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Braves' new world is an experiment in baseball and business

ATLANTA -- The last time I saw so many people slow-walking on bridges over an Atlanta highway it was on “The Walking Dead.”

They spilled in from everywhere Friday, on concrete bridges slung over highways they had successfully traversed to get to SunTrust Park. They crowded in a wide line, on concrete suspensions, above a morass of multilaned freeways. They found their way into the New Urbanist neighborhood. Then they crowded into the brand-new stadium for the first regular-season game. There were 41,149 of them, and they mostly appeared to settle into their seats in time for the pregame ceremonies.

“When I was walking out to warm up, there was a chance to look around,” said Braves starter Julio Teheran, who became the first pitcher to earn a win at SunTrust. “I saw all the fans and that they were excited, and it was that feeling of energy. But I was focused on doing my job and not looking around, because I was going to be sad [if we lost that first game].”

It was a festive day in Cobb County, Georgia, the new home of the Atlanta Braves, who took on the San Diego Padres in their 2017 home opener and the first official game in their new venue. People mobbed the new bars and restaurants of The Battery, showing up early and staying late. Any reviews of the new park wouldn’t be complete without mentioning The Battery, a mixed-used development that combines a yet-to-open hotel that looms over center field, bars, restaurants, office buildings and apartments, of which some are still vacant.

The Battery’s hotel will have high-dollar rooms on its stadium side, where guests can chill on a balcony and take in the ballgame. Really, The Battery is what marks this particular stadium project as distinct as any that came before it, and the success of it will likely determine the success of the entire endeavor.

The stadium is nice, with a lot of well-integrated classic touches that make it the polar opposite of the Braves’ longtime home -- the one before recently abandoned Turner Field -- Fulton County Stadium. That was how they did stadiums in the 1960s and '70s. This is how they do them in the 21st century.

“It’s top of the line,” said Atlanta closer Jim Johnson, who had another SunTrust Park first: a save. “Just take a look around, everything it offers. I heard we got a zip line. I’m looking forward to taking advantage of that. It is really nice.”

There is a small patch of stones and evergreens at the base of the large, dark-green batting eye in center. There are some small waterfalls out that way and some fountains, vaguely reminiscent of Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri, where Braves executive John Schuerholz once built championship teams.

The outfield wall is asymmetrical, with a short porch into the box seats beyond the tall right-field wall. The wall is much shorter in left, but the distance is longer, and there are corners, not curves, in center field. Generally, the park figures to be a good one for lefty power hitters, but we’ll see. It was a warm evening Friday, with very little breeze. There was one home run that was struck well enough to be a homer in most parks. There were no obvious deep flies robbed by the dimensions. The area allotted for foul territory seems about average and didn’t come into play.

The stadium itself is sunk well into the ground, though it’s no Dodger Stadium in that regard. But the design allowed the builders to stack three decks of seats in a fairly vertical fashion that gives most everyone in the park a nice feel of proximity to what’s taking place on the field.

There were snags and snafus here and there, as there are any time a new venue opens. At one point before the game, the area of the lower concourse between Monument Garden and the team’s main merchandise store was so clogged with people it reminded me of the time I saw the Sex Pistols at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, only there was more khaki here and less leather.

The pregame ceremonies hit the right note, with all the franchise legends being driven onto the field to receive their due, the last of which was the great Hank Aaron. Aaron, with the aid of a cane, seemed in fine fettle, smiling and waving to the fans before delivering the first pitch.

“It was a beautiful day,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “Ballpark looked wonderful, and the guys were excited about being out here and being off the road.”

"It's top of the line. Just take a look around, everything it offers. I heard we got a zip line. I'm looking forward to taking advantage of that. It is really nice."

Braves reliever Jim Johnson on SunTrust Park

Monument Garden is a nice touch. It celebrates a number of legends from all iterations of the Braves franchise. But the centerpiece is a terrific statue of Aaron, the greatest player in franchise history. Behind the statue is a video board that plays classic Braves highlights, such as Aaron’s legendary 715th homer at Fulton County Stadium in 1974.

There are a lot of historical nods throughout the park that suggest the place is one with a past, though in fact it has exactly one game under its belt. There are 4-foot-tall bobbleheads scattered about, paying homage to Braves greats such as Eddie Mathews, Phil Niekro, Greg Maddux, Dale Murphy and others. There was even a mural of Kid Nichols, who pitched for the Boston iteration of the franchise from 1890 to 1901, when Cobb County was a vibrant cotton-farming community.

“It is a classic-feeling ballpark,” commissioner Rob Manfred said before the game. “Just had a little tour. Some of the different seating areas in the ballpark, a lot imagination, a lot of options in terms of seating. It’s the kind of ballpark that will attract not only our hard-core fans that really are the backbone of our game, but really people who may not be quite as interested [in baseball], because there are so many options here.”

Well, it’s more than a park. It’s an experiment, one where a sports franchise attempts to create a bubble. And once a fan enters it, there is no reason for him or her to spend money outside of it. And if it works, the ramifications will be noticed by baseball owners from coast to coast. If it works, it could change a lot of things. But we won’t know if it works for a long time.

For the first night, we can leave aside the rehashing of how the Atlanta Braves ostensibly have become the Cobb County Braves. Or why Turner Field, a good 20-year-old park in the city, now is undergoing renovation to become the home of the Georgia State Panthers. This night was about the ends, not the means.

The game itself was no great shakes, won by the Braves 5-2. It was a standard major league baseball regular-season game, which is always worth it on its own merit, but on a night like this, it just feels as though something unusual should happen. It didn’t. But all the boxes were checked: a home-team victory, a win for the ace, a save for the stopper.

And the hero was defensive ace Ender Inciarte, who caught both the first and last out in center field and collected both the first hit and the first homer at the dish. He’s the answer to all sorts of future trivia questions.

“I’m not going to lie,” Inciarte said. “I had a good feeling about tonight.”

And about his homer: “I knew it was gone. That’s all I got.”

So the fans went home happy and, surely, planning to return soon.

The stream of humanity reversed itself after the game -- a slow, shuffling line of khaki shorts and bare legs, easing out of SunTrust and The Battery toward the concrete maze of roadway where, apparently, there is parking, a place for one’s car to rest somewhere in the darkness.