• Exclusives

    Back To The Ballpark: After 18 Months Away, It’s Time To Come Home

    Editor’s Note: The Atlanta Braves host the Philadelphia Phillies in the team’s 2021 home opener Friday night at Truist Park, the franchise’s first home game in front of fans in 18 months. For Braves Wire writer Bud L. Ellis, the Braves home opener each year is a special moment, the start of a season of attending games and making memories with family and friends. On the eve of his 39th home opener, he shares his thoughts and emotions leading into the return to the ballpark.

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – There was a moment, late in the evening of Oct. 9, 2019, where it felt like the end of the world. The Braves had allowed 10 first-inning runs in the decisive Game 5 of the NL Division Series against St. Louis – a series Atlanta absolutely gave away. I wanted to leave early, but my oldest son would not let me.

    He wanted to see Julio Teheran throw to Brian McCann one last time, the pitcher ending his Braves career and the catcher minutes away from announcing his retirement. Walking out of SunTrust Park (now Truist Park) as the Braves season gasped its final breath was one of the lowest feelings I’ve experienced as a baseball fan, and the baseball-loving father of a baseball-loving son.

    We had no idea what would unfold, and how the world truly would stop.

    ****

    At times in our lives, we find ourselves traveling down a long, dark road. No exits. No mile markers. No GPS. No idea where, or when, a light will emerge. Then you see it, at first appearing faint on the horizon – almost as if it’s a mirage – until the illumination grows steadily brighter, draws steadily closer, and you find yourself emerging out of the darkness.

    You find your way home.

    The Atlanta Braves come home Friday night, home to Truist Park to host the Philadelphia Phillies in the home opener after going 2-4 on their season-opening, six-game road swing through Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. A little more than 13,000 fans – 33 percent of the ballpark’s capacity – will file through the gates while wearing masks and sit in socially distant pods. But they will do something fans haven’t been able to do in 1 ½ years: attend a Braves home game.

    My oldest son and I will be among them. Believe me, I realize how fortunate I am to be among that number.

    It’s going to be different, for sure. No cooking tomorrow morning, no arriving hours before first pitch, no hugs and high-fives in Lot 29, no standing shoulder-to shoulder as part of a sold-out crowd. Park in a different lot, walk into the ballpark, watch the game, walk back to the car.

    Of all the home openers I’ve attended since my first one way back in 1980, it will be the strangest one I’ve experienced.

    And I’ll absolutely take it.

    ****

    My birthday is in March. There never was any intrigue around my birthday present every year growing up: tickets to the home opener. My parents would give me money for the home opener even after I’d grown up, graduated college, and got married. I covered four of them during my journalism career. My mom, who has lived with us for a decade, asks me periodically through the winter:

    “How many days?”

    There’s no doubt about what she’s asking.

    I remember hearing her yell for joy upstairs when Adam Duvall’s base hit scored Dansby Swanson to put the Braves ahead in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the Cardinals series. I remember her telling me, “we’re getting closer, son,” the morning after last year’s Game 7 NLCS loss to the Dodgers. I remember her and my dad filling a cooler full of beer and champagne for me and a bunch of other 18-year-olds on Oct. 5, 1991, the day the Braves clinched the NL West title in their worst-to-first season.

    Mom’s health has deteriorated the past few months. We’ve had some rough moments the past few weeks. But this week has been a good week, and she’s been adamant that I go to the game. Afterward, she’ll ask me how the Braves played, ask if we had a good time, remind me if the Braves lose that it’s a long season.

    And when I complain about a slow start or an early deficit, she offers her favorite: “It’s never over until it’s over.”

    She told me that the other day. I nodded and put on a brave smile, fighting the realization she’s likely in her ninth inning.

    ****

    I have not watched a baseball game in person since that numbing butt-kicking by the dirty, devil-magic Cardinals. The offseason is long, but there usually are a bread crumb or two to help you along the way. A snowboard event at the ballpark in December 2019; the fan festival a few weeks later. Moments to get you through until the season starts when, for baseball fans, life truly beginning again.

    Until it didn’t.

    Baseball in 2020 was so different, the methodical daily drumbeat delayed 3 1/2 months condensed into the 60-game sprint. It was better than no season at all, and certainly a success for the Braves: a third-straight division title, an MVP season from Freddie Freeman, the emergence of Ian Anderson, the smashing of the playoff series drought. Even the inability to finish off the Dodgers in the NLCS, as painful as that was in the moment, teased even greater heights to scale in the near future.

    And yet, it just wasn’t the same. There is nothing like being in the ballpark. The energy, even with a small crowd, is so much better than piped-in noise. My cardboard cutout is now in its rightful place, hanging in the Braves Room. There simply is no replacement for having fans in the seats, cheering and booing and losing themselves for three hours, forgetting the day and the week and work and all the other real-world stuff that tugs at us.

    Walking through those gates is a release. It’s baseball. It’s comfort. It’s home.

    I know what it’s like to walk into a ballpark for a World Series game, for the decisive game of a playoff series, for a highly anticipated debut, for that first game of a new season. Good and bad, I’ve experienced it all.

    Friday night will be an experience all its own. It will be emotional, all the more so as we remember Hank Aaron and Phil Niekro (and of course, longtime broadcaster Don Sutton). It will be special. And it will be wonderful.

    Friday night, 18 months from the day since I left, I get to come home.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.