I have a hard time dealing with new. That’s the primary reason I’ve kept the same wife and house for almost 40 years. The thought of trying something different just never has sat well with me.
A couple of weeks ago I was in Nashville and went to the Grand Ole Opry. I complained to my host that I liked the Ryman Auditorium better than the “new place.” She reminded me that the “new place” opened in 1974.
For more than two years I have avoided the trip to Sun Trust Park like it would give me hives. And, understand, I am a baseball guy. During the time the Braves were playing games without me at their “new” stadium — (2017 isn’t the same as 1974) — I visited Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Camden Yards, Minute Maid Park, Busch Stadium III and Yankee Stadium — five times. I love having fun at the old ball park as much as the next guy.
But I’m still not over Ponce de Leon Park being torn down. I was at the first game ever played in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The Milwaukee Braves played the Detroit Tigers in an exhibition game. Aaron hit a homerun, the first in the new stadium. Tommie Aaron, who would combine with his brother Hank for 769 Major League home runs, which is still a record for brothers. Rico Carty got thrown out at second and out of the game during the ensuing argument. I was 13 and had only seen baseball in black and white. The greenness of the grass is still what I remember most about that night.
I was also at the last game ever played at The Launching Pad. My preacher and friend, David Hancock, secured us seats on the front row in left field. The contest was in the World Series, against the New York Yankees. In between I had seen so many marvelous sights in that old ball yard that I couldn’t remember them all if I tried. I saw Denny Lemaster duel Sandy Koufax and Denny McLain try to make a comeback on the Fourth of July. I saw Mike Lum hit three homeruns in one game. I saw Phil Neikro pitch to young Bob Dedier and his big mitt. I saw Dale Murphy at the height of what should be a Hall of Fame career, and I saw him struggle so mightily in the end that I felt sorry for him when walked to the plate. I saw Karl Wallenda walk a tight-rope across the top of the stadium and saw the Beach Boys play behind second base after a game, while eating pizza from the now defunct chain, Gigi’s.
And I watched the stadium that I loved, that took me from childhood to manhood, implode one Saturday morning. It took less than 30 seconds.
I was slow warming up to the new stadium down the street, but eventually went in with some friends and shared season tickets for several years. Honesty compels me to admit that I never warmed up to The Ted, but Mr. Maddux and Tom Glavine and John Smoltz pitched there frequently, so, being a baseball guy, I went — often. Besides, I could get there from my house in 25 minutes — and later, from my daughter’s house in three.
And then the Braves up and moved to Cobb County, and I was done with baseball in person in Atlanta. I knew that I couldn’t navigate traffic at the intersection of 285 and 75 at game time, not to mention parking and walking and I knew they had a nice neighborhood if you could get there and the whole new Battery thing, but I go to a ballgame to watch a ballgame. So, I had passed on the whole Sun Trust Park experience.
But I didn’t count on one thing. There was a constant that tied Atlanta-Fulton County, Turner Field and Sun Trust Park together — I mean besides baseball.
Walter Banks has spanned the baseball generations and has been an usher and Braves Goodwill Ambassador at all three places — and a couple of weeks ago, Walter wanted to show me around the new stadium. I wasn’t about to say no to Walter Banks. He is the kindest, most considerate and most genuine person I know.
So, my lovely wife, Lisa, and I braved the rush hour traffic and made our appointment with Walter. As an added bonus, our own hometown hero, Matt Cooper, was being honored that night and even threw out the first pitch.
The Battery is amazing. The stadium is amazing. But nothing compares to being in the presence of Walter Banks while he gives you a tour of his environs — and make no mistake — the ball park is his environs. Having Walter Banks show you around Sun Trust Park is like having God show you around Heaven.
We were sold. We will be back. If there is no World Series this fall, then we’ll wait for next year.
Thank you, Walter, for opening our eyes to the wonders of Cobb County baseball.