Four years ago, I made my first ever visit to Turner Field, the now former home of the Atlanta Braves. In my review, I wrote that “I enjoyed Turner Field more than I thought I would and more than I wanted to,” and later added:
The stadium is an enjoyable, not overly complicated experience. Despite the fact that I don’t root for the Braves, I look forward to being back at Turner Field.
Then about three months later, the Braves announced plans to relocate to a brand new ballpark. It would be in Cobb County, about 10 miles north of downtown, and be ready for baseball by the start of the 2017 season, in what would have been Turner Field's 21st season. These plans were met with significant criticism. Since the park would be publicly funded, many saw it as a waste of taxpayer money. Others questioned the logistics of moving to an already congested and crowded area. Still more noticed that the Braves were moving out of the city and into the richer, mostly white suburbs.
I won't spend the whole article questioning the necessity of a new ballpark. But when your team builds a new park, you certainly want it to be a much better experience overall than the old park, especially if it's fully or partially funded with your tax dollars. So a review of SunTrust Park has to consider the park it's replacing.
Nonetheless, it's a ballpark, and I was eager to check it out. So I managed to convince my girlfriend Sara that driving to Atlanta to watch a baseball game would be a fun thing to do (when she didn't buy that, I had to use the birthday weekend argument) and we were able to see a game there last Saturday.
We drove to Atlanta on Saturday afternoon and arrived about two hours before game time. The hotel wasn't far from the ballpark, but we opted to Uber to the park instead of driving. In a sign of the times, the Braves have designated a dedicated dropoff zone near the park for rideshare passengers as well as several pickup zones.
We had a little time to kill before the game, so we walked around The Battery Atlanta – the retail complex built adjacent to SunTrust Park – a bit before heading into the park. In what should have been a harbinger of the evening to come, The Battery was packed with people. I'm not sure if this kind of crowd will be the norm, because several factors may have contributed to how crowded it was. For one, the weather was gorgeous and it was a Saturday night in Atlanta. Also, it was Star Wars night, so many fans and staff were dressed up in costumes and participating in the various themed distractions on the avenues throughout the Battery. Finally, the Braves were playing the St. Louis Cardinals, whose fans alway travel well: I'd estimate that 30% of the fans at SunTrust Park on Saturday were Cardinals fans.
Not all of the shops and restaurants are open yet, but it's not hard to imagine The Battery being really cool – and potentially super crowded – when everything is open. I also get the feeling that this model of building a retail complex next to a new sports arena is the first of many to come; this is how new ballparks will be built for the next thirty years.
The security lines to get into the ballpark were long but moved quickly, and I was relieved to finally get into the park, thinking there would be some relief from the crowds.
I was sorely disappointed.
SunTrust Park seats 41,149 people, and I'm pretty sure every single one of them were in the concourses before the game started. I've never been in a ballpark with concourses that were that crowded, and it's astonishing that a ballpark designed so recently would have crowd control problems of this magnitude. The concession lines were predictably long, but they were made worse by the fact that they weren't really organized and people trying to navigate the concourses sometimes had no choice but to cut through the lines. Even worse than that, Braves vendors and employees were working the concourses themselves, either selling food and beer out of carts or moving food and beer on carts between concession stands, making the logjams in the concourses even worse.
This means that the Braves either don't know of or don't acknowledge the crowd control problem on the concourses. And that's a serious problem: it might seem trivial that everyone has to wait a little while for food or fight their way to their seats, but what if there was a more pressing emergency? Paramedics might not be able to get to a fan who's just collapsed, or fans might be trampled while the rest of the stadium tries to evacuate in an orderly fashion. Concourses that crowded are just a recipe for disaster, and it's inexcusable that no one at the Braves seems to have thought of this.
Sara and I finally managed to get to the front of the line and ordered a burger basket apiece. We were pleasantly surprised to find that they came with two patties, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and cheese, as well as a generous helping of curly fries. We both agreed that they were really, really delicious, but we may have been biased: we were both pretty hungry when we ate them.
I finished my burger just in time to get my camera out before the first pitch and I was finally able to get a better look around the stadium. The seating bowl at SunTrust Park is much less cookie-cutter than that of Turner Field. It's a four deck affair between the foul poles in foul territory, while the outfield is mostly one deck with some restaurant-style seating. The seating bowl in general feels very expansive (in stark contrast to the concourses).
While we were seated, the people running the production at SunTrust Park seemed reluctant to let any lull in the action pass in silence. The organist especially was never one to miss an opportunity, enthusiastically playing whatever songs he could think of between virtually every pitch. Between innings there was always something to watch, usually involving one lucky fan and a chance to win something by doing some feat as we watched on the scoreboard. I can't remember if Turner Field was like this, but I wouldn't have minded a few more quiet moments.
Sara and I were originally going to get up to explore the rest of the park after the third inning, but it started drizzling a bit and a lot of fans scampered for the concourses. We were under cover so we decided to stay where we were for one more inning before getting up to walk.
By then the concourses were still crowded, but because people were mostly in their seats, they were at least navigable. One thing I noticed after the concourses had cleared out a bit is that the sightlines from each of the three concourses to the field are excellent. Except for the Monument Garden behind home plate and the Sandlot behind the batter's eye, the view of the field is mostly unimpeded no matter where you are. This is a marked improvement over Turner Field, where big brick walls blocked the sightlines throughout much of the concourses.
The Sandlot, located behind the batter's eye in center field, is the most extensive kid's area I've seen at a ballpark. It features VR games, pitch speed radars, a rock climbing wall and even two ziplines. I thought it was interesting that the Sandlot area has lanes painted on the ground so kids know what line to stand in, an idea which could be even more useful if extended to the rest of the park.
The Monument Garden is located behind home plate and serves as the Braves Hall of Fame. It has a kind of bizarre vibe: it's not an unpleasant space, but – to me anyway – it feels a little too serious; more like a Holocaust memorial than a hall of fame for a baseball team. It's a really big space that's nearly filled to capacity with plaques, trophies and artifacts, a testament to the long and storied history of the Braves. If you visit SunTrust Park and are interested in the Monument Garden, I'd recommend picking an early- or late-season game; it's not hard to imagine the shade, plants and fountains in Monument Garden becoming an oasis for fans looking to escape the heat from a scorching summer afternoon in Atlanta.
As we left SunTrust Park, Sara and I stopped at Antico, the pizzeria and gelato parlor just outside the gates of the ballpark. Sara saw a sign for Nutella gelato, and as self-professed gelato fans, we had to try it. It had gotten a bit chilly by the time we left, so the line was short and we were served quickly. We both chose the small size of nocciola gelato, which is simply hazelnut gelato with Nutella streaks mixed in. (Nocciola is Italian for “hazelnut”, but it means “delicious” in any other language. True story.) As a Nutella junkie, I can safely say that this was the best gelato I've ever had. If you go to SunTrust Park, I highly recommend a stop at Antico – both before and after the game.
As for the game itself, the Cardinals jumped out to an early 5-0 lead and were able to withstand a late 3-run home run and ended up winning 5-3. The Braves aren't very good this year, and they're not supposed to be, but the hope is that they'll be competitive within the next couple seasons or so.
And that's sort of the hope for SunTrust Park and The Battery Atlanta as well. The Battery isn't quite finished yet, and there's certainly room to improve significantly inside the ballpark, but both the ballpark and the Battery are there for the long haul. I also really do think that we'll point at SunTrust Park thirty years from now and say this is the park that ushered in the next era of ballpark designs.
With all of that said, what was true four years ago is still true now: there are at least three stadiums in Major League Baseball that are in dire need of replacement, and Turner Field wasn't one of them. So while SunTrust Park in Cobb County is indisputably a groundbreaking and beautiful ballpark, it's probably at least five or ten years too early.
More pictures from my trip to SunTrust Park are available here. Thanks to Sara Rowe for reading a draft of this post, and also for her patience to put up with me on one of these visits. :)