By Ray Glier
It is the kind of team fans would marvel over and pay to see. In person. If they could.
The Braves can count on just one of their projected starting pitchers, yet they lead the National League East. They took two of three from division rival Philadelphia over the weekend without injured young stars Ronald Acuna, Jr. (out since August 10) and Ozzie Albies (out since August 4). They have more wins when trailing in the seventh inning than any other team. They win in last at bats. They win with pluck and a bullpen of four expensive relievers and the rest spare parts.
Fans would flock to the ballpark to this team, which would be a big help to a franchise that was $718 million in debt June 30, according to Liberty Media quarterly report. The debt is from the build-out of the Braves’ mixed-use development around Truist Park called The Battery Atlanta and business there has fallen off dramatically in the pandemic.
Certainly, the fitness of the other teams in the NL East has to be questioned when the division leader, Atlanta, has one legit starting pitcher. Philadelphia, Washington, Miami, and the Mets have holes everywhere. The Braves also got swept in two game by the Yankees, if you are judging their fitness for a World Series run. Atlanta could end up back in second place this week after a visit from New York.
But the Braves’ togetherness shouldn’t be discounted. It’s just too bad the concourses at Truist Park resemble a bowling alley after closing. Wide and empty. There is an artificial buzz of the crowd piped in to the stadium during a game to give it some semblance of a ballpark, but it would be much more raucous in a pandemic-less season.
Here is some of the team’s character that might not have been caught on TV.
Last Friday night, when Cristian Pache broke his bat for a single to right field in the sixth inning for his first big league hit, Ender Inciarte, the veteran centerfielder, raised his arms to lead the cheering in the dugout. If Pache emerges this season it would endanger Inciarte’s time with the Braves. Inciarte, who had struck out twice in the game, cheered nonetheless, which is one example of selflessness by this team. He could have given it an operatic clap and gotten away with it.
Outside the stadium, it is a different story. Selfishness reigns in The Battery Atlanta. The haughtiness is all over America, but when you see it up close, it is striking.
The Braves’ tenants at The Battery, the business owners the club collects rent from, are spreading out tables, removing chairs, and trying to cut down on the density, as per public health guidelines the team asked the renters to follow. Per a team spokesperson, “As a third party landlord, we have provided resources to local, state and federal guidelines governing safe operations of consumer businesses.”
The fans—or others who come to The Battery to eat or drink—are not cooperating.
The night before the state of Georgia reached a milestone of 5,000 deaths from the coronavirus, which many believe is the result of the failed policy of Gov. Brian Kemp, patrons milled around in groups of 4, 5, 6, in the bars and restaurants. A table inside The Tavern was stuffed with 10. Another table had six patrons. Young adults crowded around into a pizza place, or stood shoulder to shoulder at bars, inside and outside. It’s not clear how many were Braves fans, or just there for the party.
There was no social distancing as groups clustered. Of the fans in The Battery just before first pitch against the Phillies, perhaps 80 percent were without a mask. But it wasn’t just young adults without masks. It was also the middle aged and older. All demographics are part of the me-first south.
The Braves are trying to salvage revenue at The Battery and help keep their tenants solvent so they will not shut it all down to suppress the virus. In the quarterly report by Liberty Media ending June 30, revenue in The Battery was down from $10 million in 2019 to $6 million in 2020. Liberty said rent relief to business owners was chief among reasons for the drop in revenue. Indeed, an ice cream store on a Friday night had one customer in 15 minutes. A baseball retail store had two customers in a 20-minute window.
The Liberty Media quarterly report said baseball revenue generated by Truist Park was down from $198 million the same time in 2019 to $5 million the same period 2020.
The Braves had debt of $718 million on June 30 as they continue to build out The Battery. If not for the question of how the debt is going to impact the team’s player payroll for 2021, the ball club would get little sympathy for the red ink from many in the area. The under-handed tactics to get their stadiums built with public money in Gwinnett and Cobb is not going to be forgotten.
At least the team on the field is solid in makeup, though not flawless. They have breakdowns. In a 8-2 loss to the Marlins on August 14 they didn’t keep the double play in order by throwing to the wrong base, gave up four stolen bases, and runners helped themselves to extra bases.
In a 5-4 loss to the Phillies on August 23, Dansby Swanson was flat-footed at first base with two-out when a ball was hit into the left-center gap. He was the third out at home with what what would have been the tying run.
Most of the time, though, this team is on its toes and scrapping. If this team even gets a sniff of the World Series, Brian Snitker would be Manager of the Year. The starting pitching is in tatters and Acuna and Albies are on the shelf, but the Braves are worth watching, even if it’s just on TV.