TURES COLUMN: How the Atlanta Braves returned to being America’s Team

Published 11:30 am Wednesday, October 20, 2021

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Back in the 1970s, Ted Turner declared the Atlanta Braves to be “America’s team” and put them all over his television stations. People laughed at first, but nearly 50 years later, the moniker still applies. It isn’t just the playoffs, the Hall-of-Fame inductions, and the attendance statistics. It’s what the team means for the community, and by that, I mean the entire Southeastern United States, which can call the Braves their own.

The surest way of discovering how much the fan experience matters so much is to go to another game. You’ll find nice folks here and there at other stadiums, but nothing like the first-rate treatment you’ll get in Atlanta, from Truist Park to the surrounding neighborhood of restaurants and shops. I could fill an entire column alone just with every story about a member of the service team going the extra mile to make each game a special day or night. When I got the exact opposite level of service from a Midwestern team, my wife told me “I guess you’re not dealing with the Atlanta Braves.”

Growing up, I remember TV shows and sitcoms documenting the horrors of arrogant baseball players and the cold shoulder they would give adoring fans. But I could fill a column with stories of Braves players and coaches, signing autographs, giving advice, even playing a little pickup baseball with our family members. And we’re definitely not VIPs. I see the players doing that with fans in the stands. When I told this to a fan of a prominent Northeastern baseball team, he shook his head in shock. “Our players don’t do anything like that up here.”

Baseball players are starting to shed that image of the aloof superstar, and the Braves are among the leaders in that effort. You may have read earlier columns about one of my LaGrange College students, Katie Hearn, who was fortunate enough to find a job with the team as a digital coordinator. When she lost her eyesight shortly thereafter, the team didn’t kick her to the curb.

They gave her the time to adapt, gave her the old job back when she was ready, and even helped get her a seeing-eye dog. In return, she worked so hard to do her best she that she won the coveted Walter Banks Award for the employee of the year, earning a guest spot on NBC’s Today show, as well as numerous appearances on team broadcasts and podcasts.

Speaking of Walter Banks, has any team made an usher a celebrity like the Braves have? I remember Katie introducing him to me years ago, before he was a household name in the South. The guy was committed to making sure you had the best time you possible could at the game. He so deserves that bobblehead, a highly coveted pregame prize.

All of these would make the Atlanta Braves one of the popular teams. What seals the deal is the way they play on the field. Players beat out infield bloops, make incredible catches, turn seeming impossible double plays, tossing surprise pitches, and making clutch hits using a combination of talent and grit, to get the job done, and pick up each other. Other teams have a player or two, or a few, with that attitude. For the Braves, that style of play is a team creed. When a star or two, or four this year, go down with an injury, the rest pick up the pace.

Leo Durocher once quipped “Nice Guys Finish Last.” Maybe that was the case years ago, but I challenge “Lippy” to manage a team that can beat the classy Atlanta Braves. Regardless of what happens the rest of the season, the rest of the baseball traditionalists now must recognize which team is saving the sport, playing the game the way it should be played, and engaging the public, the way others should.