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Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Augusta GreenJackets

Augusta has an old stadium. That's not to say it is a bad stadium. In fact, in an era of soulless new stadiums which all look and feel exactly the same Augusta's stadium feels kinda retro-chic. So, of course, the Augusta GreenJackets are trying to build themselves a soulless new stadium. It's a shame because Augusta really doesn't need a new stadium like some places (I'm looking at you Potomac), but of course, it has to jump over that cliff just like all the other lemmings.

The staff was friendly, the mascot was a yellow jacket wearing a green jacket, and the crowd was having a lot of fun.If you don't understand the "green jacket" reference (I kid you not, one guy actually said to me "But there aren't any greenjackets."), go find a buddy who is into golf and ask him. The only flaw I found in the entire place was the souvenir shop. It was rather anemic and if you're looking for something other than hats you may be a little disappointed. Specifically, I collect both pennants and baseballs with the team logo. Both are common staples of souvenir shops and the Augusta GreenJackets shop had neither. They had miniature footballs with the team's logo and league baseballs, but no team logo baseballs. They had a pennant on display, but none for sale (it was a pennant they give away for free every so often). The lady working in the shop was as helpful as she could be. She told me the next time the pennant would be given away and pointed me to the baseballs with the league logo, but she couldn't actually overcome the shortfalls of whomever their purchasing agent is. C'mon guys, pennants and baseballs don't spoil with age. They're just as durable and salable as those foam fingers and miniature bats you had. And you cannot tell me that league logo baseballs sell better than baseballs with your own logo would. What the heck am I supposed to put in my "these are the teams I saw this year" baseball case? A mushy ball? C'mon.

Anyway, now that I've finished my min-rant, the game itself was fun to watch and the crowd was live. Because the stadium was a classic metal one, they were stomping like madmen and the noise was intense. And, unlike most American crowds which stop once the batter settles in, they kept going, cheering, jeering, and stomping while opposing players were at bat or pitching. I loved it and wish more American crowds were as in to it as this.

As for the game itself, in the third inning an error by (prospect) SS Lucius Fox, a passed ball, and a wild pitch put a Greensboro Grasshopper on third so that a simple ground out allowed him to score. In the 4th inning the Grasshoppers got another run across the plate with a bunch of singles and the GreenJackets answered with a bunch of singles and a ground rule double to score four of their own. Unfortunately, after the 4th the Grasshoppers took solid control of the game. In the 5th, the Grasshoppers got two runs on an error and then in the 6th the Grasshoppers used a bunch of singles to get two more runs across the plate. Final score GreenJackets 4 - Grasshoppers 6.

All-in-all, a very pleasant experience with a live, loyal crowd at a fun stadium. It's an experience worth having and I'd advise you to go now before it gets moved to just another generic, interchangeable minor league park.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Gwinnett Braves

Pity the poor Gwinnett Braves. Back in 2009, it seemed like such a good idea to move the AAA Braves from Richmond, Virginia to Lawrenceville, Georgia

It wasn't.

To be fair, the City of Richmond had been jerking the AAA Braves around for years and it became obvious that they were not going to get the new, state of the art stadium they wanted out of the city. I'm not sure if the Richmond mayor and city council didn't care or were just incompetent (or possibly worse) although I'd lean toward the latter. In any event, after years of threatening to leave the AAA Braves finally pulled the trigger. Richmond replaced the AAA Braves with the less prestigious AA Flying Squirrels (in the same stadium) and moved on.

In the last several years the Richmond Flying Squirrels have had excellent attendance and several times had the highest year-long attendance in AA. On the other hand, the team that moved to Gwinnett County, Georgia fell flat on its face with fewer people coming out to the park year after year. In fact, last year the AA Squirrels had 472,828 fans attend their games while the AAA Braves only had 270,336. That's pretty much the definition of failure.

With all that in mind, when I went to the Gwinnett County I wasn't sure what I was going to find. What I found was a generic, but solid AA stadium. You read that right, a generic, but solid AA stadium. The night before I had been at a AA stadium which was really more of a AAA venue in Birmingham. I'm not sure that Gwinnett was really even a AA venue. It had a third of the box seats that Birmingham did and only one or two of them even had anyone in them. And, this was a Friday night - prime time for filling a baseball stadium. It might be a AA stadium in a single-A venue.

An unusual, but not unique, part of the stadium was the apartment complex built behind the right field. Several apartments faced the field and some of the closer ones even looked like they had a pretty good view of the park. The apartment complex also had a pool area where residents could sit around and watch the game, although I suspect they would have some trouble seeing what was going on in the deep outfield. The pool itself constantly overflowed toward the ball field making a little waterfall which you could see from the field. Perhaps the coolest part of the stadium was actually the entrance.

All that said, the people working the park were friendly and helpful and I spent several innings talking with a couple ushers and genuinely had a good time at the park. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the park itself or the people working there. It just isn't drawing crowds.


The Same Branding as Atlanta
Okay, so I've pointed out the problems and I think that probably obligates me to offer a solution. The biggest thing the Gwinnett Braves need is an identity of their own. When you are in Richmond, Virginia carrying the Braves moniker is kinda cool. When you are 45 minutes from the field where the Atlanta Braves play having that name is a drain. If somebody in Gwinnett wants to watch a Braves game he can get in his car and take a short drive into Atlanta and local billboards which I saw all advertised Atlanta baseball. There's nothing that differentiates the Gwinnett team and attaches it to the community. I've been to 4 minor league affiliates of the Atlanta Braves and the two which have carved out their own identities are doing far better. The Carolina MudCats are just the awesomeness that comes from being the MudCats. The Rome Braves pretty much ignore the "Braves" part of their identity and concentrate on the "Rome" part.

If the Gwinnett club announced a new name to differentiate itself from the major league team right next door, set up a mascot based on that name, and worked it hard then it could provide something for the locals to concentrate on and rally around.
Personally, I'd recommend the Gwinnett Goshawks. It's a majestic little bird with those bright yellow eyes and could serve well as a mascot. Of course, they'd probably pay some PR firm to make their logo and name and end up being something like the Gwinnett Gesundheits because it would be terrible name and therefore controversial and therefore cause lots of publicity. (bad, short term thinking - I'm looking at you Yard Goats).

Other than that, if the Braves organization is determined to keep their AAA affiliate "Braves" then the only real solution would be to move the team to a location far enough away from Atlanta that being "Braves" isn't a detriment. And that would be a truly evil thing to do to the Gwinnett County, Georgia after it put all that money into a ballpark.

The Game - And I actually watched a game there too. Errors and walks got a run across the plate for the Columbus Clippers in the 2d and the G.Braves got it back in the 6th with two back-to-back doubles. Yet, it was of no avail because the Clippers loaded the bases in the 9th and got three runs across the plate before the G,Braves could shut them down. Final score G.Braves 1 - Clippers 4.

It was a good game in a solid stadium run by good people and the AAA Braves are still obviously failing. In the end, I think the problem can most likely be traced to the fact that the AAA Braves are owned by the Atlanta Braves. The mothership sees AAA Braves as a stepping stone and not a final thing. Therefore, unlike a separate owner of a minor league team who has to make the ballpark work in order to earn a living, the Atlanta Braves really only care if there are good facilities for their AAA prospects and other employees. The fact that they aren't developing a hold on the fans in a community which the Atlanta Braves would rather come to Atlanta anyway probably doesn't bother those in the employ of the mothership at all. It needs to be fixed. It won't be.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Birmingham Barons

Best AA experience I've ever had. Period.

The stadium was packed to the gills although I'm convinced that half of them never saw their seats. A huge portion of the crowd hung out standing behind the right field wall or sitting in the grassy area in center-right. And there were two layers of box seating - all of which were filled. This is a great deviation from the norm at most parks where a few of the boxes are filled, but the rest just sit there sadly dark as an exclamation point for an overbuilt park. The vibe felt a lot like the AAA baseball stadium in Nashville.
In fact, if the Thursday night crowd I saw was anywhere near typical the Barons really ought to be a AAA team. Maybe they will be if MLB ever does that expansion it keeps saying it needs.

 The people were friendly, the concourse well laid out and the experience was really, really good. And, they have held onto their history. They're the Birmingham Barons dangit and they're not going to turn into the Birmingham Bacons or Birmingham Blue Crawdads or whatever weird name some ad agency could cook up to purposefully upset people so they can get publicity. It's good to see a team with integrity and the crowds that love them for it.

As for the game itself. the Barons easily handled the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. They held the "Yahoo Wahoos", as the announcer kept calling them, to no runs. Meanwhile, homers in the 2nd and 4th got the Barons up and running and in the 7th they loaded the bases and pushed 2 runs across before the Wahoos stopped the damage. With that, the game ended Barons 4 - Wahoos 0.

If you are in Birmingham, go. Heck if you are anywhere near Birmingham, go. It's a great park and a great experience and you need to to be there.