Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Braves leaving Richmond for Buford

The Richmond Braves are saying goodbye to Virginia.

The club announced today that its triple-A club will leave Virginia for a new ballpark being built in Gwinnett County, Ga., for the 2009 season. The Braves had called Richmond home since 1966.

It’s not that surprising that the Atlanta organization was looking for new digs. The Diamond looks like one of those cookie-cutter big league stadiums that become popular in the early 1970s. The only difference is that the park in Richmond appears incomplete.

The big cement overhang only stands behind home plate, but fans still get kind of an antiseptic feel when entering the park. The rest of the park was left open, leading to speculation that an upper deck could someday encase the entire park if a major league team ever came knocking.

The city of Richmond was apparently entertaining the idea of building a new stadium for the Braves, but according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch talks never advanced far.

“Unfortunately, the city seems prone to consulting things to death to such a degree that nothing happens," Richmond City Council President William J. Pantele told the Times-Dispatch "You've got to have the strength to pull the trigger."

The Braves new ballpark will be in Buford, a city about 40 miles from downtown Atlanta. That’s about a two-and-a-half hour drive in normal Atlanta traffic.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Gwinnett County appears ready to post the estimated $45 million to build the new park. The Braves, in turn, will sign a 30-year lease at about $250,000 a season.

The Braves will play this season in Richmond, which is a ballpark that holds a sentimental attachment to The Dugout.

Readers of The Funniest Thing I’ve Ever Seen: More the 100 crazy stories from minor league baseball may recognize that the cover photo was shot in Richmond.

The accompanying story was from then-Brave Charles Thomas. Here it is:

Charles Thomas is having an interesting day. The box of new bats he was expecting finally arrived. When Thomas opened them, he was disappointed to find the box stuffed with training bats – short bats that allow a player to work on aspects of his swing by swinging one-handed. He thought the bat company made a mistake until Richmond Braves’ second baseman and teammate Pete Orr told Thomas he was the victim of a joke.

What did Thomas do to deserve this? Plenty, and that’s a good thing. Jokes like Orr’s are commonly played on young players experiencing success. Thomas clearly fits that description.
Through mid-May the Atlanta Braves prospect was hitting .356 with 2 home runs, 17 RBIs and 16 runs scored. He was second in the Triple-A International League in hitting, third in triples with four, and is coming off a 16-game consecutive on-base streak.

So one practical joke was in order. Thomas never saw the second one coming. Moments after clearing up his bat problems, Thomas took the field for a pre-game television interview. Thomas was facing the reporter. His back was to the dugout when teammate Matt Whiteside raced up the steps and smashed a towel covered with Edge shaving gel into Thomas’ face.
The gel penetrated his mouth and stung his eyes, yet Thomas was as amused as any of the fifteen onlookers.

“We have a great group of guys,” Thomas said. “It’s a sign that they care. I think when they leave you alone and don’t pay any attention to you, that’s when there are problems.”
One former teammate Thomas constantly paid attention too was Rusty McNamara. In 2002, McNamara, who was playing for Double-A Greenville, found a big audience paying attention to his antics.

Charles Thomas: We were in a rain delay in Tennessee against the Smokies. It’s pouring. [McNamara] gets the idea to come out of the clubhouse. I think he just had his dry-fit top and shorts on. He starts playing to the crowd – with his arms up.

He [reaches] his arms up and out like he’s stretching, then dives into a big puddle of water on the tarp. He starts doing the backstroke, front stroke. It was a trip. The crowd was there and they were loving it – eating it up.

It was one of the funniest things I’ve seen - even the dive itself into the water. You see guys flying around the tarps all the time, but he made it like he was in a little swim meet.

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