Gwinnett Braves: A great experiment or failed endeavor?

A beautiful and steamy day at Coolray Field, home of the Gwinnett Braves

Despite the Gwinnett Braves playing in nearby Gwinnett County for the past 3 years, I had yet to make it over to Coolray Field and take a look at the Atlanta Braves AAA affiliate. That changed yesterday when a last minute decision led to a trek over to Gwinnett County where success apparently lives. Before I get to the game (which the Braves won) it’s important that we visit the history of the Braves AAA team and what led them to the decision to move to the Atlanta suburbs.

As the 2000’s wore on, it looked increasingly likely that the Atlanta Braves AAA affiliate–the Richmond Braves–would leave their longtime home in search of a city that would build them a state-of-the-art new ballpark. The city of Richmond wasn’t having it and couldn’t afford to build the stadium that Braves desperately wanted. In January of 2008, the Richmond Braves announced their intention to move to Gwinnett County, in the northern suburbs of Atlanta. The early reaction was exciting as fans anticipated the arrival of the Braves AAA team only a 40 minute drive from the MLB club. The excitement and anticipation quickly evaporated as reality set in.

The Braves AAA team called Richmond home for 43 seasons and for some, it seemed like the capital of Virginia would always serve as the home from the up and coming Braves. When aforementioned drama over a new stadium boiled over, the Braves darted out of Richmond so fast, it seemed like the previous 43 years were a dream. Once Gwinnett County came calling, it was a done deal, the Richmond Braves were coming to Georgia. However, Gwinnett’s promises were shortsighted and have led to a myriad of local issues surrounding the construction of Coolray Field, the anticipated growth of the surrounding area, and the tax revenue the county expected from packed houses. Outside of the stadium, most of the promises never came to fruition leaving a gaping hole in what Gwinnett wanted to prove.

Shockingly enough, building new stadiums in the middle of nowhere doesn’t actually help economic growth. Fascinated with the subject, I took it upon myself to do some research on the matter. While I won’t bore you with the details, let’s just put it this way, when a city, county, or state tries to convince the public that it’s a wise investment of tax dollars to build a big stadium, the economic growth they promise rarely–if ever–happens. Stadiums are only in use for half of the year (if that) and sit mostly vacant when the home team isn’t playing there. When Gwinnett woed the Braves away from Richmond, they promised their citizens a robust economic development plan that included new housing, commercial development, and more. Outside of an apartment and town home complex behind Coolray Field (many of these brand new town homes remain up for sale), most of what Gwinnett promised never happened.

Empty seats were everywhere at Coolray Field as the G-Braves are struggling to lure crowds away from their big brothers in Atlanta.

Granted much of the lack of development is the result of the prolonged recession, and many businesses just weren’t willing to fork over the bucks to develop the land surrounding the stadium. However it must be noted that Gwinnett was third to last in International League attendance in 2011 and empty seats were plentiful at yesterday’s game. Gwinnett County has admitted that they were rushed into the development and construction of the park, which coincided with the Great Recession. Wilmington, North Carolina, which is trying to lure to the Braves’  advanced A affiliate Lynchburg Hillcats to the city, was recently warned by Gwinnett to take their time with their plans.

I do hope Gwinnett can successfully develop the area around the park because it’s wonderful to have AAA baseball so close the big Braves in Atlanta. From a logistical perspective, it makes it very easy for Atlanta to call a player up and have them at Turner Field within an hour, rather than a player having to get a flight to Atlanta last minute. It also provides easy access to prospects from the Braves’ scouts. Need to take a look at a pitcher in Gwinnett? Hop on I-85 north until you get to exit 115. Easy as that. Convenience is nice. It’s not too late to save Gwinnett’s new home team, and now is the time for the county to correct its errors!

So how was it to root for the G-Braves? Let’s find out!

The Stadium/Surrounding Area

Coolray Field is nestled into a relatively undeveloped area just a few minutes from I-85 near Lawrenceville, GA. It’s a short drive away from the Mall of Georgia, where most of the local commercial development resides. The stadium itself is great. You enter into the main concourse behind home plate, and there isn’t a bad seat in the house. Tickets will cost you anywhere from $6.00 to sit in the general admission lawn up to $34 to sit directly behind home plate at field level. For around $17 after fees, you can get an incredible seat behind home or along either base line. No matter where you sit, you’re in for a treat. The park has all the luxuries of a modern park, with plentiful concessions, a large team store, and even an indoor bar named Niekro’s. Coolray Field seats just over 10,000 fans and like most Minor League games, it’s great inexpensive entertainment for families. There are inflatable games for kids beyond the right field wall in the general admission lawn area and provide plenty of exhausting activities for kids. The only downside (which is common throughout MiLB) is you can’t bring outside food or beverages into the park. On a hot day, it would’ve been nice to bring a couple bottles of water, but prices inside are reasonable and are about on par with other MiLB parks.

Neikro’s, a bar named from Braves great Phil Neikro provides some relief from the heat for fans.

The real complaint goes to the heart of what I mentioned in my lengthy introduction, there’s nothing to do around Coolray Field. There are several undeveloped or partially developed business parks, an apartment/town home community behind the stadium, but nothing else to speak of. When you look beyond the outfield during the game you see the highway, a couple of older houses across the street and nothing but woods. The fact is, if you’re coming to see the Gwinnett Braves, that’s exactly what you’re doing. If you want to find anything else in the area before or after the game, you better head toward the Mall of Georgia, because that’s the best you’re going to get within any reasonable distance from the park. Gwinnett County is committed to improving this and they’re hopeful that as the economy improves, businesses will invest in the area around Coolray Field.

If Gwinnett is to succeed longterm as a home for AAA baseball, then major improvements around their ballpark must happen. The stadium is a treat, but considering large cities such as Nashville, Louisville, and Indianapolis are all home to AAA teams, Gwinnett must do something to keep pace with the rest of the International League. Overall, the stadium is great and was on par with Louisville Slugger Field (the other AAA park I’ve visited this season)

The Game

Very little pre-game research was done or really needed to be conducted prior to the game about the Gwinnett Braves. The metro-Atlanta area is my home and being a diehard Braves fan, I naturally follow the Gwinnett Braves. While it’s been nice getting regular coverage of the Braves AAA squad in the local paper and online, I had yet to venture over to Gwinnett to see a game. Yesterday, the G-Braves took on the Durham Bulls (Tampa Bay’s AAA affiliate) in the rubber match of a three game series. After entering the stadium, I was pleased to see that Braves super prospect Julio Teheran was taking the mound for the G-Braves. Teheran had a stellar 2011 and was mowing down batters in the Minors left and right, but Teheran has struggled a bit in the 2012 season. Despite getting the win, his struggles were evident and numerous.

Top Braves prospect Julio Teheran pitched for the G-Braves, but struggled giving up 7 runs off 9 hits in 7 innings of work.

After a solid first inning, Teheran unraveled in the 2nd. He gave up a 3 run home run in the second and then gave up 4 more runs in the fifth. Teheran still has the potential to be the great ace that Atlanta hopes he’ll be, but he’s a long way off from his 2011 International League pitcher and rookie of the year. Other than Teheran’s struggles, the G-Braves looked far better offensively. They put 11 runs, including 5 in the first, 3 in the third, and were able to put up 11 total for an impressive offensive display.

Durham did put up a fight and were able to get within 2 runs in the ninth inning, but it wasn’t enough as the G-Braves defeated the Bulls 11-9 and took the series 2-1.

Final Thoughts & Overall Experience

It was certainly a step up from the single A and AA games I’ve seen and G-Braves, despite recent struggles, still put a much better product on the field than my other AAA game this season in Louisville. Coolray Field is a great modern park with all the amenities fans have grown to expect at parks both big and small. What brings the experience down is the lack of anything else to do around the ballpark. No restaurants, shops, or downtown area to explore before or after the game. It was pretty simple, I went in, watched baseball, walked around the park, and promptly drove home after the game. The G-Braves went on an epic losing streak recently and slipped from first to last in the South Division of the International League, but the product on the field is great. The team has players that have already made it to the Bigs and to see them play so close is a real treat.

I look forward to visiting Coolray Field again (who wouldn’t? It’s so close!) and hopefully Gwinnett County will make additional efforts to improve the area around the park.

Final GradeB

Braves win!

What’s next?

Reality always sets in during the summer time and unfortunately we have no additional games (outside of Atlanta games) on the schedule. We’re trying to make it back to Montgomery before the season is over, and both the Savannah Sand Gnats and Augusta Green Jackets are on the radar. We’ll surely be at the Civil Rights Game series in August (something I sadly missed in 2011) and I’m looking forward to covering Atlanta’s second Civil Rights Game, this year against the Dodgers.

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