Coolray Field – Gwinnett Braves
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The Home of the Baby Braves
The team that would become the Gwinnett Braves began its existence over 100 years ago in 1901 as the Atlanta Crackers. The team remained independent for 49 years until it made an affiliation with the Boston (and then Milwaukee) Braves in 1950 as part of the now defunct Southern Association. The squad would bounce around affiliations and leagues, eventually ending back up with the Braves in 1965 (right before its move to Atlanta the following year) in the top AAA International League, moving to Richmond, Virginia, as the Richmond Braves.
The franchise would stay for 43 seasons, until local political squabbles prevented an upgrade of its aging stadium in 2009, resulting in the AA Flying Squirrels moving into Richmond and the Braves coming south to new digs at Gwinnett Stadium. As is standard these days, the naming rights were quickly sold to a local air conditioning company, and the G-Braves have played at Coolray Field ever since.
Coolray Field is a great value, especially for AAA, in a pretty park with solid facilities, but it’s a little too small in scale, with too few fans in the seats, things to do around the park, or extras to make the facility stand out compared to its International League brethren.
Food & Beverage 3
Coolray Field has got the standards covered, but its food and drink selection doesn’t feel one step away from the majors. There are no “regular” concession stands at Coolray Field, but a selection of several specialty spots.
Burgertopia by home plate serves up burger selections ($6-$7.25); the Flashpoint Grill at first and third grills up specialty dogs and chicken dishes ($3.75-$7.50); Smokies by third base offers hot dogs and other sausages ($5.25-$7.25); Salsa on the first base side has pick-your-meat burritos or tacos ($7.25); Hickory BBQ dishes out pulled pork, turkey legs, and ribs ($7.50-$9); and Steakadelphia at home plate has $7.25 cheesesteaks.
Niekro’s at Coolray Field near third base has a sit-down dining experience with appetizers, regular entrees (specialty hamburgers and dogs), and combo meals. It also features minor league standby glutton selections, such as the Krispy Kreme Cheddar Burger (specialty bacon cheeseburger served in between two donuts) and “The Knucksie” (pulled pork sandwich with fixings, served over cornbread, with three different BBQ sauces), both for $9.25.
The alcohol selection at Coolray Field leaves a lot to be desired. Most of the concessions only have $6.75 cans of Bud, Coors, and Miller, but some also have Blue Moon, Leinenkugel’s, and Yuengling. However, a rotating selection of domestic and premium drafts are available at Niekro’s (small $6.50/$6.75, souvenir $7.25/$7.75), as well as cocktail drinks for $7. This close to Atlanta, it is no surprise Coke is the non-alcoholic drink family of choice, $4.75 for a souvenir soda, $3.75 for water, and $4.25 for Powerade.
A souvenir draft beer ($7.25-$7.75) at Niekro’s is a gimmie, then take your pick. Have a hometown Braves Dog ($3.75 at Flashpoint) if you’re feeling peckish, or sit down at Niekro’s and see if you carve your way through The Knucksie ($9.25).
There’s nothing particularly wrong with Coolray Field, but for an International League ballpark, it doesn’t seem to measure up with the 13 other facilities in the league. While it would be a standout in AA, it just doesn’t quite seem to be in the same league as its contemporaries in AAA.
The entrances to the park empty out onto a main, wide promenade that circles the park and runs above the single-level seating bowl spanning from short left field to short right field. There are no seats in the outfield, but a giant picnic hill covers from center to left. A second tier of luxury boxes and the press box lean over the lower deck from around first to third base. The big video board sits out in right center field keeping fans up on the action, and several smaller auxiliary boards can be found in the left field wall and on the upper deck.
Fans are treated to the backdrop view of a condo complex, “The Views at Coolray Field.” While the complex’s infinity pool is probably a great place from which to watch the game, it is a little blah for an outfield view from the park, especially when a tented picnic area also dominates the view in left field.
Beaver mascot “Chopper” (in reference to former Richmond Braves player and Hall-of-Famer to-be Chipper Jones) and the rest of the fun team lead the crowd through the minor league regulation wacky races, quizzes, and contests of dubious skill.
As with most newer stadiums, sight lines aren’t really a problem anywhere in the park. If you’re feeling frugal, you won’t miss any action in a Baseline Box in the outfield, but then again, Field Boxes are only $6 more. The netting hasn’t been extended yet, so it ends at the start the dugout on each side. If you’re looking to avoid the sun or rain, the last ten or so rows of the Field Boxes (covered by the overhang from the luxury level) is the place to go, and autograph hounds should hit the Infield Boxes in section 113 (home) or 114 (visitors) for your best shot at signatures.
Prior to the development of Coolray Park, the area was part of a large forest, and while it is only a half hour or so from downtown Atlanta, the environs around the stadium don’t have a lot going on.
There isn’t a great selection of non-chain restaurants near Coolray Field. A few chain places are right outside the park to the south. A short drive across Old Peachtree Rd. turns up Lin’s Bistro (Chinese & Thai) and Fusion Asian Cafe in Buford, and a short drive south on 20 in Lawrenceville yields the Montego Grill (Jamaican) and El Real (Mexican). But outside of these choices and the chain spectacular at the Mall of Georgia to the north, you’ll need to take a 15-minute drive south to downtown Lawrenceville or around the same distance north to downtown Buford for any real local dining choices.
There’s also not a ton to do in the area directly around the park. The retail minded can hardly miss the Mall of Georgia and Marketplace at Millcreek just to the north of the park. But just a bit west of the mall is the Gwinnett Environmental & Heritage Center, which can show you a little of what the area looked like before development started, and Little Mulberry Park is just 15-minutes to the east for more outdoors fun.
There are a handful of hotels a short drive north towards the Mall of Georgia. Country Inn & Suites, Courtyard Atlanta (the visiting team hotel), Hampton Inn, and SpringHill Suites are a few examples. A Holiday Inn Express and Americas Best Value Inn are slightly further north on 20, and another half-dozen or so hotels are further southwest on 85 on the outskirts of Atlanta.
There is a debate in baseball circles about proximity of minor league franchises to their major league affiliates and its effect on ticket sales. The Orioles were a trend-setter in this regard being the first MLB team to locate its minor league affiliates as close as possible to Baltimore.
One side of the argument holds that keeping all the franchises in the same area reinforces the team brand and helps attendance across the board. The counter argument goes that if fans have easy access to the MLB team as well and the minor league squads, the MLB team will constantly cannibalize the ticket sales.
As the second closest International League franchise to its parent club, the G-Braves are solid evidence for the second side of the argument. Especially with the fickle fandom of the parent Atlanta club, the G-Braves are constantly scraping the bottom of league attendance charts limping along with around an average one-third full stadium for each game. And even at this late season game with playoff implications, the stadium was only slightly more than one-third filled.
The G-Braves do have their backers, though. There is obviously a core of dedicated fans, in addition to the standard minor league crowd of families looking for a night out. The team has been surviving seven years on these attendance figures, so maybe the hard-core G-Braves fans don’t need to worry.
About a half hour northeast of downtown Atlanta, Coolray Field is just about a quick mile south off I-85 on route 20. Mass transit options seem to stop about 15 minutes away at Sugarloaf Mills, making driving your only and best option. A Greyhound station is about fifteen minutes south in Norcross, and Amtrak stations are to the south in downtown Georgia and to the north in Gainesville. The closest major airport is Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, a little over forty minutes to the southwest.
Parking is a reasonable $5 for cars at two general parking lots (two additional lots are reserved for VIPs and handicapped), and there is a special tailgating lot (E) located furthest away from the park past right field.
The main entrance by home plate is thankfully shaded from the hot Georgia sun by the three translucent player banners at the top of the portico. Several lines are set up and are quickly cleared when the gates open an hour before game time. Should you absolutely have to arrive the moment gates open, or if there are unusually long lines, there is a second ticket booth and gate in the right field corner catering mostly to condo residents who want to enter the park as opposed to watching from their balconies.
A wide promenade circles the entire park above the seating bowl, making getting around a snap. Even with all the concessions on the promenade, there are no issues getting where you need to be.
Return on Investment 4
While most minor league teams make their money on offering a cheap night of baseball entertainment, the AAA level offers a bit more of a baseball premium in players and facilities. Even at this level, Coolray Field serves up better-than-average deals.
Ticket prices are relatively straightforward. Home Plate Club (seats closer to the batter than the pitcher with an exclusive all-you-can-eat buffet) is $40, Dugout Seats (behind the respective dugouts) are $20, Infield Boxes (behind the Home Plate Club and Dugout Seats) are $17, Field Boxes (around the bases and short outfield) are $15, and Baseline Boxes (in the outfield corners) are $9. GA seats for the outfield picnic hill are sold as necessary.
Groups of 20 or more can get per-seat discounts for Infield, Field, or Baseline Boxes, as well as the three party decks or the General Admission lawn seats, with three tiers of all-you-can eat menus starting at $15 per person.
Parking is a league average $5. Free programs and scorecards are available at the entrances and guest services, respectively. Outside of Niekro’s, nearly all food is $8 or under, which isn’t bad at all for AAA. Beers and drinks are all under $8, even for the big souvenir cup beers.
For a triple-A park, there’s not as many extras as you’d expect.
There are a few tributes around the outside of the park. There are dedication plaques for the stadium, as well as honoring Bert Nasuti, a county commissioner responsible for helping the stadium get built.
On the right field wall are retired numbers for Jackie Robinson (42) and Tommy Aaron (older brother of Hank and former Richmond Brave, 23), in addition to three giant pennant portraits at the stadium entrance of Chipper Jones, Bobby Cox, and Hank Aaron. Also by the entrance is a small garden with a pitcher’s mound at the center.
The decent sized team store is accessible from both outside and inside the park once the gates open. A small play area is also located in left field.
Coolray Field isn’t a bad park by any stretch; it just may be playing in a league above its design. Still, it is a great AAA value and easy to visit for a night of baseball entertainment.
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