Atlanta’s SunTrust Park: The First of a New Generation?

SunTrust Park has some nice features, including its Monument Garden. (via Thechased)

Woody Studenmund’s Ballpark Reviews

April 22, 2004: Visiting the New Ballparks

Sept. 11, 2009: New York’s new Ballparks

Aug. 12, 2010: Reviewing Target Field and Nationals Park

Aug. 27, 2012: Reviewing Marlins Park

I’ve reviewed ballparks for the Hardball Times for over a decade, but I’ve never seen anything quite like the Atlanta Braves new field, SunTrust Park. That’s because SunTrust isn’t “just” a baseball stadium. Instead, it’s a small city!

Atlanta already had a perfectly good ballpark in 20-year-old Turner Field near downtown, but chose to move 25 minutes (depending on traffic) from the city center and build in a large wooded area at the intersection of two major freeways. This alone was a huge decision, because most recently built baseball stadiums have been in or near the city, not out in the suburbs. But then the Braves doubled down by surrounding their new home with “The Battery Atlanta,” a business complex that will eventually contain 60 bars, restaurants, and shopping opportunities centered on major draws like a 4,000-seat Live Nation concert hall, an Omni Hotel, a Comcast office building and more. This combination means that customers will potentially be drawn to the site 365 days a year instead of only 81. While St. Louis and San Diego have similar themes around their ballparks, those ballparks are still located in the city center, as opposed to Atlanta, which just built its new ballpark and “Battery” in a previously wooded suburban area 25 minutes from downtown!

Inside the ballpark, this business/entertainment connection continues, as the Braves offer “a space for every occasion.” Check out this list of special sections that allow a visit to SunTrust to be “an all-encompassing luxury experience.” There’s the Delta SKY360 Club, the SunTrust Club, the Konica Minolta Conference Center, the Coors Light Chop House, the Home Depot Clubhouse, the Xfinity Rooftop and Hank Aaron Terrace, the Infiniti Club and more. In essence, the Braves are attempting to attract fans not only with baseball but also with the kind of positive social interaction that you might find at SEC football tailgating. To judge from the game I attended — I went on Opening Day — they’ve succeeded, as the crowd arrived (and drank) early and stayed late, clearly enjoying being with other Braves fans.

But perhaps it’s time to talk about the ballpark itself. It’s a gem! It seats only 41,000+ fans, but it otherwise has quite a bit in common with Dodger Stadium (at least once you get inside). The stadium is dug into the ground a bit, and it has four decks with a fairly sharp vertical rise, so most seats have excellent views of the action. The playing field distances are virtually symmetrical, with only a 10-foot short porch in right field (with a higher wall) causing any irregularities. The bullpens are asymmetrical, with the home bullpen more or less in center field and the visiting bullpen all the way in left field. The color scheme is a beautiful combination of brick and “Hunter green,” giving the ballpark a traditional feel. The foul lines are mini-Fenway in design, giving rise to the possibility that a double down the line will bounce past the outfielder into center, becoming a triple.

Except for this and the porch, however, there are no gimmicks on the field. There’s a familiar-looking Coca-Cola sign in left field, but it’s outfitted with a baseball (and a six pack) instead of the San Francisco glove. The outfield light towers have a vertical “I” shape as opposed to old-fashioned light standards that are shaped like a “T” or are horizontal. It’s a little hard to tell if it’s a hitters’ or pitchers’ park, but my guess is that it won’t be far from the league average, except that left-handed dead pull hitters should be able to take advantage of the porch in right. As you’d expect in an open stadium in a rainy area, well over half of the seats are covered by a roof or the next deck up.

And then there’s Monument Garden. Under the stands directly behind home plate is an historical display that is by far the best I’ve seen in any baseball stadium (with apologies to center field in Yankee Stadium). Monument Garden combines photos, videos, statues, bats, baseballs, gloves, trophies and written descriptions, and it does so in a way that allows fans to get up close and personal with the displays, much like an exhibit in my hometown of Cooperstown.

The quality and variety of the food was a bit underwhelming. I enjoyed the BBQ pulled pork sandwich and an ice cream bar in the shape of a Braves tomahawk, but the rest of the items were very average. Two exceptions that I didn’t try, the bacon cheddar popcorn and the foot-long corn dog, looked visually unappealing, but they might have tasted great. To be fair, however, I didn’t have access to any of the premium venues, so I probably missed out on the best food.

As you’d expect, SunTrust has a number of high-tech capabilities. Thanks to Comcast, it has enough bandwidth (supported by 1,350 WiFi access points) to allow every fan to be texting (or taking selfies) at the same time with the fastest speed of any American sports venue. The stadium also is set up to be well served by Uber cars. There’s a special lane that allows Ubers to drive right up to the stadium, and they claim that there’s an efficient Uber pickup system linked to a specific access point.

Naturally, there were a few glitches. Almost none of the Braves employees outside the ballpark had any idea of where to find “will call,” in part because the Will Call signage is hard to see from more than 10 feet away. I tried hot dogs from three different venues, and none of them were truly hot despite my request that they be well done. Perhaps worst of all, the vaunted Uber pickup scheme wilted under the immense Opening Day demand, with nobody really understanding how the system worked. My guess is that all these problems (and others that I didn’t notice) will go away quickly once the Braves management gets used to the new attraction.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

A more permanent problem is that the concourses in a number of areas are simply too narrow for a sell-out crowd. My tour of the ballpark came to a complete halt at least three times when huge crowds of fans heading one way encountered huge crowds of fans attempting to go in the opposite direction. The concourse opposite Monument Garden was by far the worst example of this difficulty, and it’s not at all obvious that the problem can be fixed very easily.

But these are small problems compared to the compact beauty of the stadium and its exciting approach to combining baseball, business and social activities. It’s a winner! This certainly is good news for the Braves and their fans.

How does SunTrust compare to the other 29 major league ballparks? I think it’s very, very good, ranking just outside the top 10, comparable in overall quality to Philadelphia’s Citizen’s Bank Park and San Diego’s Petco Park. My favorites are:

  1. San Francisco’s AT&T Park
  2. Pittsburgh’s PNC Park
  3. Chicago’s Wrigley Field
  4. Boston’s Fenway Park
  5. Seattle’s Safeco Field
  6. Baltimore’s Camden Yards
  7. Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium
  8. Cleveland’s Progressive Field
  9. New York’s Yankee Stadium
  10. Minnesota’s Target Field

Beyond these 10, there are 18 other ballparks that are terrific places to watch a game. For the mathematically inclined, think Poisson distribution, not Normal distribution. SunTrust probably comes in 14th on the list, but the actual rank isn’t as important for those outside of the top 10. Only Oakland and Tampa Bay have stadiums that, in all honesty, need to be replaced. But I suppose that’s good news for me, because it means I might be reviewing another new ballpark in a few years.


14 Comments
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Marc Schneider
5 years ago

It’s amazing what nice stadiums teams can get when they don’t have to pay for it themselves. That taxpayer money really helps.

Michael Bacon
5 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

Read the chapter about how Dubya came to own the team in Texas while ruining good people in, “Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill)” by David Cay Johnston.

Joey
5 years ago

Great review! I agree with most except Uber part was incredibly easy for me! the AJC had posted multiple articles as well as many sponsored Braves articles/videos leading up to the game. Coming and going I did 0 waiting around for an Uber.

That said if someone missed those things I totally get how that may be confusing.

Woody
5 years ago
Reply to  Joey

Thanks for the comment. I’m glad to hear that the Uber pickups worked well for fans who knew the system. All I heard were complaints, but that makes sense because those who were picked up efficiently weren’t there to express their happiness. I’m sure that most folks will be on the right page soon.

Stephen Wright
5 years ago

I believe The Battery also contains a significant number of permanent residences, condominiums, etc. It is indeed something of a small city, what modern architecture calls, I think, New Urbanism. The leading example of New Urbanism is Seaside in the Florida panhandle along Highway 30A near Panama City. The idea is that folks live, work, eat and recreate all within walking distance.

Here is the Seaside website: http://www.seasidefl.com/

And here a website describing New Urbanism: http://newurbannetwork.com/about-new-urbanism/

Dr Doom
5 years ago

Atlantans think of them as the “Cobb County Carperbaggers.” Them bums will stick it to the citizens of Cobb County just like they stuck it to Fulton County.

Here is a headline from today’s Atlanta Journal & Constitution:

Braves’ attendance at SunTrust Park just above last year’s average

http://www.ajc.com/sports/baseball/braves-attendance-suntrust-park-just-above-last-year-average/BY0PRh4YtD5nl8lgUBmHGP/

ASK
5 years ago
Reply to  Dr Doom

Low attendance is one way to alleviate the problems of the narrow concourses.

Woody Guthrie
5 years ago

During one of the first games played at the new ballpark former MLB pitcher Paul Byrd gave viewers a tour on TV of the amenities, culminating with, “You do not even have to like Baseball to come and enjoy the ballpark.”

My first MLB game was at Ponce de Leon ballpark, and exhibition game between the Cardinals and Phillies in the early 60’s. I attended numerous games at Atlanta-Fulton ballpark. When the TED opened the prices were so outrageous that Captain Outrageous himself, when told the price of a Coca-Cola said, “I’d drink water!” The Braves shot themselves in the foot when they said no outside food would be allowed inside the ballpark. This was later rescinded when fans became outraged. The same exact thing happened with this new ballpark. I decided to to attend a game at the TED until a friend prevailed when someone else declined to accompany him. I was shocked at the large TV in centerfield. The cacophony of sound emanating from the speakers was deafening. The actual ballgame was ancillary to everything else, unlike attending a game at Georgia Tech’s Russ Chandler field, a wonderful ballpark where the game RULES! And to think We The People pay for these new stadiums…It is time for We The People to RISE UP and REVOLT against the wealthy who refuse to spend their money, which they have in abundance, while picking the pockets of We The People!

4min33
5 years ago

What’s so great about AT&T? Sure the view is magnificent. But for baseball? If you like blaring music and announcers screaming out of 1000 speakers, and inane kiss cams out the wazoo this is your place. Most of the midrange seats do not point toward home plate, so you will get a crick in your neck. The club level is inaccessible to mere mortals (a cardinal sin, especially as this is the memorabilia level). You also won’t get to appreciate the fine bowling alley (at a ballpark!!!). Beer selection is subpar and food is expensive and mostly bad. And now at least the product on the field is subpar, for which you will get to pay the highest average inclusive prices outside of NY, CHC, or BOS. And get to share it with dumb fans.

James
5 years ago

Agree with most of what you said. Was surprised my seat in Sec 38 aimed me toward CF and not the diamond.

Jean Gilliland
5 years ago

I really enjoyed my first two games at Sun Trust this weekend–despite the large crowds, parking was easy-in, easy-out for both lots. The first difference I noticed, having attended games at both Atlanta-Fulton County and Turner Field, was that crowds started gathering several hours before game time, which never happened at the old parks. I sat in the cheap seats on Saturday ($10 general admission on the 400 level near the left field foul pole), and the view of the field was gorgeous–we were practically on top of left field, and the line of sight was perfect for picking up the ball, which surprised me. Today I sat on the 100 level, under the over-hang near the Cardinals bullpen. My view was partially obstructed by the over-hang and by the foul pole. I liked the closeness of the field but I actually preferred the cheap seats. I have tickets in the home run porch and in center field for later in the season, and I’m really looking forward to those games.

I agree the concourses are too narrow to accommodate very large crowds, though I still managed to work my way around the stadium twice and I like that there’s a view of the field from all concourses–walking the lowest level of Turner Field was like walking through a dungeon. Restrooms are everywhere–I don’t recall seeing a line for restrooms anywhere.

Monument Garden, located behind the infield on the 100 level, is lovely, probably my favorite aspect of SunTrust Park. The statue of Henry Aaron as he hits no. 715 is a moving tribute to an icon of my childhood. Passing through the displays, one gains an appreciation for the teams 3-city franchise history (the Braves are the only MLB team to have won World Series championships in three different cities). Opposite Monument Garden hangs the plaques of members of the Braves Hall of Fame, and a replica of the 1995 World Series trophy sits behind glass. Only minus, the statues of Spahn, Niekro, and Cox are spaced too far apart around the outside of the stadium–and wasn’t there a statue of Eddie Matthews at Turner Field? I didn’t see one here . (I have mixed feelings about the absence of the museum from Turner Field, which included unique displays that set it apart from other such museums, such as a locker display for each of the 14 consecutive division titles, a running tally board which followed Braves franchise leaders in several hitting and pitching categories, and a replica train car from the 1950’s similar to what the Milwaukee Braves might have ridden. I love baseball history and enjoy visiting these museums in different cities.)

Back to present day, on Saturday, we ate chili dogs w/cole slaw at First & Third Hot Dog and Sausage Shack, in the plaza at the Chop House Gate. A premium hot dog at a premium price, but it was tasty and service was excellent (and I like that chef Hugh Acheson uses local meats). Today, I opted for the H&F Burger, a favorite at Turner Field, and fresh-cut fries from the Potato Cutter, both located on the 100 level in left field and both a cut above standard stadium fare. Next time though, I’m making a beeline for Fox Brothers BBQ and Terrapin Taproom, both longtime local favorites.

Having only seen games in 10 of the 30 MLB parks (14 if you include stadiums no longer in use), I can’t rank them fairly, but after Fenway in Boston and Wrigley in Chicago, which are in a category by themselves, my favorites are PNC in Pittsburgh and Target Field in Minnesota. followed closely by Busch in St. Louis. I probably rank Sun Trust above other stadiums I’ve seen currently in use (Cincinnati, Detroit, Kansas City, Cleveland), but, as you say, I’m at home in all of them and could watch a game anywhere.

Daniel
5 years ago
Reply to  Jean Gilliland

Only attended games in 8 stadiums so far (current + 2 in Montreal) and I agree about your 2 favourites (PIT and MIN). I wish to attend SunTrust as it look gorgeous, I like the idea of the small city around it.
My concern as an out of town visitor is public transportation as I don’t think a MARTA station is close to it. I guess I will have to find a hotel nearby (probaby at high rates when the Braves are in town) and figure out a way to get there from the airport. That would mean forgetting downtown sightseeing I guess.

Michael Bacon
5 years ago
Matthew
5 years ago

Other than good views from most of the seats (there are some terrible blocked views, especially in right field) the stadium is completely underwhelming as a baseball experience. Sure they’ve provided a lot of places internal to the stadium to distract you from actually watching baseball, but good luck moving thru the stadium in a big crowd, the forward cantilever seats trade-off is the far too narrow concourses, oh and by the way you cannot even walk all the way around the stadium in the 100 and 200 concourses, that perk is reserved solely for the rich ticket holders. They act like the Battery is the greatest thing ever and there is nothing else like it in baseball. Actually there is, it’s called downtown Cincinnati, where you walk out the gate into bars, restaurants, and miles of amazing public parks, and a city all around. There’s also the benefit of 10s of thousands of parking spaces that you can roll up to as you please and pay very little to park, as opposed to the suburban office park experience in Cobb Co. The shine will wear off eventually and people will realize that the battery is a tourist trap rather than a city and community that fosters a great baseball experience. So many better total stadium experiences in the country. Does this beat Turner Field, outside the gates, sure for what it’s worth in isolation; inside the gates, no, not really.