braves ownership wanted to partner with the city of Atlanta to develop the area around Turner Field following the Olympics. That never took off. Instead, unable to get things done near downtown, ownership took a more hands on approach, talking Cobb County into helping launch its plan.

Having a neighborhood tie in with the stadium is as old as baseball itself. Having that neighborhood developed and controlled by the team playing in that stadium? That’s new.

Detroit is following this plan to an extent with Little Caesars Arena, the new home of the NHL’s Red Wings and NBA’s Pistons. The arena is part of a development that will tie the existing stadium district — Comerica Park and Ford Field — with the Ilitch family’s Motor City Casino on the opposite side of Interstate 75.

The Braves’ plan, however, started with an almost blank canvas. It’s bold. And it’s also risky.

As much as the Braves have pushed the idea of prepaid parking (all parking in Braves-controlled lots will be prepaid only this weekend) and the use of smartphone traffic apps like Waze, this traffic pattern is going to be new to everyone. Except for those who live in the Cumberland area who know a thing or two about the neighborhood, simply getting one’s bearings straight will be a time-consuming process.

With already tight Atlanta rush hour traffic making for a long ride, the I-85 collapse will make things even tighter on the I-285 loop, where drivers will be bypassing the gap left in Midtown.

For those going to the game, especially those coming from a good distance away like Middle Georgia fans will be, pack some patience and expect some stop-and-go traffic. A half-day off from work Friday afternoon wouldn’t be a bad insurance policy to take for this opener, either.

Some opening night traffic woes will be typical and fixable. But there will be elements of the traffic pattern that might not be solved short of a MARTA rail extension, and any plan for a northwest line has to compete with a promised Clayton County extension and possible Emory-Centers for Disease Control and Prevention line.

Once fans get to the ballpark, they will see a Braves team that, while showing a little bit of pop from a few players, got off to a slow 2-6 start on the road. A little too early to panic, perhaps, but 2-6 isn’t much better than the pace the Braves were on at the start of last season. And that pace triggered a managerial change.

We’ll see how the Braves respond to the new park. Like the adjustment to new traffic patterns, watching this team will require patience.

Ron Seibel: 478-744-4222, @RonSeibel

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