baseball

Baseball Stadiums: Coolray Field

The cliché goes that people don’t see the sights in their hometown because the sights are right there.  While that isn’t totally true about me visiting the Gwinnett Braves, there is a kernel of truth in the statement.

I grew up in Cobb County about 40 miles and roughly an hour drive from where Coolray Field stands now.  Growing up in suburban Atlanta during the ’80s and ’90s there was only ONE team in the area: the Atlanta Braves.  Going to a minor league game at that time meant a trip to a number of towns two hours away like Augusta, Columbus, or Macon.  Since 2009, minor league baseball fans haven’t had to venture far to catch a game because the Atlanta Braves relocated their AAA farm team to suburban Atlanta.  However, I haven’t made many trips to Lawrenceville because it’s not particularly geographically convenient to me.

I made one visit in 2011, but did not blog about that experience.  I decided to visit this summer with a friend from grad school who lives in Cumming (approximately 20 miles and 30 minutes away from the stadium) so I could write about my fan experience.

Main entrance.
Ticket office next to the main gate.

Even the casual baseball fan can deduce that the Gwinnett Braves are owned by the Atlanta Braves, so it’s not a surprise to see signage at Coolray Field connecting the G-Braves to the big league club.  However, I was quite surprised to see banners with Chipper Jones, Bobby Cox, and Hank Aaron welcoming fans.  None of the three ever played or coached the Gwinnett club.  Jones did play for the franchise when it was in Richmond, Va., but he didn’t even do a rehab stint with the team.

As a minor league baseball and Atlanta Braves fan, I’d rather see banners boast players who spent time with the G-Braves like Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel, Kris Medlen, or Jason Heyward, who are highlighted on the Gwinnett team’s website.

My friend and I arrived at the stadium about 40 minutes before the start of the game, so we were too late to get one of the Ron Gant bobbleheads.  There was an extremely long line of people waiting for him to autograph items, so it made exploring the food options a bit difficult because it wrapped around so much of the concourse that it was tough getting to some of the concession stands.  Despite the lines at some of the stands, the wait wasn’t very long because there was a plethora of stands plus a few specialty places like a McAlister’s Deli stand, a Chick-fil-A kiosk, and Niekro’s, which is a full-service restaurant with a bar.

Best-named concession stand.
They do serve McAlister’s Famous Sweet Tea.
Home of the ballpark’s signature food item: The Knucksie.
Food options along the third-base concourse.

I chose not to eat right away after checking out my choices, so I opted not to get dinner and instead waited for the first pitch.  However, before the first pitch you need to know the lineup.

The starting lineups featuring Evan Gattis on a rehabilitation assignment.

To the best of my memory, I have never been to a minor league game when a major league player was doing a rehab assignment.  So seeing Evan Gattis in the lineup was a first for me.

First pitch between the Durham Bulls and Gwinnett Braves.

After the first pitch, I returned to Niekro’s and ordered a Knucksie.  My friend got a chicken sandwich from the Chick-fil-A kiosk.  As has become custom, I had to take a photo of my food during the game.

The Knucksie: house-smoked pulled BBQ pork piled high with pickle chips, caramelized onions, two kinds of BBQ sauce, and coleslaw served on a toasted corn muffin.

The sandwich was delicious and very filling.  I didn’t detect two BBQ sauces, but the sweet, mayo-based cole slaw mixed well with the BBQ sauce and created a very tasty mix along with the corn muffin.  I opted for it because it is genuinely the signature item at the ballpark, and because none of the other items at the concession stands stood out as truly unique.

The beer selection was limited, too.  Georgia has a growing craft brewery industry, but the only local brew I could find was SweetWater 420 on draft at Niekro’s.  None of the concession stands had it on tap nor did I see it offered in bottles or cans anywhere in the stadium.  In this day of neolocalism and ballparks trying to offer signature food items and drinks, it’s disappointing that there were no special beers or drinks at the stadium.

Due to the larger than average crowd, I did not walk around the stadium as much as I did when I first visited in 2011.  So I stayed in my seat along the third base line to take most of my photographs, especially of the game action.

Scoreboard in right field.
Durham starting pitcher Alex Colome with Gwinnett shortstop Ozzie Martinez taking a lead off first.
Gwinnett Braves catcher Evan Gattis (a.k.a El Oso Blanco) at the plate.

While watching the game from the third base line, I captured a few shots that showed off the stadium like the right field fence that featured the club’s two retired numbers: Tommie Aaron and Jackie Robinson.  I shouldn’t have to explain to baseball fans why Robinson has his number retired, but Aaron has his number retired when the franchise played in Richmond and it was re-retired during the club’s 2012 season.

The G-Braves’ two retired numbers honors by the visitors bullpen.

Even if you’re not a vexillologist, everybody likes to have fun with flags.  One my interests as a kid was flags, so I always try to capture a photo when flags are flying.  Of the three flags, I only could identify two of them: the flag of the United States of America and the flag of the State of Georgia.

The best flag photo I captured on a night that wasn’t very windy.

Although the food and beverage choices did not provide a unique touch to the gameday experience, the stadium seats did.  The seat at the end of each aisle is emblazoned with the Coolray Field logo, which isn’t a big part about going out to the ballpark, but it is adds a unique touch to the stadium.

A great detail on the stadium seats.

Speaking of seats, I always enjoy a view of the grandstand because it shows how multiple layers are blended into one.  In this case, it shows off the suite boxes on the second level along with the press box.

View of the grandstand with the press box behind home plate and the suites down the first base line.

After walking around a little bit, fog started to set in so my friend and I sat down along the first base line to watch the end of the game.  That didn’t stop me from taking photos, as I snagged the following shots.

Awesome alliteration as the Bullpen Buffet overlooks the home team’s bullpen.

As a longtime baseball fan, one of the most enjoyable things about watching minor league games is being able to see players make the Majors.  If you’ve watched enough baseball, sometimes you get to see a player who made it to the Majors playing in Triple-A trying to make a big-league roster.  I got to see that with Durham’s Wilson Betemit, who came up in the Atlanta Braves system and made the big-league roster in 2004.  Ten years later he’s played on six MLB team’s and is with his seventh organization (Tampa Bay Rays).

Former Atlanta Braves farmhand Wilson Betemit playing first base.

Another reason I wanted to walk around the stadium was to find the team’s mascot, Chopper.  As my friend said, there are two things people will almost always see when I post photographs of my visit to a Minor League Baseball stadium: a food photo and a photo with the team mascot.

After securing my food photo early in the game, I needed to find the groundhog to get my mascot photo.  I found him along the first base line, as my friend and I walked around to check things out.

Me with Chopper.

Overall the gameday experience was good.  The between-innings contests were good, and you can read more about them from MiLB.com’s Ben Hill’s visits in 2010 and 2014.  The stadium is easily accessible to the surrounding Gwinnett County community, and the view of the outfield doesn’t lead fans to see the state highway in the distance.

As a fan of baseball and, especially Minor League Baseball, I wish the team incorporated more local elements into the food and drink choices and pushed the envelope.  The team does a great job with traditional promotions like bobbleheads that obviously brought out a large crowd on a Saturday night.  The club has jumped on board with the zombie craze and is taking advantage of the fact that The Walking Dead is filmed in the Atlanta area by hosting “The Day of the Dead” promotion on Aug. 3.  So the marketing crew has the potential to think outside the box and exploit local elements, but the food and drink choices haven’t received the same treatment from their corresponding department.

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