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Farewell, Braves?

From Downtown to a place that lacks a name

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Every summer of my life I have enjoyed a particular ritual that occurs without warning on those quintessential balmy Southern Friday nights. I have heard it from open car windows, as the dank, sticky air rushes past outstretched hands, from front and back porches, where the buzz of mosquitoes and chirping crickets approaches a deafening din, and, when I was little, on certain devious nights when I snuck out, from my tree house, in a pecan tree in our backyard in West End.

It is a jolting crack through the night — a brief pause of stillness — and then a boom, then snaps and bangs and reports. It is explosions over Summerhill. It is Friday night fireworks at Turner Field, home of the Braves.

Back when it was Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, I doubt they occurred every Friday night (as they now do thanks to corporate sponsorship). Back then, the fireworks were reserved only for those games we won, which were wonderfully frequent throughout the '90s. To a child, it was a great rallying cry over the city, the righteousness of a transplant team in a transplant city truly coming into its own. It was the freedom of summer vacation and the purest declaration of pride (of a team still peddling outdated cultural exploitation). It was a celebration of everything that is sports and fun and truly American. It was Independence Day for 10 minutes every Friday night.

And recently, amid years of the Atlanta Falcons threatening to move to this suburb or that, to bulldoze this neglected neighborhood or that, I was always comforted by the reassuring thought that no matter how long our post-season fall from grace continued, no matter how soon we fell from national memory as "America's team," no matter how many storied careers would come to an end, there would always be a glow of light on Friday nights just south of Downtown, and around 10 p.m. the sparkling lights would dance out above the city as it simmered into another summery weekend.

And for years I endured the callous, offensive pronouncements of opposing teams' fans, and, shockingly at first, our own fans alike: "The area around Turner Field is so shitty." "Why do the Braves play in the ghetto?" "Don't get robbed leaving the game!" It was undeniable: The neighborhood around the stadium needed improvement, but to an idealistic youth raised just a couple miles from the stadium it seemed certain that it would eventually come.

Surely, the team must have a long-term plan to invest in the area, to encourage more business, to build a coalition with the city and neighborhood leaders to bring about positive growth? Surely there are plans to reduce the petty crime, to create jobs, to sweep the streets and replace the broken lights.

It was the early 2000s. Atlanta, thanks to that beacon of sports veneration called the Olympics, was a city on the rise, and urban renewal was real! Four decades of white flight, of black flight, of broken city politics, of unchecked sprawl and of blind eyes turned were coming to an end. The dream of suburban utopia had been replaced with endless commutes, hideous strip malls, and dystopian gated communities where fear still prevailed.

And then on Monday, without warning, came the news that the Braves management was moving the team to Cobb County. To a place so nondescript that it is best described as a cloverleaf, "the northwest intersection of I-75 and I-285." To say I felt a sinking feeling would be akin to saying the Titanic was just another ship. It was a bottomless sinking feeling.

Atlanta has always been a racially divided city but I long held hope that the city's sports teams helped right the imbalance that looms along I-20 so garishly in census maps. That the three points of Turner, the Dome, and Philips were a constellation set right in the heart of the city to direct well-wishers from every corner of the ever-sprawling metropolis home where they could unite in post-season anguish. Of course, there was always the chastising to deal with: "No wonder they can't win." "The city can't sell out pennant games." "America's worst sports town."

But I was a lifelong fan, with the Braves at the pinnacle of a three-tiered temple of fandom, and I knew plenty of people who were even more committed than I was to rooting on our teams in good times and bad, and that was all that mattered. To hell with the suburbanites if they don't want to come into this city, whose name they so casually claim, for a game.

And never, not once, did I imagine that the Braves would abandon their intown home, their rock right below the Capitol, with a breathtaking skyline view that inspires embarrassing levels of hometown affection. Even as the "This is Braves Country" signs grew ever larger and as "Cotton-eyed Joe" continued its cornball close to the seventh inning stretch, never did I imagine that they could abandon the struggling neighborhood that for 45-plus years had begrudgingly hosted the frequent inundation of cars and buses, police barricades and trash, and impudent comments, and the accompanying hasty retreat come 10:30 p.m.

If the Braves do in fact move to Cobb County in 2017, they will lose at least one lifelong fan. I don't know what baseball team I will root for but I cannot in good conscience root for a sports team, an organization, that fails to see the power it holds beyond simply uplifting a stadium's crowd for a night. I cannot root for an organization that would turn its back on a community that it never did enough to foster in the first place, to move to a place so lacking in community that it has no name. I cannot root for an organization that cannot see how the magic inspired by fireworks over a neighborhood can light a child's dreams for years on end. And mostly, I cannot root for an organization whose name will come to represent the height of irony, and hypocrisy. I can't help feeling that the Braves are fleeing something they've so long wanted to ignore, rather than help make right.

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