Thursday, September 27, 2012

How to Be a Met Fan in Atlanta - 2012 Edition

The Mets are about to continue the playing out of the string by going to go to Atlanta to face their old pals, the Braves.

Despite beating them in the first-ever National League Championship Series in 1969, the Mets and Braves were really only rivals for a brief time, roughly 1998 to 2001. In each of those seasons, the Braves won the NL Eastern Division and the Mets finished 2nd, just missing the Wild Card in '98, getting it before losing to the Braves in the NL Championship Series in '99, then catching a break in 2000 when the Braves lost to the St. Louis Cardinals, who then lost to the Mets. Who then, of course, lost the World Series to the Yankees.

Now that the Phillies have gotten good, the Mets are, for the first time in their history, really, seeing what a rivalry is.

DISCLAIMER: I have never been to Atlanta.  Much of this information is from the Braves' website.  And, of course, with the series starting tomorrow, you won't have much of a chance to put any plan based on this entry into action.  Sorry, but due to commitments in the real world, the delay couldn't be helped.

Before You Go. Being well south of New York, Atlanta is usually warmer than we are. In addition, Turner Field does not offer much protection from the sun.  The website of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (used to be 2 papers, now 1) is predicting low 80s for afternoons and mid-60s for evenings, with a 30 percent chance of rain on Saturday.  So dress for warm weather, even though we're in late September.  They don't call it "Hot-lanta" just for its nightlife.

Although Georgia, a.k.a. The Heart of the South, seceded from the Union in 1861, it was readmitted in 1870. You do not need a passport, and you don't need to change your U.S. dollars into Confederate money. Do keep in mind, though: They think you talk as funny as you think they do.

Getting There. It’s 868 miles from Times Square in New York to Five Points, Atlanta’s center of attention.  Google Maps says the fastest way from New York to Atlanta by road is to take the Holland Tunnel to Interstate 78 to Harrisburg, then I-81 through the Appalachian Mountains, and then it gets complicated from there.

No, the best way to go, if you must drive, is to take the New Jersey Turnpike/I-95 all the way from New Jersey to Petersburg, Virginia. Exit 51 will put you on I-85 South, and that will take you right into Atlanta.

You’ll be in New Jersey for about an hour and a half, Delaware for 20 minutes, Maryland for 2 hours, inside the Capital Beltway (Maryland, District of Columbia and Virginia) for half an hour if you’re lucky (and don’t make a rest stop there), Virginia for 3 hours, North Carolina for 4 hours, South Carolina for about an hour and 45 minutes, and Georgia outside I-285 (the beltway known as the Perimeter, the Atlanta Bypass or “the O around the A”) for an hour and a half.

Throw in traffic in and around New York at one end, Washington in the middle, and Atlanta at the other end, and we’re talking 16 hours. Throw in rest stops, preferably in Delaware, near Richmond, near Raleigh, and in South Carolina, and it’ll be closer to 19 hours.  Still wanna drive? Didn’t think so.

Take the bus? Greyhound has plenty of service between the two cities, if you don’t mind paying $243. Yeah. Even with high gas prices, that’s not better than driving. And, at 20 hours each way (including an hourlong stopover in Richmond, Virginia), it saves you no time.  At least the station is downtown, at 232 Forsyth Street at Brotherton Street, by the Garnett station on the subway.

Take the train? Amtrak’s New York-to-New Orleans train, the Crescent, leaves Penn Station at 2:15 PM and arrives at 8:13 AM the next morning. nd the round-trip fare is $516. Ye gods. It’s as long as driving and riding the bus, and costs more than twice as much as the bus.  The station is at 1688 Peachtree Street NW at Deering Road, due north of downtown.  Take the 110 bus into downtown.

So unless you can con someone into sharing the driving and the gas costs, the best way to get from New York to Atlanta is by plane.  If you don’t mind making a stopover at Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, then, if you book now, US Airways can get you from Newark Liberty International Airport to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (named for 2 late Mayors of Atlanta) for $442 round-trip. True, that’s almost as expensive as the train, but 4½ hours each way beats the hell out of 18.

The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) subway from Hartsfield to Five Points takes just half an hour.  A single trip on any MARTA train is $2.50 -- a little higher than New York's $2.25.  A 10-trip is no bargain at $25.  The subway started running with tokens in 1979, and switched to farecards in 2006.

When you get to your hotel in Atlanta (and, let’s face it, if you went all that way, you’re not going down for a single 3-hour game and then going right back up the Eastern Seaboard), pick up a copy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It’s a good paper with a very good sports section. The New York Times may also be available, but, chances are, the Daily News and the Post won’t be.

Unfortunately, the MARTA subway does not get all that close to Turner Field. To make matters worse, the ballpark is separated from downtown Atlanta by the intersection of Interstates 20 and 75/85, so unless you’ve got a hotel within a 10-minute walk of the ballpark, you’re not going to walk there. But, if you didn’t drive down, or fly and then rent a car, the Number 55 bus goes from Five Points Station, the centerpoint of MARTA, to Turner Field.

Turner Field is at the intersection of Capitol Street SE and Love Street SE, but the official address is 755 Hank Aaron Drive SE.

Be advised that a LOT of streets are named Peachtree, which can confuse the hell out of you, and the city uses diagonal directions on its streets and street signs, much like Washington, DC: NW, NE, SE and SW.

Tickets. The Braves rarely sell out, except for the World Series. Even during the 1999 NLCS, Met fans found it not so difficult to get tickets at the 50,097-seat Turner Field. So for a regular-season game, even for a team that just clinched a Wild Card berth, it should be a snap.  The Braves are averaging 29,117 per game, less than 60 percent of capacity.

Since the opponent is New York, premium pricing will be used.  The most expensive seats, the Henry Aaron Seats right behind home plate, go for $95.  Field Reserved go for $60, Terrace Infield for $55, Field for $50, Terrace View for $40, Terrace Reserved for $39, Upper Box for $26, and Upper Pavilion seats, in the upper deck from first base to right field, are $13.  For games against less-demanding teams, they're just $6. No, that’s not a misprint: Six dollars.

Going In. You do not have to worry about wearing Mets, or any other team’s, gear in Turner Field. Braves fans will generally not act like New York, Philadelphia or Boston fans and get snippy (or worse, rough) because of it.

Most fans will enter at the stadium’s north entrance, N Gate. There’s also E, SW and NW gates (East, Southwest and Northwest).

“The Ted” was named after broadcasting mogul and former Braves and NBA Atlanta Hawks owner Ted Turner. His real name is actually not Theodore, but Robert Edward Turner III – after Robert E. Lee. Since his father was already “Bob,” he went with Edward, and, like a number of people named Edward, including the late Senator Kennedy of Massachusetts, his “Edward” became “Ted.”

Outside The Ted are statues of Braves greats Henry “Hank” Aaron and Phil Niekro, and the greatest baseball player born in Georgia, Ty Cobb. Although Jackie Robinson was born in Georgia, he grew up outside Los Angeles, so while his Number 42 is posted with the Braves’ retired numbers, there is no statue of him outside Turner Field.

Inside, expect the usual post-1992, post-Camden Yards concourses, lighting, and decorations (team-specific, of course).  While the park is south of downtown and open at its north end, don't expect to see a nice view of skyscrapers: The field points northeast, technically away from downtown, and the Atlanta skyline isn't all that impressive to someone from New York.  To someone from Chattanooga, maybe.

Food. Son, Ah say son, this bein’ the South, y’all can expect good food and good hospitality. You want the usual ballpark fare, including hot dogs and beer? They got ‘em and they got ‘em good. You want Southern specialties such as fried chicken and barbecue? They got that, too.

As with most of these new parks, they have higher-end restaurants, too: The Braves Chophouse (a.k.a. “Top of the Chop”) and, in yet another thing named after Aaron, the 755 Club. Not sure what the dress code is for a Southern ballpark’s high-end restaurant, but don’t look to the “You might be a redneck” jokes of Atlanta-suburbs native and major Braves fan Jeff Foxworthy for inspiration: If you have any doubt as to whether what you’ve got would be appropriate for the same kind of restaurant at Citi Field or Yankee Stadium II, don’t go in.

If you don't mind their stance on social issues, the Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A has stands behind Sections 139, 202 and 333.  If you need a taste of good old N'Yawk, there's a Pasta Bar behind Section 47.

Team History Displays. As stated, there are statues of Cobb, Aaron and Niekro outside. In the parking lot north of the park, where Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium used to be, there is a chain-link fence about where the left-center-field fence was, and, at the approximate location of where it landed, then the Braves’ bullpen, is the marker that used to be on the wall behind it, honoring Aaron’s record-breaking 715th career home run, April 8, 1974.

On the facing of the left-field stands, the Braves have placed their retired numbers, with their pennants further along in left-center. Number 3, Dale Murphy, 1980s outfielder; Number 6, Bobby Cox, 1990s-2000s manager; Number 21, Warren Spahn, 1940s-50s pitcher; Number 29, John Smoltz, 1990s-2000s pitcher; Number 31, Greg Maddux, 1990s-2000s pitcher; Number 35, Phil Niekro, 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s pitcher; Number 41, Eddie Mathews, 1950s-60s 3rd baseman and 1970s manager; Number 44, Hank Aaron, 1950s, ‘60s and ’70s right fielder; and Number 47, Tom Glavine, 1990s-2000s pitcher (known to Met fans as “the Manchurian Brave”). Jackie Robinson’s Number 42 is also displayed there.

The Number 25 of 1990s-2000s center fielder Andruw Jones (now with the Yankees) is not currently assigned, and I suspect it will be retired as well.  Larry Wayne Jones Jr., a.k.a. Chipper Jones, now in his final days as an active player, will probably have his Number 10 retired.

Inside Turner Field, the Ivan Allen Jr. Braves Museum and Hall of Fame (named for the man who was Mayor when the Braves arrived) contains various items from Braves history, including the club's tenures in Boston (1871-1952) and Milwaukee (1953-1965).

In addition to the preceding, the Hall's members include the following: Boston-era players Herman Long, Kid Nichols, Tommy Holmes and Johnny Sain; Milwaukee-era players Del Crandall, Lew Burdette and Ernie Johnson Sr. (father of basketball broadcaster Ernie Johnson Jr.); Atlanta players Ralph Garr and David Justice; team owners Bill Bartholomay and Ted Turner; team executives Bill Lucas (MLB's first black general manager) and Paul Snyder; and broadcasters Johnson, Skip Caray and Pete van Wieren.

Those pennants on the left-center-field façade can seem awfully impressive, until you remember that only 1 of them is for a World Championship, 1995. Then there’s 4 that are for Pennants where the Braves went on to lose the World Series: 1991, ’92, ’96 and ’99. And the 11 Division Championships where the Braves did not go on to win the Pennant: 1969, ’82, ’93, ’97, ’98, 2000, ’01, ’02, ’03, ’04 and ’05.

Strangely, while the Braves include the retired numbers of Spahn, who pitched for them in Boston and Milwaukee, and Mathews, who played only his last season as a Brave in Atlanta, they do not include the Pennants the team won in Boston (National Association 1872, '73, '74, '75; NL 1877, '78, '83, '91, '92, '93, '97, '98, 1914 & '48) or in Milwaukee (1957 & '58), or the 1914 (Boston) or 1957 (Milwaukee) World Series wins with those flags.

And, let’s not forget, while the fact that most of those flags came from 1991 to 2005, the relative dearth of them from 1966 (actually 1959 if you count Milwaukee) to 1990 shows that the Braves haven’t been nearly as successful a franchise as you might think. True, in Boston, they were the greatest American sports franchise of the 19th Century; and they were at least in the Pennant race in nearly all of their 13 seasons in Milwaukee; but from 1899 to 1990, 92 seasons, they won only 4 Pennants – as many as the Mets have in 51 years, and a rate about as bad as the Chicago White Sox (5 in their first 104 years), Cleveland Indians (5 in their first 110 and 3 in their first 94), and Philadelphia Phillies (5 in their first 125 and 4 in their first 110).

Stuff. You can get pretty much anything you want, from T-shirts with names and numbers of long-gone players to team-oriented DVDs, in the souvenir stands. But do yourself a favor and do not buy a foam Tomahawk. That’s a souvenir you just don’t need.

There are quite a few good books about Hank Aaron, including his own memoir I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story, but it's 20 years old.  A more detailed one about the chase for 715, rather than Aaron's entire life, would be Tom Stanton's more recent Hank Aaron and the Home Run That Changed America.

van Wieren, who retired after the 2008 season and has been battling lymphoma ever since, recently published Of Mikes and Men: A Lifetime of Braves Baseball. After the 1995 World Championship, he collaborated with longtime New York baseball writer Bob Klapisch on a comprehensive history of the team: The World Champion Braves: An Illustrated History of America's Team 1871-1995.  (During the team's run to the 1982 Playoffs, Turner tried to take the "America's Team" tag promoted by the Dallas Cowboys and use it to promote the Braves on TBS, which he then called his nationally-syndicated "superstation," making the Braves popular outside the South.) Lang Whitaker, a writer for the NBA magazine SLAM!, has written In the Time of Bobby Cox: The Atlanta Braves, Their Manager, My Couch, Two Decades, and Me.  And Glavine, Smoltz and Javy Lopez have written inside accounts of the Cox "dynasty."

If you want a look at the franchise's previous incarnations, there's John Klima's Bushville Wins! The Wild Saga of the 1957 Milwaukee Braves and the Screwballs, Sluggers, and Beer Swiggers Who Canned the New York Yankees and Changed Baseball.  True, the success of the Braves and their big (for the time), automobile-accomodating ballpark led Walter O'Malley to lead the Dodgers out of first Ebbets Field and then, when he couldn't get a new stadium in Brooklyn, out of New York City entirely, and led him to con Horace Stoneham into doing the same with the Giants.  But that did also pave the way for the union of Dodger and Giant fans into the Met alliance.  And the Braves did beat the Yankees -- in one out of two World Series, anyway.  But William Povletich's Milwaukee Braves: Heroes and Heartbreak tells not only what happened in their rise, but in their fall, and the causes of the move to Atlanta.  (Hint: The Minnesota Twins arrived in 1961 and took away about half their population base.)

Sportswriter Harold Kaese wrote The Boston Braves after their 1948 Pennant season.  Late in his life, Warren Spahn worked with Kaese' estate to add an update.

There is, as yet, no DVD of The Essential Games of the Atlanta Braves, or The Essential Games of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

During the Game. As you might guess, Braves fans conclude the National Anthem not with “ …and the home of the brave” but “ …and the home of the Braves!” It’s not as dumb as the Baltimore “O! say does that… ” but it’s bad enough. Fortunately, the Braves don’t have a special song they use to follow “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in the 7th inning stretch. Nor do they have a true theme song.

What they do have is that annoying Tomahawk Chop and its song, the War Chant: “Oh, oh-whoa-oh-oh… whoa-oh-oh… oh-whoa-oh-oh…” It was brought to the Braves by outfielder Deion Sanders, who had played football at Florida State University before playing both baseball and football professionally. Since FSU preceded the Braves into championship contention by a few years, this was a chance to latch onto something they thought was special, and, long after Deion’s retirement from all sports and the 1996-97 move from Fulton County Stadium to Turner Field, the Chop and the Chant remain. If you’re a real Met fan, you’ll be very quickly reminded of how sick it used to make you feel.

The Braves have had a number of mascots over the years, including Chief Noc-a-Homa (knock a homer), a decidedly politically incorrect Native American whose tepee was located in Fulton County Stadium’s left field stands, who would do a so-called Indian war dance after ever Braves home run. For a while, like some other MLB mascots, including Mr. Met’s own Lady Met, the Chief got a girlfriend, Princess Win-a-Lotta. I swear, I am not making that up. I wish I was.

Anyway, having entertained fans since the Braves’ 1966 arrival, Levi Walker Jr., who played the Chief, quit in 1986 after a salary dispute. Deciding this was as good a time as any to address the issue of whether the character was insulting to Native Americans, the Braves did not hire a new Chief.

Instead, the Braves adopted a new mascot, named Homer the Brave. You might recognize him: He has a baseball head, much like Mr. Met, only he has eyeblack and a Braves uniform and cap. Is he as good as Mr. Met? Anybody who thinks so must’ve broken into the Dukes of Hazzard’s moonshine stash.

The Home Depot is based in Atlanta, and they sponsor a "mascot race": People dressed like tools.  A hammer, a saw, a paint brush and a power drill start from the warning track in right field and finish in front of the left field scoreboard.

Atlanta can be a rough city, and NFL Falcons, NBA Hawks and Georgia Tech college football games might be good places to keep your guard up. But Braves fans are not going to pick fights with you. As I said, they barely care enough to show up. And if you’re looking for famous Braves fans in the stands, don’t bother. Turner, while no longer the owner, might be there; his ex-wife Jane Fonda and former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn probably won’t be; and as for other celebrities, considering that Foxworthy is still hosting Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? in Los Angeles, he won’t be attending too many games, even though he’s probably, aside from the preceding, the most famous Braves fan.

After the Game. You should have no trouble with Braves fans on your way out, and you may even find a few of your fellow travelers ready to celebrate a Met win – or commiserate with you on a Met loss. But, if it’s a night game, be sure to get on the Number 55 bus back to Five Points and then back to your hotel. Atlanta does have a bit of a crime problem; while you’ll probably be safe in the stadium parking lot and on the subway, you don’t want to wander the streets late at night.

A good way to have fun would seem to be to find a bar where New Yorkers hang out. Unfortunately, the best ones I could come up with were both outside the city: Mazzy’s, at 2217 Roswell Road in Marietta, is 20 miles north of Atlanta. The Sportsline Bar and Grille, at 2100 Riverside Parkway in Lawrenceville, is 30 miles northeast of Atlanta. The former was listed on an out-of-town football fans’ site as a Jets hangout, the latter for Giants fans. A Facebook page titled “Mets Fans Living In Atlanta” was no help. Your best bet may be to research hotel chains, to find out which ones New Yorkers tend to like, and meet up with fellow Metsophiles (or Metsochists) there.

Sidelights.  When the Thrashers moved to become the new Winnipeg Jets a year ago, it marked the 2nd time in 31 years that Atlanta had lost an NHL team.  They still have teams in MLB, the NFL and the NBA, plus a Division I-A college which has been successful in several sports, the annual Southeastern Conference Championships for both football and basketball, and an annual college football bowl game, the Chick-fil-A Bowl (formerly the Peach Bowl).

But that doesn’t make it a great sports town. All of their major league teams have tended to have trouble filling their buildings.

* Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Home to the Southern Association’s Atlanta Crackers in their last season, 1965; to the Braves from 1966 to 1996; and to the NFL Falcons from 1966 to 1991. It was in what’s now the parking lot north of Turner Field.

* Georgia Dome, Philips Arena, site of The Omni. They’re next-door to each other, at Martin Luther King Jr. Drive SW and Northside Drive NW (another confusing street name). The Georgia Dome has been home to the Falcons since 1992 and has hosted the SEC Championship Game.  It hosted the NCAA Final Four in 2002 (Maryland beating Indiana) and 2007 (Florida beating Ohio State), and will again in 2013.

The Philips Arena has been home to the NBA’s Hawks since 1999, and was the home of the NHL’s Thrashers from 1999 to 2011. It was built on the site of the previous Atlanta arena, The Omni, which hosted the Hawks from 1972 to 1997, the NHL’s Atlanta Flames from 1972 to 1980 (when they moved to Calgary), the 1977 NCAA Final Four (Queens native Al McGuire leading Marquette over Dean Smith’s North Carolina), and the 1988 Democratic Convention (Michael Dukakis was nominated for President, which didn’t work out too well).

The CNN Center is adjacent to the arena. Dome-GWCC-Philips Arena stop on MARTA.

* Alexander Memorial Coliseum. The Georgia Institute of Technology (a.k.a. Georgia Tech) has played basketball here at “the Thrillerdome” since 1956, and recently completed a renovation.  This building, named for legendary football coach Bill Alexander, also hosted the Hawks from their 1968 arrival from St. Louis to The Omni’s opening in 1972, and again from 1997 to 1999 while Philips was built on The Omni’s site. 965 Fowler Street NW, Arts Center stop on MARTA.

* Bobby Dodd Stadium at Historic Grant Field. The oldest stadium in Division I-A college football? It sure doesn’t look it, having been modernized several times since its 1913 opening. Dodd, who played at the University of Tennessee and coached at Georgia Tech (first as an assistant to Alexander, then as head coach), is one of only 3 people elected to the College Football Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach.

Georgia Tech's teams have two nicknames, the Yellow Jackets and the Ramblin’ Wreck. There is a 1930 Ford Model A called the Ramblin’ Wreck (don’t let the name fool you, they love their college traditions in the South and this vee-hicle is kept in tip-top condition) that drives onto the field before every game, carrying the Tech cheerleaders, including Buzz the Yellow Jacket, with the team running behind it. I would advise against going to Dodd/Grant when Tech plays their arch-rivals, the University of Georgia, as those games not only sell out, but have been known to involve fights. Other than that, it’s a great atmosphere. 177 North Avenue NW (yeah, another one of those), North Avenue stop on MARTA.

A few steps away, over the North Avenue Bridge (over I-75/85) at 61 North Avenue NW, highlighted by a huge neon letter V, is The Varsity. No visit to The A-T-L is complete without a stop at The Varsity. Basically, it’s a classic diner, but really good. Be careful, though: They want to keep it moving, much like the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld and its real-life counterpart The Original Soup Man, and also Pat’s Steaks in Philadelphia.

The place has a language all its own, and, when they ask, “What’ll you have?”, being a Met fan, you do NOT want to order what they call a Yankee Dog – or a Naked Dog, which, oddly, is the same exact thing: A hot dog whose only condiment is mustard (which hardly makes it “naked,” but that’s what they call it). Check out this link, and you’ll get an idea of what to say and what not to say: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Varsity

* Non-Sports Sites. There’s the Atlanta Cyclorama and Civil War Museum, 800 Cherokee Avenue SE, which tells the true story of that fire you saw in Gone With the Wind. At the other end of the spectrum, giving all people their equal due, is the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site at 449 Auburn Avenue NE, which includes Dr. King’s birthplace/boyhood home, the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he and his father Martin Sr. preached, and his tomb. The King Memorial stop on MARTA serves both the King Center and the Cyclorama.

The Carter Center, housing Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Library and Museum and the Carter Center for Nonviolent Social Change, is at 453 Freedom Parkway. Bus 3 or 16 from Five Points stop on MARTA. There are also museums honoring GWTW author and Atlanta native Margaret Mitchell, Atlanta’s native drink Coca-Cola, and Atlanta’s native news network CNN. And there's the city's major shopping district, Underground Atlanta, in the Five Points area.

*

Atlanta is an acquired taste, especially for a Met fan. Is it worth going? Put it this way: At the rate both the Mets and the Braves are going, if your mission is to see the Mets “burn Atlanta” the way the Yankees of William Tecumseh Sherman did in 1864, you’re out of luck. If it’s to see the Mets do it the way the Yankees of Joe Torre did in 1996 and 1999, and the Mets themselves came close to doing in 1999, you’ve got a chance, but not a great chance. But if your mission is simply to have a good time in an unfamiliar city, and to “cross one more ballpark off your list,” then, by all means, go, stay safe, and have fun.

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