I'm know I'm going to sound like an old man again, but I can remember 1997 like it was yesterday. I can almost taste it, smell it -- the time when a couple of Yankee kids named Jeter and Rivera ruled the baseball world, when Hillary Clinton was strolling the corridors of the White House, and when the Dow hit the Olympian heights of 8,000. It seemed like those times would never end, but now it's 16 long years later (that's not a typo... 1-6!) and time continues to march inexorably forward.
I felt a pang of nostalgia when I read today that another relic of that bygone era is biting the dust, that the Atlanta Braves are finally (finally!) saying goodbye to historic Turner Field, ending its more than decade-and-a-half run and heading for the greener pastures of suburban Cobb County. Goodbye to the ballpark where the ghosts of John Rocker and David Justice still lurk, its old-timey giant "Eat Mor Chickin'" Chick-fil-A cow, the "Tomahawk Chop" (yes, people weren't as advanced on matters of race back then, unfortunately), and the quaint aroma of jalapeno nachos in the sultry Georgia air.
When I saw the news -- on Twitter, which didn't even exist way back in 1997! -- this morning that the Braves will be saying good-bye to Turner Field in 2017, after the expiration of their original 20-year lease, I really only had one reaction.
What the hell, Atlanta Braves? Or maybe it was, what the hell, Atlanta... (and Cobb County.) Okay, I guess it was actually, what the hell. America?
I do, in all seriousness, remember the opening of Turner Field quite well, and the backstory seemed at the time a tribute to something I used to believe passionately in, American ingenuity -- not to mention free enterprise. In the first part of the 1990s, the Braves played in the worst of the worst of the cookie-cutter multi-purpose stadiums, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, beloved as the site of Hank Aaron's legendary 715th home run, and little else. A fan in the upper deck behind first or third base needed a telescope to see the field, and I believe a section of foul territory may have been located in Alabama.
Then Atlanta landed the 1996 Olympics, and a great bargain was struck. NBC and deep-pocketed Olympic sponsors put up almost all of the money -- $170 million out of $209 million -- to build a new stadium in the parking lot of the old one. Its massive bank of track-only seats was yanked out in the winter of 1996-97, and -- voila! -- a new ballpark -- with luxury boxes, seats close to the field, old-fashioned bleachers and a great view of downtown Atlanta -- was born. Attendance was okay, not great -- but that seemed more a function of complacency over the Braves' annual October collapse than any problem with Turner Field.
The news that the Braves plan to abandon it is simply stunning. What happened? The Braves say they want to be closer to their real fan base in the affluent northern suburbs, and hey, that's capitalism, I guess. Except here's the thing: It's not capitalism. The Braves say it would have cost $200 million to "fix" Turner Field (apparently for things like new seats and new lights... hard to believe that the old ones only lasted 16 years and that it costs that much to fix them, but that's what they claim). In Cobb County, they're spending the same amount for a whole new stadium -- because the taxpayers of Cobb County are promising to pay the rest, a whopping $450 million. They've promised the money to the Braves even though there's been no public hearings and no vote. I have no idea how that even works,
So this is not real capitalism at all -- it's corrupted crony capitalism. Now it seems that Cobb County is one of the 100th wealthiest counties in America, and the 12th most educated. So $450 million must be chump change -- it's not like they're Philadelphia, slashing public school teachers in the face of massive budget cuts. Oh, wait... actually they are sort of like that: "Cobb County's school board approved a 2013-14 budget Thursday night that will result in five furlough days for all employees, the loss of 182 teachers through attrition and a slimmer central administration staff."
The cuts are the result of reduced state aid and lower property tax revenues -- although apparently the lower property tax revenues that are low enough to mean fewer teachers aren't so low that they can't BUILD A NEW BASEBALL STADIUM! For a team that already has what you and I might, sanely, consider a pretty new baseball stadium.
There's so much else that it's hard to know where to begin. There's the fact that the Braves are leaving a ballpark served by mass transit for one that would be located at one of the most traffic-congested intersections (I-75 and I-285) in America, pumping tons of unnecessary carbon pollution into the air. The fact that this is just slightly less egregious than what's happening with Atlanta's also pretty new, also fully functional football stadium the Georgia Done (which opened way back in... wait for it, 1992) that's being replaced with a $1.2 billion palace with a retractable roof, because...??? And there's the "white flight" of the Braves leaving the majority black city where Aaron heroically endured death threats to break Babe Ruth's record.
Which maybe wouldn't be so terrible... if they weren't doing it with other people's money. But here's the thing that really galls me -- that this is happening in Georgia, the hotbed of the Tea Party, the state that gave us Cobb County's own Newt Gingrich and now sends right-wing crackpots like Rep. Paul Broun to Washington so that they can rail against "the moochers," "the takers," who don't think twice about slashing food stamps and who won't -- on principle... principle! -- take Washington's Medicaid money so that their own working-poor constituents can get good health coverage. And now they're writing the (corporate) welfare check of a lifetime, to one of the most historically lucrative sports franchises in American history, and their only question is how many zeroes there are in $450 million. How dare they?!
If you travel today to Italy, it's not always easy to find the ruins of Ancient Rome, a world that was lost to a long run of corrupt emperors and the folly and contradiction of maintaining a global empire. But you can't miss the Colosseum, still standing strong after all these centuries. It's not hard to imagine the tourists of a future millennium touring an Ancient American monument to imperial insanity that was once called Turner Field.