4/14/17 at SunTrust Park

This was the VERY FIRST regular-season game at the Braves’ new ballpark, and it was the 53rd major league stadium I ever visited . . . so you could say I was excited. Here’s what it looked like from the road:

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I was with my friend Brandon. He’s the guy who’s been traveling all over the place with me lately and filming the videos for my YouTube channel. Here’s a screen shot of me doing the intro for the video in the parking lot:

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It was nearly five hours until first pitch — plenty of time to wander around the stadium and take it all in. Check out the 3rd base gate:

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Did you notice the small electronic screen with the gate opening time? What a great idea! (I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been at a stadium and asked three different employees when the gates open and gotten three different answers.) And best of all, the game was scheduled to begin at 7:35pm, which meant I’d get inside more than three hours early and see both teams take their full batting practice. I wasn’t nervous about getting shut out — somehow I always find a way to snag at least one baseball — but I was feeling a little extra pressure with Brandon there filming, and I wanted as much ballhawking action as possible.

I walked counter-clockwise around the stadium . . .

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. . . and stopped to look at everything:

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So did everyone else. Here are a bunch of men who took turns posing in front of a statue of Bobby Cox:

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In case you can’t tell from that photo, they were Asian, and based on the snippets of their conversations that I overheard, I knew they were Japanese. That made me wonder: is Bobby Cox big in Japan? I mean, if that were a statue of Brad Clontz, would they have been just as excited?

Here’s a statue of Phil Niekro, which got ME excited because of the knuckleball grip:

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As I approached the right field gate, I got recognized by these guys:

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One of them admitted that he was the person who’d asked me this mildly inappropriate question in one of my recent Q&A videos; my mildly inappropriate in-person response made them laugh:

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I toned things down a bit at the huge plaza between the right field and chop house gates. Brandon and I spotted a two-person TV crew interviewing random fans, including this old-timer with a killer sign:

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After the woman finished talking to him, Brandon told her about me, and I did a brief interview as well. You can see a bit of that in my video, which I’ll link to at the end of this blog entry, so keep scrolling/reading for now. And by the way, I’ve blogged about all 52 of the other MLB stadiums I’ve been to. This entry makes it 53-for-53, and you can see those entries here, arranged neatly by stadium in alphabetical order.

Check out the plaza from above:

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Beautiful! (Right?)

Here I am near a large Atlanta Braves sign outside the chop house gate.

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This was the scene outside the left field gate at around 4pm:

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I expected it to be much more crowded, so I’d asked my friends Leigh Barratt and David Welch (fellow ballhawks) to hold a spot for me at the front of the line. Here I am with them just before the stadium opened:

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That’s Leigh (aka “Padre Leigh”) on the left and David on the right. Great guys. Leigh is as passionate about hitting up new stadiums as I am. We met for the first time on 4/22/08 at Champion Stadium, and check this out — here’s a photo of us on 3/22/14 at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Remember when the Dodgers and Diamondbacks opened the MLB season there with a pair of regular-season games? Ooh yeah.

As for THIS game in Atlanta, I was thrilled to finally run inside and get my first glimpse of the stadium:

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Based on my own ballhawking preview of the stadium, I knew that left field was the best place to catch home runs. That said, I gave up on it quickly and headed over to right-center because (a) it got crowded within a few minutes and (b) several lefties started hitting.

A little while later, I spotted Braves pitcher Ian Krol picking up a ball on the warning track:

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I called out to him and got him to toss it up — but he threw it so far over my head that I didn’t even bother jumping. Instead I turned around and hoped for a good deflection, and whaddaya know? It hit the back of a seat and bounced right back to me. Here I am reaching out for the bare-handed snag:

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I had gotten at least one baseball at each of the other 52 stadiums that I’d been to, so it felt great to extend that streak. Here I am enjoying a tender moment with the newest member of my baseball family:

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Umm . . . yeah.

After that I turned my attention to the chop house section in straight-away right field:

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Before I say anything else, let me tell you that ALL of right field is difficult at this stadium. The problem with right-center is that most of the seats are behind the bullpen and approximately 20 feet high, so it takes a real blast for a ball to land there. There IS one little patch of seats beside the bullpen, but it gets crowded there, so catching a home run in right-center is unlikely. Then there’s the chop house. Lots of balls land there, but in order to enter the seating area, you need a ticket for that section, and those rows are narrow anyway, so the presence of just one other person clogs up the space and makes it nearly impossible to move from side to side. Therefore the only decent spot that was available to me in right field was directly under the “chop house” sign at the back of the section. That’s a somewhat narrow but wide-open area that connects the restaurant to the outdoor seating. Anyone is allowed to stand there, which is nice, but guess what? That just means it gets crowded as hell.

Here I am waiting for some action:

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Here’s a bunch of people scrambling and going nuts and falling on top of each other for a ball:

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In the image above, that’s my glove and arm on the right-hand side. I hung back because it just wasn’t worth getting involved and potentially injured in that mayhem. For a gamer? Sure. (Or when I was 14? Of course!) But not a BP ball at this point in my life.

Another issue with the chop house is that the back wall produces TONS of ricochets, so you really need to watch out. While that entire area looks cool and is probably a lovely spot to sit or stand and watch the game, it seems like an injury waiting to happen, especially during BP.

Check out the following screen shot. You can see everyone looking up at the ball except for me:
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I predicted that it would hit the back wall and bounce down into the seating area, so I was already focusing on my route to get down there. Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened, and as the ball started rattling around in the last row, I was all over it:

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Here I am with it:

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I’m not sure who hit it, but if I had to guess, I’d say Nick Markakis.

Back in left field for the next group of Braves hitters, I noticed several balls in the bullpen. It was the perfect opportunity to bust out my glove trick:

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Here I am reeling in my third ball of the day, and if you look closely, you can see another type of ball-retrieving device — the cup trick — dangling in the background:

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I snagged another ball with the glove trick and handed that to the nearest kid. (Once again, you’ll see all of this in the video — if you haven’t seen it already.)

Look how crowded it got in left field:

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Did you spot me in the image above? That’s me right in the middle on the stairs — not ideal circumstances to catch a baseball. It was almost as crowded as BP for the Home Run Derby. In an attempt to gain an edge, several kids stood atop the outfield wall!

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To clarify, there’s a double-wall with a four-foot-wide patch of grass/plants in between, but still, that was quite a sight. And where was stadium security? Nowhere. I’m all in favor of having fewer rules, but sometimes people need to be told “no.”

That double-wall, by the way, is yet another dangerous spot. The actual outfield wall is too far away for people to reach from the stands, which of course is the point. The stadium was designed like that to prevent fan interference on deep fly balls, but because people can’t reach it, they’re going to get drilled in the face by deflections when they’re standing in the front row. Mark my words and be careful! That’s an awful spot. You basically never want to be in the front row anyway unless there’s a chance to get a toss-up, in which case you can just move down there for a few moments.

SunTrust Park is one of the stadiums that has protective netting in front of the dugouts — kinda funny considering how easy it is to get hurt in the outfield. I hate that netting (for various reasons), but check this out — because of a quirky configuration near the home-plate end of the dugout, there’s actually a gap were it’s possible to get toss-ups:

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Naturally, since that’s the only place to get toss-ups near home plate, it was packed. I knew I had no chance, and when the visiting Padres cleared the field, my total number of baseballs for the day was still at four. Not great. Not awful. But this day was bigger than my typical ballhawking mission. I was just glad to be there and for the next hour, I turned my attention to exploring the stadium.

Here I am with a gigantic glove at a Mizuno stand in the left field corner:

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Fans are able to rent (normal-sized) gloves there for free. (Mizuno will place a $1 hold on your credit card, but then refund it when you return the glove.) Cool idea.

As the field started getting set for the pre-game ceremony, I wandered up some stairs in deep center field. This was the view:

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Here’s what it looked like up there:

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That’s an interesting setup — a narrow walkway above the 100 Level concourse. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to walk to the right-field side of the stadium up there because of this:

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The area behind the batter’s eye was blocked off for a private event. Bah!!

Brandon and I had to go back downstairs as part of our route toward the upper deck. Of course I took lots of photos along the way, including this one of fans entering the chop house gate:

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Here’s another problem with SunTrust Park:

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As I explained in the video, the concourses are too narrow. And yes, I realize that it won’t usually be THAT crowded, but still, come ON. This stadium was built in an inconvenient spot in the middle of nowhere. It’s not like the architects had to cram it into a teeny patch of real estate, like some other new/downtown stadiums, so what were they thinking? It’s always better to have too much space than too little, and as long as I’m already complaining . . . there weren’t enough garbage cans, but hey, at least that can be fixed. I think the stadium is interesting and beautiful overall, but certain parts of it just weren’t thought out. (Given the fact that I’ve been to more MLB stadiums than anyone who will ever design one, I’m still waiting to be hired as a consultant.) (That’s kind of a joke.) (Or wait, is it?) (Hi.) (Let’s move on.)

The uppermost concourse wasn’t as crowded:

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Perhaps that’s because 98 percent of the crowd was already seated. Check out this panorama from the top of the upper deck behind home plate:

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This was my favorite moment of the pre-game ceremony:

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When the 83-year-old Hank Aaron walked out onto the field, I got chills. There was a specific type of buzz throughout the stadium that only occurs in the presence of a true legend.

Brandon wanted to stay in the upper deck for the first pitch, so I left him there and headed downstairs. I made it to the left field foul line just in time to see the Braves jogging in from the outfield on a long red carpet:

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MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred gave a nice, brief speech:

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Then, after the player introductions, everyone stood for the national anthem:

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Here’s the huge American flag covering the outfield:

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As the song was ending, I heard the roar of jets, pointed my iPhone skyward, and barely managed to capture the flyover:

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Finally it was time for the game to begin. I wasn’t quite sure how to document it, so I selfie-filmed myself watching the first pitch:

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That pitch was thrown by Julio Teheran; Manuel Margot, the Padres’ leadoff batter, boldly swung at it and flied out to center fielder Ender Inciarte — and just like that, a new era of baseball in Atlanta was underway.

Brandon came downstairs soon after, and we moved to left field. To hell with foul balls and toss-ups, at least until the first home run was hit. I needed to be in the outfield to have a chance, however small, of catching it.

The Braves jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the 1st inning, and the Padres tied it in the top of the 2nd. The crowd was really into it, especially this guy who led everyone in various chants:

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In the bottom of the 4th, the Braves took a 3-2 lead — still no home runs, though. I was anxious and antsy. My mind was racing. I had too much energy. It was hard for me to sit still. I wanted to be moving. Running. Playing. Talking. Eating. Fiddling with my phone. Playing deep for power hitters. Running to the other side of the stadium for lefties. And so on. But none of that happened at this game. I was confined to one little spot. The most I could do was wander down to the front row between innings and take a photo of the double-wall/plant situation:

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I would have loved to have an actual hard ticket (instead of an e-ticket), but instead I had to settle for taking a photo of someone else’s ticket:

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That belonged to a friendly man sitting behind me, and when he told me how much he’d paid for four of them, I struggled to maintain a poker face. I’m not sure where he got ’em, but when I was browsing online just a few days before the game, tickets really weren’t THAT expensive. This was the first inaugural game I’d ever been to at a brand-new stadium; I was expecting World Series prices, but it turned out to be just like any other normal Opening Day. What’s up with that? Is that an Atlanta thing? Have I gotten jaded by living in New York City my whole life and overpaying for everything?

In the bottom of the 6th, Ender Inciarte crushed the baseball and my dreams: two-run homer to right field. Womp-womp. So much for that. But on the plus side, I no longer felt bound to the outfield, so I headed back to my actual seat in foul territory and got the ball that ended the 7th inning. Brandon Phillips lined out to Padres left fielder Travis Jankowski, who tossed me the ball as he jogged toward the dugout. Very easy and VERY COOL. Check it out:

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I was hoping that there’d be ultra-rare SunTrust Park balls with the date of the inaugural game stamped below the logo, but eh. Having a generic Opening Day logo is now more important than commemorating the first game at a new stadium? It didn’t used to be like that. Look at this ball from the inaugural game at Miller Park. I wasn’t there that day; I got lucky and randomly snagged it at a subsequent BP, but anyway, you can kinda/barely see the date at the bottom: APRIL 6th, 2001.

There was no more scoring after the Inciarte home run. Final score: Braves 5, Padres 2.

After the final out, I caught up with two friendly on-field employees. First it was this guy named Chip who works as a groundskeeper and had recognized me during BP:

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Then I chatted with an old buddy and former ballhawk named Evan, who now works as a batboy:

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When Evan first came out of the dugout, he handed me a ball, so that was my 6th of the day. How cool is that? We used to compete against each other in the stands (friendly competition, but still), and now he can actually add to my collection. Life is funny like that. Check out this photo of us when we met for the first time on 5/19/10 at Turner Field. (Congrats, Evan, for nailing an awesome job! And thanks for the ball. Hope to see you again soon.)

Ready for the most unusual autograph request of all time? Some dude asked me to sign a plunger!

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But it’s not just any old plunger. (I made sure it was new and clean and unused.) This one was rigged as a ball-retrieving device. Ha!!

I moved up to the cross-aisle to film a closing scene for the video and was interrupted by a very very very VERY drunk and obnoxious woman who insisted on giving me a kiss:

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At first I tried to decline politely, but she wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. (But whatever, right? She was a woman, so that makes it okay, and obviously I wanted it because I’m a man, LOLOL. /s) Ultimately I decided it’d be easier and less confrontational to play along and accept the kiss and send her on her way. But then of course she asked what we were filming, and then she demanded to be in the video, so Brandon held up the camera and pretended to film while she rambled about B.S. She finally walked off and we got back to work. #coorslight

If you’re wondering why it was still so crowded after the game (and during the closing scene of the video), that’s because it was Fireworks Night, so lots of folks stuck around.

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Here’s another fireworks photo with the game-used baseball.

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On the way out, I got a glimpse of a Hank Aaron statue/display in the concourse behind home plate:

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Did you notice the “755” against the back wall? That, of course, represents his career home run total, and it’s made of baseball bats. Good stuff. The whole stadium is filled with things to see and has lots of nooks and crannies and places to wander and explore and hang out. It’s a great stadium overall — one that requires several days to see everything — and the Braves did a solid job of showcasing the teams and legends of the past.

Here’s a photo taken outside the stadium:

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Once again, I realize that the crowd was extra large and that it won’t always be like this, but just a little warning: the taxi line was nightmarish. There was one spot where fans had to wait for an Uber. That line was the length of a football field. Traffic wasn’t moving *and* there were no Ubers in sight. Brandon and I were staying at a hotel roughly one mile from the stadium but because of the indirect route, it turned out to be a two-mile walk. That’s how we got back both nights. (We were at SunTrust again for the next game.) And it wasn’t a pleasant walk. We had to pass alongside a construction zone and encountered a few semi-shady characters along the way. I’m from New York City, so whatever — I *am* a shady character, and I’m used to walking everywhere (I don’t even own a car), but poor Brandon from SoCal couldn’t deal with it and nearly had a meltdown.

Why is the Uber situation so awful at SunTrust Park? Well, because of traffic. Duh! But more specifically, it’s because none of the local Uber drivers want any part of that post-game madness. I asked a driver about it the next day (drop-off is a breeze when going TO the stadium hours before game time), and he said it’s not worth waiting in traffic for an hour only to earn a few dollars for a short ride. My advice, therefore, for my fellow baseball travelers, is to stay close to stadium and walk to your hotel . . . or walk half a mile (or more) from the stadium and call a taxi from there.

Of the six baseballs that I snagged, here are the four that I kept:

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That’s pretty much it. I haven’t blogged in a while. I forgot how much fun it is (and also how much time it takes) to crank out a 3,600-word entry. Hope you enjoyed it. Keep scrolling for that video I’ve been talking about . . .

BALLHAWKING STATS:

 6 baseballs at this game

 45 balls in 8 games this season = 5.63 balls per game.

 1,285 consecutive games with at least one ball

53 different MLB stadiums with at least one ball

 9,520 total balls

All of the baseballs that I snag this season are raising money for the charity Pitch In For Baseball. If you donate money, you’ll be entered into a drawing to win some baseball prizes, including a custom Wilson glove. CLICK HERE to watch a YouTube video explaining how it all works.

Finally, as promised, here’s my video about this epic day at SunTrust Park:

Thanks for reading/watching and don’t forget to subscribe to my YouTube channel. I’ll be posting dozens of videos this season.

10 comments

  1. Tyler

    I really missed your blogs. Please post at least a couple more.
    Also on April 27 at Progressive Field you snagged 2 game hrs right? On your blog it says 1.

  2. Ray Burton

    I must admit that I really miss your game blogs like these, but understand how much work is involved in putting them out compared to the videos. What does a ” semi-shady ” character look like ? They must be bad to impress a New Yorker. I can`t believe that the Braves didn`t use a dedicated commemorative baseball for their first game at a new stadium. They probably ran out of money after the build lol. Keep the blogs going for important games and milestones. And games with epic food consumption. There are plenty of people like me who enjoy reading them.

  3. Tyler #2

    I appreciate you taking the time to write this. I enjoy reading your entries and always look forward to new ones. I understand the appeal of YouTube to you, but as I have a data limit on my internet (thanks rural isp) this is the only way for me to enjoy your adventures. Thanks so much and you should do this more often lol

  4. Ryan C

    Zack, man, I know you love the YouTube channel and the fact it’s much easier than the blog, but there is just something about reading about your ballhawking and the games that make it more enjoyable. I do hope you keep writing here often, you’re clearly gifted with being able to paint a picture of being there. I check this site almost daily, just to see if you’ve written more. Keep it up, there’s lots of us fans out there who actually prefer the blog and appreciate the work it entails to do.

  5. Zack Hample

    JUSTINO-
    Thanks! Hopefully I’ll find time to write more.

    TYLER-
    Thanks for catching that mistake. It has been fixed.

    RAY BURTON-
    Semi-shady means I briefly considered my safety and my whereabouts, but I assumed (correctly) that it would be a non-issue. Anyway, thanks. I know you (and others) prefer the blogs, and hopefully I’ll still find the time to write them on special occasions.

    TYLER #2-
    Data limits are dumb. But thanks — I appreciate that.

    DAN COX-
    Nice to hear from you. Small chance I’ll make it back there this year, but not sure when.

    RYAN C-
    Thanks. Glad you enjoyed it. I’m doing my best, but there’s only one of me, so I have to be selective about how to use my time.

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