Bobby Cox (Photo by Jim Alred, Rome News-Tribune)
ROME, Ga. — Minor league baseball returned to Rome Thursday night, bringing with it the balm of fresh hope and a blank slate. A nearly full ballpark embraced the 2015 Braves with all the vigor and vim of a community that loves its baseball.
“Opening Day is special,” said Hall-of-Famer Bobby Cox, the long-time Atlanta Braves manager who drove up to Rome to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. “I still get goosebumps, even right here at a minor league ballgame. There’s nothing like it.”
Cox added an exclamation mark to a special night in inaugurating the new season and staying on hand to watch the game, which begins a 140-game summer march into early September. The 4-3 loss clinched by a base-running blunder? A minor blemish on an otherwise magical night.
“My wife would rather be right here watching a minor league game than go see one at the TED,” Turner Field, said Cox.
The Friendly Confines of Sect. 206
There’s certainly nothing like Section 206, situated behind the home dugout. There you will find most games all season long the K Man, the Duck Man and the Bubble Gum Man.
Ernie Studard, the K Man, will lead the section in celebrating strikeouts for this, his 13th season, or each and every Rome Braves season since the team arrived in 2003.
“I’ve been Facebooking, texting, taking photos of the sign out front that shows how many days left before opening day. I’ve been counting down for months,” said Studard, who calls his section where those “fan-oriented” gather for games.
Opening Day for Studard is a common thread running through his entire life.
“I think it goes back to when we were kids,” he said. “School is letting out for the summer. At the end of the season, it can get a little tiring, but today? Everything is new again.”
When asked what it would take to keep him from the ballpark for Opening Day, Studard’s response was immediate: “I’m deputy coroner for Floyd County. It would take a murder.”
Adrian Carney, who anchors Section 206 in Row 4, Seat 13, supplies his patented duck call whenever Rome needs some runs, or whenever there are “ducks on the pond.” He said he loves the sense of camaraderie in 206, which has grown over the years.
“If you sit in the same seat for a while, you end up with a second family,” said Carney, also on duck call duty now for his 13th season. “It’s kind of a social club. People buying tickets will ask for this section because they know up here they’ll have a good time.”
Mike Dunn, the club’s general manager, said a lot of people have been working since September to ensure that everyone Thursday night went home with some good memories. The club served up approximately 1,000 hot dogs and poured around the same number of beers to keep the conversations convivial and the confines friendly.
“It’s just so rewarding to see the children smiling and people having fun,” said Dunn, also a 13-year veteran here overseeing operations. “The game of baseball brings people together.”
Dunn is right, and especially so with regards to the Union Rangers, a Little League team of 7- and 8-year-olds that made the drive up from Dallas to trot out onto the field with the 2015 Braves players and stand for the national anthem.
In all, 56 Ranger players, parents and coaches made the drive to State Mutual.
“The kids loved it, but it meant just as much to us parents,” said William Fry, assistant coach for the Rangers and Dad to 7-year-old second baseman Robert Fry. “I had a tear in my eye for sure.”
The Ranger group inaugurated the new Suzuki Showcase seating area in right field, a picnic area topped with canted ATVs.
“I want one of those four-wheelers,” said Chip Smith, whose 7-year-old Cody is an outfielder with the Rangers, and who experienced his first Opening Day ever.
“I didn’t grow up playing or watching,” he said. “I’ve been missing out.”
Matt and Jill Abbott turned a whim – driving over for the game – into dinner for two at Bella Roma. In an early-game promotion, Matt had to accurately tell the 3,683 on hand where he first kissed wife Jill. It was the state of Maryland, and he got it right.
“I’d’ve been in the doghouse if I’d got that wrong,” said Abbott, who convinced his wife to move to Rome from southern New Jersey and, more importantly, to convert to the Braves from the Phillies.
Seeking — and finding — redemption
Baseball’s hallmarks: Family, food, fun. Oh, and redemption. Fans got to see that, too.
Highly touted rightfielder Braxton Davidson committed two errors on the same play in the fifth inning, first fumbling the catch, then misfiring to the second baseman on the throw. The errors led to a pair of Asheville Tourist runs.
In the Braves’ half of the inning, however, the 210-pound lefthander from, ironically,, Asheville, ripped a Zach Jemiola fastball over the wall in left center for the team’s first long ball of the new campaign.
Davidson is among a slew of newcomers: 18 of the 27 on the opening day roster are just getting to know Rome for the first time, including slick fielding shortstop Ozhaino Albies. Only 18 years old and hailing from the land of shortstops – Curacao – Albies made three very different and difficult plays look easy, and he ranged from the third base line into shallow right field to do it.
“He’s a special kid,” said Cox, who knows a little something about identifying baseball talent.
The first hit of the game came at 7:27 p.m., a single up the middle by Jordan Edgerton. The first Rome run came on Davidson’s jack. And the first Rome win? Maybe tonight, when the Braves play game two of their four-game set with the Tourists starting at 7 p.m.