In the first three installments of this series on Turner Field, we provided insights from a Braves exec, a fan since the team moved to Atlanta and the team’s face of the franchise during its years at the ballpark. To wrap up this series, here is the article I wrote for USA TODAY Sports Weekly (which is why I conducted those three interviews). The piece appeared in their September 28, 2016 edition under the headline “Braves had Super Run at Stadium.” Many thanks to the editorial staff for allowing me to reproduce it for you here.
By the way, after the article was published, an astute reader contacted Sports Weekly and suggested that the Top Ten list was missing an important event: the unveiling of the All Century Team at the 1999 MLB All Star Game at Turner Field. I think he’s right.
ATLANTA When the Braves host the Detroit Tigers on Sunday, October 2, it will mark the end of an era. Turner Field, the scene of a tremendous amount of history in its short two decades, will see its final baseball game. That’s because in 2017, the Braves will move into SunTrust Park, currently under construction ten miles to the north in Cobb County.
As fans prepare to say goodbye to the ballpark, let’s examine how it came to be, what magical moments have occurred on its playing field, and what will become of it when the Braves are gone.
ANYTHING BUT HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
When Atlanta secured the rights to host the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, organizers realized there was no local venue capable of hosting the marquee track-and-field events plus the Opening and Closing Ceremonies.
Planning began on an 85,000-seat stadium to be constructed adjacent to the City’s existing NFL and MLB home, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. It was called Centennial Olympic Stadium to honor the fact that the ’96 Games were being held on the 100th anniversary of the first modern Olympics in Athens Greece.
The Opening Ceremonies were held there on July 19, 1996. Over 10,000 athletes from 197 countries participated in the Parade of Nations. The crowd was treated to musical performances by Gladys Knight, Celine Dion and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, all leading up to the dramatic lighting of the Olympic cauldron by 1960 Olympic boxing champion Muhammad Ali.
Over the course of 17 days, fans at the stadium witnessed world records in the men’s 100 meters by Canadian Donovan Bailey and the men’s 200 meters by American Michael Johnson. 35-year-old Carl Lewis won his fourth gold medal in the long jump. The Olympic flame was extinguished during the Closing Ceremonies as Georgia native Trisha Yearwood sang “The Flame.”
TWO PURPOSES, ONE STADIUM
Mike Holleman is currently the Director of the Sports Facilities Design Group for Heery Design, based in Atlanta. In the late 1980s, he was the Chairman of the committee tasked with planning the venues that would be needed if Atlanta’s bid to host the Olympics was successful.
“We recognized that many venues of past Olympics had fallen into disrepair because they weren’t used after the Games,” he recalled. “For Atlanta, we wanted to design facilities for post-Olympic use. From the beginning, we wanted the main stadium to eventually be converted for baseball.”
To accomplish this, the facility was first designed as a ballpark, then adapted for Olympic use. Part of the structure needed to support stands in the outfield was actually constructed underneath the Olympic track.
All of the planning paid off.
“I can remember it like it was yesterday,” recalled John Schuerholz, currently the Braves’ Vice Chairman, but then the team’s General Manager. “Going over blueprints, going over diagrams, going over renderings, going over everything.”
He added, “It turned out beautifully, and here we have Turner Field.”
IN THE MIDDLE OF A STREAK
When the Braves took the field for the first time in newly named Turner Field in 1997, the team was already an established powerhouse, having won division titles every season (except the strike year of 1994) since 1991.
The ’97 squad boasted a rotation of household names like Greg Maddux (2.20 ERA), Tom Glavine (2.96), John Smoltz (3.02) and Denny Neagle (2.97). 25-year-old Chipper Jones was in the midst of a streak of his own: it was year two of eight consecutive seasons with 100-plus RBIs. The team won 101 games that year, winning the division by nine games. Attendance was a robust 3,464,488. Times were good.
But despite the trips to the playoffs, Turner Field didn’t host a World Series until 1999, when the Yankees swept Atlanta in four games.
The team continued to rack up regular-season crowns through 2005, when the Braves edged the Phillies by two games in the NL East to earn their 14th consecutive divisional title.
At the helm of these remarkable teams was Bobby Cox, whose uniform number 6 was retired by the team two months before he managed his final game on October 11, 2010. Despite a Hall Of Fame career consisting of 2,504 wins, an enviable winning percentage of .556 and a World Series championship in 1995, it ended in disappointment, as the Giants eliminated the Braves in the NLDS at Turner Field that day.
July 15, 2011 was a red-letter day for the team, when their 11-1 victory over the Nationals at Turner Field was the 10,000th win in franchise history, making them only the third MLB team to do so.
The player who embodied the Braves during their tenure at the park was Chipper Jones, who retired at the end of the 2012 season. “It is 16 memorable years that I continue to treasure and will never forget,” he told USA TODAY Sports about his seasons at Turner Field. “It was just home.”
MOVING UP THE ROAD
Making its debut on April 14, 2017 will be SunTrust Park. It will be surrounded by bustling, brand-new eateries, boutiques, clubs, apartments, offices, a theater and a hotel in an area dubbed The Battery Atlanta.
While the Braves are driving this commercial development, their original goal wasn’t to place it north of Atlanta. “We wanted to do that in the area surrounding Turner Field. That was our initial desire,” Schuerholz revealed. When they couldn’t acquire the land, they elected to do it “ten miles up the road in Cobb County.”
One fan who isn’t upset about the move is T.W. Lord. The 89-year-old was in attendance at the Braves’ first game in Atlanta on April 12, 1966 and has held season tickets since 1969. “I know things change in the world, but I’m comfortable with it. The new stadium is going to be great. In fact, I’ve already ordered my seats for it.” Since he lives in Marietta, Georgia, “it’s been a 20-mile drive for me to Turner Field. Now it will be half that.”
REPURPOSING A BALLPARK
On August 18, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed announced that the 67-acre property that includes Turner Field is being sold to Georgia State University and its development partners for $30 million. The main campus of the rapidly growing school is just a mile north of the stadium.
While it’s true that GSU needs to expand, that’s not the only reason for the acquisition. University President Mark Becker noted that the school “has long been recognized as the primary force driving development in downtown Atlanta. The dynamic growth of our university has also stimulated new business and residential development around our campus.”
Consequently, the University and its partners plan to build new student housing, residences for non-students and shopping and other commerce on the site. And for Turner Field itself? It will be modified to become the football stadium for the Georgia State Panthers.
So the structure began its life as a venue for the Olympics and will continue on as a football stadium, but it was the Braves who made incredible baseball memories in between.
***TOP TEN EVENTS AT TURNER FIELD***
- October 19, 1999 – The Braves win the National League pennant at Turner Field with a 10-9, 11-inning victory over the Mets in Game 6 of the NLCS.
- September 27, 2005 – With a 12-3 win over Colorado, Atlanta clinches its 14th consecutive division championship, a feat unparalleled in pro sports.
- July 19, 1996 — The opening ceremonies for the 1996 Summer Olympics are held here, with Muhamad Ali lighting the Olympic Torch to mark the beginning of the games.
- October 23, 1999 – The first World Series game at Turner is a 4-1 loss to the Yankees, with a Chipper Jones home run providing the only scoring for the Braves.
- July 11, 2000 – The 71st All Star Game is won by the American League 6-3, despite a Chipper Jones homer.
- April 4, 1997 – The first regular-season game at Turner Field is won by the Braves, 5-4 over the Cubs. Chipper Jones collects the first hit.
- May 31, 1998 – Turner Field’s first concert is a big one. Billed as George Strait’s Country Music Festival, it features Tim McGraw, John Michael Montgomery and Faith Hill in addition to Strait.
- October 5, 2012 – MLB’s first-ever Wild Card game sees the Braves fall to the Cardinals 6-3. It was the final game of Chipper Jones’ playing career.
- September 30, 1997 – Atlanta beats the Astros 2-1 in the ballpark’s first playoff game.
- May 24, 2007 – John Smoltz notches career win number 200 with a 2-1 victory over the Mets. He is the only pitcher in MLB history to earn 200 wins and 150 saves.
Joe operates BaseballParks.com, an affiliate of USA TODAY Sports Digital Properties. He has visited all 203 parks currently used for Major League, spring training and affiliated Minor League baseball.
This story was originally published in USA TODAY Sports Weekly. Click here to subscribe