Turner Field, you’re leaving us too soon.
The Atlanta Braves are playing their final season at “The Ted” before moving into a new stadium in the suburbs next year. The Braves played just 20 seasons at Turner Field, and on Sunday the Cubs will play their last game there.
Even though, for a sports facility, Turner Field isn’t that old, a lot has changed in the past two decades. Of course, the Braves are awful these days, but it’s still hard for me to get used to that. The Braves were the class of the National League throughout the ’90s. As a kid watching the Cubs back then, every time they played at old Fulton County Stadium and later at Turner Field when the Braves moved there in 1997, it felt like David challenging Goliath. The Braves had that perennially amazing pitching staff led by the one who got away, former Cub Greg Maddux. As for the Cubs… well, we know that they weren’t exactly a powerhouse.
It never felt more like a mismatch than in the 1998 playoffs. At 13 years old, I was getting my first real taste of Cubs postseason baseball (I was only four in 1989 and really don’t remember it). The Cubs won the NL Wild Card by beating the Giants in a one-game playoff, but they were major underdogs facing “The Team of the ’90s”, a Braves squad that won 106 games on their way to their seventh straight division title. I knew the Braves probably had my Cubs outclassed, but I was hoping for a small miracle.
The first two games were at Turner Field; both were tough to watch for Cubs fans, for different reasons. The Braves routed the Cubs in Game 1; Ryan Klesko became my personal villain when he hit a grand slam to help the home team pull away late. The Braves then broke Cubs’ fans hearts in Game 2. Chicago actually led 1-0 going into the bottom of the ninth, but Javy Lopez homered to tie it before the Braves went on to win in 10 innings.
1998 was a magical year on the North Side of Chicago, and it was really hard to see it end so suddenly. Bob Costas called the anticlimatic Game 3 from Wrigley Field, when the Braves won again easily to wrap up the series. I don’t think I have ever heard a less enthusiastic call of a final out of a postseason series. The Braves made it look way too easy.
That 1998 playoff series was my first true experience of heartbreak as a Cubs fan, but Turner Field would become the site of one of my greatest memories five years later. Before their infamous meeting with the Marlins in the NLCS, the Cubs were matched up with the Braves again in the 2003 Division Series. And the Cubs were again big underdogs, finishing with 88 wins compared to the Braves’ 101. I worried that perhaps we were in for a repeat of 1998.
But the Cubs let the Braves know they would give them a fight, winning Game 1 in Atlanta. The Cubs were able to get the series to a decisive fifth game at Turner Field after the teams split two each in Atlanta and at Wrigley. As many fans remember, Kerry Wood outdueled Mike Hampton as the Cubs won, 5-1, to win their first postseason series in 95 years and the first one that I have witnessed.
I’ve gone on YouTube and watched Joe Borowski strike out Andruw Jones for the final out of that Game 5 dozens of times over the years. I will never forget where I was at that moment. Watching on TV, seeing thousands of visiting Cubs fans celebrate in the stands, was a thrilling experience. For a young Cubs fan who hadn’t had much to cheer about over the years – and wouldn’t have much to cheer about again until last year – this was a pretty big deal.
Since then, there have been both highs and lows for the Cubs in Atlanta. There was the high of the Cubs sweeping the season series from the Braves in 2008 as the Cubs were on their way to a division title. There was the low of watching future Cub Jason Heyward homer in his major league debut off Carlos Zambrano on Opening Day of 2010. Both the Cubs and Braves have had both good and bad teams since then. But from year to year, no matter what the situation, I still recall those autumn days in 1998 and in 2003 when I learned a lot about what it means to be a fan.
I’ve ridden past Turner Field, but I’ve never attended a game there. Still, it will always hold a special place in my baseball memory, as it was the site both of one of the most devastating and one of the happiest baseball moments of my life. It seems like an abrupt ending, but as I watch Sunday’s Cubs finale there, I’ll be saying goodbye one last time.
From a diehard Cubs fan: Thanks for the memories, “Ted.” You’ll be missed.
Brian Johnston is the author of the book The Art of Being a Baseball Fan, his story of following the 2015 Chicago Cubs, available on Amazon. He lives in St. Joseph, Michigan with his wife and two children.
Image source: elb2000 on en.wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons