Even as they were putting together one of the most impressive streaks in the history of American sports, the Atlanta Braves were a baseball punch line for their inability to draw sellout crowds to Turner Field for playoff games.
Despite winning 14 straight division titles from 1991 through 2005, the Braves have played to capacity just 16 times in 33 postseason contests since Turner Field (capacity: 49,831) opened in 1997. The Braves suffered the indignity of drawing less-than-full crowds to the final game of the season in 2001, when just 35,652 fans saw Atlanta fall to the Arizona Diamondbacks in Game Five of the NL Championship Series, and in 2002, when 45,203 fans attended the winner-take-all Game Five of the NL Division Series against the San Francisco Giants.
This year, though, the Braves’ attendance has been no laughing matter. Through 40 home dates, the Braves are averaging more than 2,000 more fans per home game than a season ago at Turner Field, the fourth-best figure in Major League Baseball. They have drawn 30,000 or more fans in more than half of their last dozen home games into July after attracting at least 30,000 just nine times in their first 25 home games.
The Braves’ success on the field after four straight losing seasons—Atlanta ended play Thursday, July 8 with a three-game lead over the New York Mets in the NL East and a share of the NL’s best record with the San Diego Padres—is one reason for the surge at the gate, but there’s a certain sense of finality to the season that is luring people to Turner Field as well.
Legendary manager Bobby Cox, who is just the fourth manager in history to win 2,000 games with one team, is retiring at the end of the season, as is potential Hall of Fame closer Billy Wagner. Most notable of all is the likely impending retirement of third baseman Chipper Jones, a surefire Hall of Famer who has spent his entire 20-year professional career in the Braves organization and is the most popular player in franchise history. Jones, who has battled a spate of injuries in his mid-to-late 30s, seemed ready to retire immediately in mid-June but later said he wouldn’t make a decision until after the season.
In a way, the renewed interest in the Braves confirms one of the theories that floated when the franchise was playing to less-than-capacity playoff crowds: Atlanta fans felt no urgency to see a team that reached the postseason every year. But that’s no longer the case, now that the end of multiple careers—as well as a long-awaited return trip to the playoffs—is in sight.