The Grand Finale is supposed to be the highlight of any good fireworks display.
The fireworks spectacular at SunTrust Park last Friday night following the Atlanta Braves’ game against the Arizona Diamondbacks definitely brought my first trip to the Braves’ new home to a rousing finish.
But nothing, and I mean nothing, could have topped the start of my day with the Braves. The moment was definitely the biggest of the day and really the most memorable experience from my five-day visit to the big city.
Soon after arriving at the Renaissance Waverly Hotel, which is just a long home run away from SunTrust, we decided to venture into the connecting Cobb Galleria for lunch before making the short walk to the ballpark for a tour of the new stadium.
We stumbled upon Murph’s, the first restaurant opened by Braves legend Dale Murphy. No sooner than we could get through the door, I saw a tall, lanky man making his way over to greet us.
It only took two seconds for me to realize it was the man himself, No. 3.
Murph was one of my childhood heroes, right there with Georgia running back Herschel Walker – I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him once, too.
So naturally, I was startled at the sight of this legendary figure approaching me and extending his right arm to shake my hand.
I’m not sure, but I think I greeted him by saying, “Well, if it ain’t the man himself.”
Almost simultaneously, I turned to my mother who shared this experience with me and said, “You know what this means,” reaching into my right front pocket to grab the cell phone.
Murph knew, too, so he pointed to the big No. 3 sign hanging on the wall in the middle of the restaurant which was obviously appropriately placed there for this purpose.
“Why don’t we go over here,” he suggested, also pointing out to me this sign was the one that hung on the wall at Turner Field to mark the retirement of his number by the Braves.
Before we posed for the picture, I let him know that he was my boyhood idol and told him I used to waggled my bat below my waist just as he did before loading up and waiting for the pitcher to make his delivery.
“Oh, you did the waggle,” he said smiling.
“Oh yeah,” I responded. “From little league to high school and softball, too.”
Someone asked me if I got an interview with him, but while I really didn’t think about it, it would have been a bit much for me to ask him for any more one-one-time.
After all, he had more hands to shake and more rounds to make around the restaurant asking people how things were.
I did find out he was in town to attend a nephew’s wedding the next day, so he decided to stop in for an appearance at his place. He said he might take in a few innings of the game that night, but he had “pre-wedding” things to do with the family, some of which also came into the restaurant while we were there.
We talked a little about the current Braves team and he praised their young talent.
“They’ve got some good young players, much better than we were at that age,” he said.
I admitted to him, though, that while I was pleasantly surprised by the Braves’ performance in the first half of the season, I didn’t know if I wanted to take them seriously just yet.
“I’ve soured on the Braves a little bit since they blew the 1996 World Series,” I told him. “I told myself then I wouldn’t ever watch them as much as I used to so as I wouldn’t be that disappointed ever again.”
I told him I might eventually change my mind, if not before the end of this season, maybe sometime in the near future.
“You’re slowly coming back around, huh,” Murph said.
Again, he welcomed us to his place and turned us over to the receptionist to help us to our seats.
That was pretty much my interaction with the Murph, though I must admit that after seeing another one of his fans getting him to sign a menu, I put my mom up to asking him if he could sign one for her grandson and my nephew.
He gladly did so, but of course, it won’t ever get into the hands of my nephew who is playing high school baseball out in Redmond, Wa.
He likes Adam Wainwright because his dad grew up outside of St. Louis and has been a longtime Cardinals fan. I did once get Waino to sign a ball for him, and my mom gave him the commerative ball the local star signed the night Wainwright Field opened this spring.
But Seth – that’s my nephew’s name – will only get his hands on this Murphy autograph if he touches the frame it will eventually hang in on my wall.
Naturally, the picture I had taken with Murphy was on Facebook before I could even order my pot roast sandwich which was quite tasty, I should note.
I ate quickly once our food arrived as I needed to get around the restuarant to again use my I-phone to snap some pictures of the memorabilia decorating the walls and also purchase me a Murph’s T-shirt before we had to go to make the ballpark tour in time.
Honestly, everything else was secondary after that. My day was made, though it was really just beginning.
We arrived for the SunTrust tour with time to spare. It gave me time to gather myself and also explore a little bit on my own. Immediately, I was impressed by the surrounding city that has been built around the park which opened last season.
They call it the Battery, and its restaurants, bars and plaza areas are filled with people galore before and after games. I can only imagine the fun the tomahawk-chopping Braves fans will have around the Battery if and when the team ever duplicates that 1995 World Series triumph.
Anway, the ballpark tour was quite nice and more extensive than I thought it would be. I would definitely recommend it to the serious Braves fan.
Our guide Carl, who reminded me of Hank Rowland, a former managing editor at The Brunswick News where I started my journalism career, was first of all really nice and had his talking points and Braves history down pat.
He first took us to the top of the stadium, where we stood above the Chop House in right field and got a good look over the whole field.
From there, we ventured back down to the press box, and got to go inside for a brief look, which likely I enjoyed and appreciated more than anyone else.
We would then maneuver throughout the stadium, visiting the plush club-seat area, the expensive seating at field level and the accompanying indoor lounge area where of course the air conditioner felt good on this scorching hot and humid day in the ATL.
While we were standing outside in the lower-level seats behind home plate, several Diamondbacks players were already at the park taking batting practice in the cage that hovered over the plate, still some 5-plus hours before the 7:35 pm. first pitch.
The one Arizona fan who was part of our group recognized each one of the players taking turns getting in their cuts.
“I might just stay right here,” he told me.
He was almost as happy as I was to meet Murphy about two hours earlier.
So was this young kid who brought his glove with him in case their was a chance he might get to catch a foul ball that afternoon.
Well, I guess there was that chance since the D-Backs were getting in some licks while we were there.
That didn’t happen, but the future big-leaguer did come away with a real-life Major League baseball as his dad grabbed one that was all by its lonesome on the field nestled in a corner near the Braves’ home dugout.
He kept showing it to his little sister who was clearly more interested in napping in her mother’s arms than the early Christmas present her brother had just gotten from the Braves.
The tour also takes you to the Hank Aaron Terrace which sits out beyond left field and pays homage to the Home Run King. The bat and ball used when Aaron hit his 715th home run to break Babe Ruth’s all-time record is on display in the lounge area.
Also, the tour includes a stop at the Monument Garden on the lower level where fans can have their pictures taken next to the nine-foot statue of Mr. Aaron.
The garden houses a sculpture made up of 755 bats in the number’s shape to symbolize Aaron’s career homer record which has since been topped.
It also features plaques to honor all those in the Braves Hall of Fame and also either bats or balls to represent all of the franchise’s representatives in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
And while by design there isn’t a team museum at the stadium, some 300 artifacts including old jerseys worn by Braves greats such as Phil Niekro, Eddie Matthews, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.
As for the game itself later that night, it was low-scoring but entertaining as Arizona won 2-1.
Even if you aren’t really a baseball fan, there’s enough going on during the game, especially involving the huge video screen beyond the outfield wall, and around the park, to make going to a Braves game fun for anyone.
As a kid, I thought old Fulton County Stadium was the bomb, and later I fell in love with Turner Field built in the same location.
But SunTrust, which is a little further north in Cobb County, takes the game experience to another level for sure.
I left thoroughly impressed and would relish the chance to go back.
Go if you haven’t already.
It’s a good getaway trip.
Stay nearby, though.
A half-mile walk or a shuttle ride back to your hotel room after the game is better than sitting in traffic on I-75.
That’s still as bad as that Series debacle in 1996.