It is rare for a minor league team to be as close to its mother ship as the Rome Braves are to Atlanta.
Nonetheless, it’s still a treat for Braves fans to see the next Chipper Jones or John Smoltz before the rest of the baseball world learns his name.
The Atlanta Braves’ Class-A minor league team moved from Macon to Rome before the 2003 season. Since then, the South Atlantic League club has drawn people from around Northwest Georgia and the Atlanta suburbs due to the fan-friendly atmosphere, affordable tickets and future stars angle.
Atlanta’s farm system — the Braves own six of their seven minor league clubs — is spread throughout the South. The Triple-A Gwinnett Braves just one county over in Lawrenceville, while the Double-A Mississippi Braves are some six hours away. But with Rome’s team just up the road, State Mutual Stadium is still the site of many rehab assignments for established Atlanta Braves when they’re injured — both pitcher Tim Hudson and third baseman Chipper Jones have been to Rome this season.
It’s also a place where many on the Atlanta roster have played before. And considering the number of Atlanta Braves fans in Northwest Georgia, Rome Braves general manager Michael Dunn believes watching the future of the franchise is appealing for fans.
“Rome more so than a lot of other places, because you have our major league club 70 miles down the road, and if you look at that roster today in Atlanta — Brian McCann, Martin Prado, Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Tommy Hanson, Chipper Jones — all of those people played here in Rome,” Dunn said. “So from a fan’s perspective, when you see players who you know are going to progress and get to the next level, it’s an identifiable thing.”
Don Mayer agrees. He started attending games during Rome’s inaugural season. While he doesn’t come out as much as he used to, he still enjoys seeing the younger talent work its way up.
“The main thing that makes it fun is it’s really about developing the players,” Mayer said. “You’re getting to see the future stars. So if there’s someone with star potential, we’re right on field level. You’re as close as you’re going to get. I can remember when (Jeff) Francoeur and McCann were here and being able to sit right here and watch them.”
Having that tie to many area baseball fans’ favorite major league team is helping with attendance. With an average of 3,000 fans per game this year, Rome’s attendance ranks seventh out of 14 South Atlantic League teams for 2012. Dunn said the attendance figures in Rome are “double” what they were in the final days in Macon.
Even with the temperature as high as 107 degrees in the first inning of Friday’s game, 2,609 fans were there to see the Braves in action.
Aside from the proximity to Atlanta’s Braves, the energetic atmosphere and food choices are more positives for fans in Rome.
Many ballparks have the same food choices and prices at most of the stands within the park. At State Mutual Stadium, there is a Bubba’s BBQ Barn, Chick-Fil-A, Sliders, Tony’s Pizza Parlor, The Sweet Spot, The Grand Slam Cafe and South of the Border.
“We’ve always tried to offer the fan a better experience,” Dunn said. “Hamburgers, hot dogs and nachos, that’s all good and well. You’re going to get that. But you can get a taco salad, you can get Chick-Fil-A sandwiches, you can get a homemade pizza.
“It’s part of providing more for the fans.”
Emily Trew, a Dalton native and 2010 Northwest Whitfield graduate, sees how fans are given more than at most parks. Trew, who attends Shorter College in Rome, is in her first season as an intern for the Rome Braves. She handles the video streaming during games.
“I’ve been here a couple of times growing up and stuff,” Trew said. “They have stuff between every inning and stuff for the kids and everybody. People have more fun here than at most ballparks.”
Ken Wright, of Dunwoody, is a different breed of Rome Braves fan. He and his son, 10-year-old Clayton Wright, were attending their first game at the stadium, one week after making a drive to Chattanooga to see the Lookouts.
He gave a glowing review of Rome’s attraction.
“I’d pick this over the Atlanta Braves,” Ken Wright said. “I like the atmosphere all around. The last time we went to a Braves game I was fighting off drunks and I have my son with me and people were swearing.”
There are a wide variety of promotions for Rome Braves games, ranging from weekly events to planned one-day events. On Thursdays, $1 drinks are available. Each Sunday, a family of four can get four each of tickets, hot dogs, soft drinks, popcorn and programs for $30. Christmas in July, when Santa Claus visits with presents, is set for July 13. The 1995 World Series trophy will make an appearance Aug. 10. Fireworks in anticipation of Independence Day were scheduled for this past Saturday night and this coming Tuesday.
Fridays are “Something Different Night.” This past week, the home Braves were in visitor uniforms while the visiting Kannapolis Intimi-dators wore home jerseys, hot dogs were served on hamburger buns (and vice versa) and female pop songs like “Dancing Queen” and “I Feel Like A Woman” were used as walk-up tunes for hitters.
And with tickets ranging from $4 to $10 — for those who don’t want to be confined to a seat, there’s a picnic area known as Home Run Hill just beyond right field — the promotions are simply an added incentive to make a drive out with the family.
“We like to make it jump out, and ‘Oh my goodness, there’s also baseball going on,’” Dunn said of the nonstop fan engagement. “It’s something you can bring a family of four out here for $40 and be entertained and get something to eat. In today’s economy, everybody is watching their dollars. There’s no $4 movie tickets.”