Can it be that it was all so simple then? Or has time rewritten every line?
— Barbra Streisand
It was about the time I made the loop off Interstate 85 onto 75 North just outside Atlanta’s downtown — when you round the big bend in the interstate and come face-on with the capital city’s skyline — that I was overwhelmed with a sense of nostalgia that almost took my breath away.
My family and I, on a whim, had decided to make a trip to Turner Field to watch the Braves play the Cubs and stick around for the Fourth of July fireworks afterward. And while I was physically in the car with Tammy, Jesse and Hannah, my mind was some 45 years in the past, remembering the unbridled thrill I felt heading to the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
I’d been raised on baseball, and when the Braves announced their move to Atlanta in 1966, I found a new passion to fill those long summer nights in rural Irwin County. I went to bed most nights listening to the Braves of Hank Aaron and Phil Niekro and Rico Carty and Felipe Alou and Mack Jones do battle, usually drifting off to sleep with visions of myself playing on the sacred ground some 200 miles to the north.
My family and I decided with little forethought last week to make our Fourth of July trip to Atlanta, and through some of the magic she pulls off with computers, my wife — in a matter of minutes — announced that we had tickets on the pavilion level, first-base side of home plate. The fact that we just took that announcement in stride shows how far we have come.
My recent skyline-induced nostalgia took me back to the days when another Fletcher family — Bobby, Abbie, Donny, Carlton and Cathy — would take its annual “summer vacation” in Atlanta. There were no advance tickets then; we simply drove up on a Saturday, bought our tickets at the field and sat in the upper deck, what my way-too-brilliant 10-year-old derisively refers to now as the “nose-bleeds.”
But, man, for a poor kid from the country who was so overwhelmed by this magical setting, I might as well have been perched on a throne right behind home plate. It’s not exaggeration to say I had trouble believing I was actually looking down at those men who were my boyhood heroes, the men whose exploits Earnie Johnson and Milo Hamilton described every night on my portable radio.
Turner Field today is a wonderland. As you stroll along the concourse, you can stop and hit batting practice, have your pitches timed by a radar gun, enter a museum that is filled with memorabilia from the hometown team’s 46 years in Atlanta. Or you can go to the kiddie playland and let your youngsters burn off energy or have a meal at any number of fine restaurants.
Oh, and there’s a ball game going on as well.
When the Fletchers of the 1960s and ’70s made their pilgrimage to Fulton County Stadium, we watched the game and then spent the night at a hotel on the outskirts of Atlanta. And no matter how hard we pleaded, there would be no returning to the stadium for a second game the next day. There was no money in the budget.
I could go all old-school Andy Griffith (respect) Mayberry here and wax poetic about how much better things were in those simpler times, but that would be contrived. I love going to a Braves game just as much now as I did all those years ago. And I think it’s cool that there are enough activities at modern baseball parks to hold the attention even of 10-year-old girls who are more into horses than our national pastime.
Ah, but I’ll never quite be able to make that fast-paced trip to Atlanta without acknowledging the link it will always have with my past. What is a last-minute day trip these days was a long-planned family vacation years ago ... and they both had the power to bring out the little boy in me like nothing else ever has or will.
Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher