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Dec. 11, 2017
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Baseball after boating

By Jane Harrison
 
A suburban diamond just south of Lake Lanier’s shores shines in a family-oriented setting where future stars come to bat. A Gwinnett Braves minor league baseball game at Coolray Field, less than 12 miles from Buford Dam, pitches spectators an entertainment jewel faceted with fun, food, fireworks, bobbleheads, and of course, America’s traditional favorite pastime.
 
At first venture to a G-Braves game, lake-lovers might wonder why they hadn’t discovered this break from the lake years ago. Getting there might be a little hectic, but the tension fades soon enough when the ballpark lights hit the windshield.
 
With the turn out of Gwinnett traffic into the ballpark, the air changes. A crew of courteous parking attendants directs you to the best available slot. Get out of the car and take a deep breath. The scent of baseball – hotdogs, popcorn, peanuts and maybe a little sweat – escorts fans to the entry gate where smiling ticket checkers quickly get folks into an arena where fans anticipate a fun time watching players try to make it to the big time.
 
The Triple A minor league team that moved to the Lawrenceville field in 2008 is striving to win more fans in a metro area flooded with amusement options, including their parent team barely two counties away. General Manager North Johnson hopes newcomers’ experience at the park will bring them back and help lift the G-Braves out of the minor league attendance cellar.
 
‘Friendly’ experience
“Hopefully the moment you pull into the parking lot till the moment you leave the game, you’ll be greeted by friendly caring people,” from the parking attendants and ticket scanners to the ushers and concession vendors, he told a game newbie before the Phil Niekro Bobblehead & Fireworks night last month.
 
“We have a clean, beautiful nine-year-old facility that looks like it just opened. Then, there’s the game itself, where you can see future big league players from our side and the other side as well,” he said. “Games between the games,” races with Chopper the Groundhog mascot, trivia contests, and body balloon knockdowns, pack fan fun between the innings. Promotions, like dog days, beach towel giveaways, and field days for kids, lure spectators into the ballpark where every seat in the house is good. 
 
About 8,000 spectators nearly filled the 10,000-capacity stadium July 22, setting one of the season’s highest attendance records.  Hundreds lined up for Hall of  Fame Braves pitcher, Niekro, to sign bobblehead likenesses given to the first 2,500 through the gate. Stephanie Poynter, of Loganville, waited with nephews, Jackson, 6, and Jason, 7, to get the famed knuckleballer’s signature. “I love baseball and collectibles,” said the six-time game attendee as the youngsters fidgeted excitedly. “They play and they’re all about baseball, all the time,” she said.
 
Chad Cerny drove down I-85 from Gaffney, S.C. to snare a Niekro bobblehead at his first visit to Coolray Field. “I wanted to come to a Triple-A field,” said the veteran major league fan whose good impressions could multiply with “a big win.”
 
Stars shine
He got it moments before fireworks blasted above the stadium on a sweltering night. The home team prevailed against Indianapolis in a 2-1 pitchers’ duel that starred G-Braves All-Star right hander Lucas Sims, 23, from Lawrenceville in front of a hometown crowd. With a runner on base in the fifth, 20-year old switch hitter Ozzie Albies slammed one into the grass over the left field wall where picnickers dropped their hamburgers and kids chased a souvenir. Indianapolis got a tie-breaker on base in the ninth, but the G-Braves shut it down with a two-out throw from the third base line to home plate. The victory kept the G-Braves at equal wins and losses, trailing International League South leader, Durham Bulls, by six games.
 
With July coming to a close, team manager Johnson hoped for an August rally like the one last year that put them in the league playoffs. If they can’t catch the Bulls, there’re still a couple of chances in wildcard competition. “We never throw in the white towel. In reality, any team’s roster can change dramatically in a day or two,” Johnson said. You never know who’s going to get called up or who might get sent back down from the majors.
 
That’s all part of the challenge and excitement in the minor leagues, especially Triple A, where players mostly in their early 20s aim to fulfill childhood dreams and some who made it to the big league come back to re-hab after an injury or performance lapse. Players on the brink of goals or in purgatory put it on the line nearly daily from the opener in April to the regular season’s close in early September, each hoping they’ll make it to the show before play-offs.
 
In the meantime, the minor league show—with its ephemeral stars and inning to inning fan fun—runs nearly through summer’s end in Lake Lanier’s backyard with 16 regular season games at Coolray Aug. 1-Sept. 4.

Hall of Famer gets his bobblehead at Gwinnett’s Coolray Field
 
So what’s harder, pitching a game of knuckleballs or penning tiny signatures on hundreds of bobbleheads? “Bobbleheads, no question,” replied Phil Niekro after signing keepsakes in his likeness at the Gwinnett Braves Phil Niekro Bobblehead Night last month.
 
The Atlanta Braves Hall of Famer and five-time Golden Glove winner retired to Lake Lanier 30 years ago and makes it to G-Braves games between twice-a-day fishing trips and home projects. He enjoys family-oriented outings with his wife, children and grandchildren attending his former favorite pastime.
 
On his honorarium night, he relished a team win with guests of Edmondson-Telford Center for Children. The Gainesville-based advocate for victims of childhood sexual abuse awarded suite seats to winners of a “Niekro’s 9 Raffle” fundraiser. For more than 20 years “Knucksie,” as he is known for his baffling knuckleball pitch, has headlined the “Phil Niekro Golf Classic” benefiting the center.
 
He praised the G-Braves organization and Coolray Field for “family-oriented” ballpark fun. “It’s always good, it’s a nice ball park to go to,” he said. Watching a game still gets his competitive juices running. Seeing the “batter walk out and catcher get the sign and the pitcher wind it up” puts him back in the game. “I think I can still get them out,” he asserted. “I’ll always have that competitive spirit.”
 
He’d like to see more home media covering the team based in Gainesville’s backyard. “They’re a local team,” he said, and a lot of people from Gainesville and Lake Lanier go to the games.
 
Gwinnett Braves facts
  • Tickets: Easy to purchase at official website, www.gwinnettbraves.com; Coolray Field box office 678-277-0340; Ticketmaster 800-745-3000; or walk-up at the box office. Prices range $9 to $40 or $6 general admission on outfield lawn. Avoid website imposters as they can charge more than double face value.
  • Picnic Areas/ Party Decks/Suites: Groups rates with a minor league price tag, ranging from $25/person for all inclusive 2-hour picnics for 20-250 to $1,000-$6,500 total for suites with all you can eat options, outdoor furniture, flat screen TV. Some even have foosball, shuffle board and video games. Partial suites available.
  • Getting there: Regular heavy traffic on Buford Drive, also possibly on I-985 and I-85, especially for evening weekday games.
  • Coolest place to watch the game: Perhaps from the The Views condominium pool just beyond the outfield lawn; sorry, it’s for residents only.
  • Best place to cool off: Inside Niekro’s Craft on Draft the suds flow from taps and bottles and fans sip around highball tables in air conditioned comfort. Although you can’t see the game from there, you can go back to your seat with a Braves souvenir cup filled with cold Lappland Blonde Ale from Gainesville’s own Left Nut Brewery or other craft beer.
  • Where to eat: The Mall of Georgia area on Buford Highway near the stadium has scads of restaurants for out-of-the-ballpark dining. There’s no walk-up dining on-site except inside the stadium. There you get traditional ballgame fare – hotdogs, burgers, BBQ, tacos, chicken sandwiches. A vegetarian attending his first game was happy for veggie burritos.
  • Players: All are beardless, unlike their major league counterparts. Most look like the high school baseball player next door. Nineteen-year-old outfielder Ronald Acuna, from Venezuela, is one of Triple A’s youngest and brightest prospects. Other leading prospects include 2nd baseman Ozzie Albies, 20, from Curacao, and 3rd baseman Rio Ruiz, 23, from California, battling it out for team homerun king. Hometown Pitcher Lucas Sims, 23, led the league in strikeouts through July. Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, utility man Sean Rodriguez, and pitcher Sean Newcomb rehabbed with the G-Braves earlier this season.
  • What will be the new team name? Voting ended July 24 for a new moniker to create a unique identity for the Gwinnett squad. On the ballot were fan nominees: Gwinnett Buttons, Hushpuppies, Bigmouths, Gobblers, Lamb Chops and Sweet Teas. “We’ll take the fans’ vote seriously,” said General Manager North Johnson. Look for an announcement, along with a new logo, in late October or early November.

Posted online 7/31/17

 
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