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Spring dreaming for Braves

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

I can still smell the popcorn, can still hear the crack of the wooden bats and the cheers from the crowd.

Some of my favorite childhood memories were made at old Grayson Stadium where me and my dad used to watch the Savannah Braves play in the late 70s and early 80s.

We’d watch future Atlanta Braves including Terry Harper, Glenn Hubbard, Rick Mahler, Craig McMurtry, Gerald Perry and the great Dale Murphy play in Savannah as they tried to climb the professional ladder.

Later, we watched those same men play for the Atlanta Braves, and to this day Dale Murphy remains my all-time favorite athlete.

I developed a passion for the Atlanta Braves in those days that continued through the mostly miserable 80s, to those glory days in the 90s and early 2000s, and now to what hopefully will be a rebuild that will help the franchise return to prosperity.

Over the years, I’ve seen the Braves play so many times at Fulton County Stadium (no longer standing), Turner Field (now home of the Georgia State football team), and the new SunTrust Park.

The one thing I’d never done in my decades as a Braves’ fan was watch them play in spring training, and that’s a situation I’ve been meaning to remedy for a long time.

This year, everything lined up nicely, so I packed a few essentials (including my trusty Nikon camera) and headed down to Disney World to watch the Braves as they get ready for a season that begins next month.

I went to two games, one on Sunday against the Marlins, and one on Monday against the Pirates.

For Monday’s game, I was up close and personal.

I had a seat on the front row behind home plate, and I was close enough to the Pittsburgh players in the on-deck circle that I could have reached out and grabbed their bats (which I didn’t do and understand is frowned upon).

It was an eye-opening experience.

I’ve long argued that there is nothing more difficult in sports than hitting major-league pitching, and what I saw Monday only strengthened that opinion.

There was one sequence where Jose Ramirez, a hard-throwing pitcher for the Braves, followed up a 95 mph fastball with an 85 mph off-speed pitch at the knees that froze a batter.

Hitters have, what, a split second, to decide whether to swing or not, and if they do swing, they have to time it perfectly.

It is an art, and watching the best players in the world work from such a close vantage point was a privilege.

It was a winning day for the good guys on Sunday and Monday, although victories in spring training mean about as much as those new year’s resolutions that most of us abandoned by the second week of January.

Still, it was nice to see the Braves win, even if it has zero bearing on what’ll happen when the regular season begins.

I did leave Disney with a relatively positive impression of the Braves, although if they manage to finish above .500 this season they’d be defying just about everyone’s expectations.

When the Braves decided to tear everything down and start over under the oversight of the now disgraced and unemployed John Coppolella, the idea was to rebuild the farm system at the expense of the present.

Well, the present has been pretty lousy, but the Braves do have what is considered to be one of the best minor-league systems in the game.

Now, some of those players are ready to (hopefully) make an impact at the big-league level.

Some of them already have some major-league mileage under their belt, including shortstop Dansby Swanson, second baseman Ozzie Albies and a number of pitchers including Aaron Blair and Sean Newcomb.

The results have been mixed, but you would expect those players to take a step forward, particularly Swanson, who had mountains of expectations placed on him last season.

And then there are the players who have yet to get their shot, including the phenom, 20-year-outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr.

He’s the future of the franchise.

That’s a lot to pile on someone so young, but he sure looks like a special dude.

In the two games I watched, he seemed to hit the ball hard every time, he stole bases, he made a diving catch in left field, and he looked right at home on a big-league ballfield, even if it just the spring.

He’s hit in six games in a row, going 10-for-15 during that stretch, and he clubbed his first home run on Saturday against the Yankees.

While the expectations on him are massive, so far at least, Acuna is just out there playing baseball and having fun.

As Braves’ hitting coach Kevin Seitzer said after Monday’s game, “the best thing about that kid is he plays like he’s in the backyard.

“That’s the big part of what will make him so good is if he goes and plays, has fun, doesn’t get domed up (or stressed out), and from everything I’ve heard, he doesn’t.”

Another guy who’ll be wearing the Atlanta uniform sooner than later is third baseman Austin Riley, who has been solid in the spring with a couple of homers.

The Braves have a stockpile of young pitchers, including Mike Soroka, who has been one of the breakout stars of the spring.

It’s an exciting time.

The Braves have some of the most dynamic young talent in the game, and those players have been getting high marks for their performance this spring.

I know I liked what I saw, and again not to put too much on one player, but Acuna has superstar written all over him.

As for the spring experience, it was everything I hoped it would be, and I’m looking forward to going back next year.

Things are more relaxed in the spring, and it was cool to watch Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle have a back-and-forth with one of the fans.

The fan told Clint he was hoping for the best.

Clint responded, “hope is not a game plan.”

Indeed.

Still, for baseball fans, spring is a time for hope, even for us Atlanta fans who have knocked down plenty over the years.

So here’s “hoping” for the best, and go Braves.