Truist Park, the home of the Atlanta Braves, was shoved aside by Major League Baseball in April when the league stripped the team of its chance to host the All-Star Game and garner the attention and money the event provides.
In a decision that inspired a great deal of debate, MLB moved the game to Denver to signal the league’s opposition to Georgia’s new election law that limits voting and, according to Democrats and voting rights groups that have condemned the law, unfairly targets voters of colour. The team was bitterly disappointed by the move and said so in a rare statement that took issue with the league’s decision.
But fate forced all of baseball back to Atlanta, not for the All-Star Game, but for the World Series, much to the delight of the team – and some local residents and politicians who resented MLB’s delving into the political fray.
That group includes David Ralston, the speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives, who is a Republican and was critical of MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred for calling off a game that was years in the making.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I didn’t think about that,” Ralston said in a telephone interview this week.
Ashley Barnes, a post office employee who lives only a few blocks from the stadium, is an ardent Braves fan, but applauded MLB’s decision to move the All-Star Game. Barnes, who is African-American, said that Atlanta making the World Series was a fair return for the sacrifice of having lost the All-Star Game.
“I think it all worked out great,” she said while holding a Braves flag she had just purchased for her apartment. “It was the right thing then, and it’s the right thing now. This is big for the Braves and Atlanta.”
The team itself is not gloating publicly about the circumstances, but it is overjoyed to have a second chance at something special that was lost because of the cancellation – a tribute to Hank Aaron in front of a large, international television audience.
The team intended a ceremony to honour the Hall of Famer and longtime Brave, who died in January and was a part of the organization for decades. Part of the unintended fallout of MLB’s decision was that Aaron, a transcendent athlete who dealt with intense racism during his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record, was not given his due.
Now that Atlanta is in the World Series, that perceived wrong can be corrected.
Just moments before the first pitch of Game 3 of the World Series, at Truist Park on Friday night, the team will finally honour Aaron in front of roughly 40,000 fans and a national television audience of millions. The ceremony is expected to be brief because organizers believe the understated Aaron would have objected to any lavish presentation.
But in conjunction with MLB and Fox, the broadcaster of the game, the ceremony will include a video tribute that will be aired on the broadcast, close enough to the first pitch that it will captured by a large audience, unlike many pregame ceremonies that are not aired publicly.
Aaron’s widow, Billye Aaron, is expected to be at the game and will be briefly highlighted. One or more of Aaron’s family members will throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
MLB did honour Aaron at the All-Star Game in Denver, but for some that was inadequate.
“The celebration in Denver, it was disconnected from reality,” Ralston said. “Aaron never played there; he played in Milwaukee and he played in Atlanta. So, I’m happy that there will be a tribute paid to him in Atlanta. He was a very, very deserving guy who added so much to the game of baseball, so much to the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia.”
For some, those words would ring hollow considering Ralston’s support for the voting law, which he claims was misinterpreted by MLB and other critics.
MLB took the stance that the law was discriminatory and limited fair access to voting, leading to its decision to wade into the political landscape.
”We always have tried to be apolitical,” Manfred said Tuesday before Game 1 of the World Series in Houston. “Obviously, there was a notable exception this year. I think our desire is to try to avoid another exception to that general rule. We have a fan base that’s diverse, has different points of view, and we’d like to keep the focus on the field on the game.”
That will be doubly challenging in Atlanta because of the team name and its fans’ persistent use of the “tomahawk chop” chant, which many consider racist and insensitive to Indigenous people. Adding to the charged atmosphere, former U.S. president Donald Trump is expected to attend Game 4 on Saturday.
Manfred was asked if it is possible, in today’s political climate, to avoid taking sides.
“It’s harder than it used to be,” he said.
But Aaron the ballplayer is a unifying figure. Those who walk in and around Atlanta’s stadium see his image and name every few feet, and he was beloved in the region.
He originally signed with the Braves when they were in Boston but did not play for the team until it moved to Milwaukee in 1954. He then moved with the franchise to Atlanta in 1966, and in 1974 he broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record of 714, despite enduring horrendous racist abuse during the chase.
He finished his career back in Milwaukee, with the Brewers, and ended with 755 home runs, a record that stood until Barry Bonds broke Aaron’s record and finished with 762.
Atlanta’s remarkable run to this year’s World Series is, in a way, the team’s own tribute to Aaron. First the team beat Milwaukee in the division series and now is facing the Astros, who are managed by Dusty Baker, Aaron’s protégé and long-time friend. Baker often cites Aaron’s influence on him and generations of players of all races.
”I think Hank gets a bad rap of being angry or being this or that,” Baker said. “He had reason to be, but Hank was as good to Latin guys as he was to white guys as he was to Black guys. Hank, he was like a father to a lot of people.”