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Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium Goes Out in Style

October 24, 1996

ATLANTA (AP) _ Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was hardly an architectural masterpiece on the landscape of baseball.

But the 31-year-old bowl, which brought the big leagues to the South and hung around long enough for the Braves to become the best team in the majors, sure went out in grand style Thursday night.

For the first time, a ballpark closed its doors with the World Series. After Game 5 between the Braves and New York Yankees, the next game in Atlanta won’t be until the spring of 1997 _ in a new stadium right across the street.

``It still looks great,″ said Yankees coach Tony Cloninger, glancing around the generic, circular park that opened in 1965 and became home of the Braves the following year.

Cloninger has fond memories of Atlanta Stadium. On April 12, 1966, he pitched the first major-league game in the park after the Braves moved from Milwaukee, losing to Pittsburgh 3-2 in the 13th inning.

``Willie Stargell got me,″ Cloninger said, speaking as if the game was yesterday. ``I got a pitch on his fists, and he hit it out.″

Cloninger pitched all 13 innings on that cool evening, pumped up by the excitement of the historic occasion. It turned out to be a turning point in his career.

``He (manager Bobby Bragan) was asking me from the seventh inning on if I was OK,″ Cloninger recalled. ``I had so much adrenaline, I wanted to keep pitching.″

After winning 24 games the previous season, Cloninger managed only 14 victories in 1966. By 1972, at the still-young age of 32, he was out of baseball, a sore-armed pitcher who never recovered from his ironman performance six years earlier.

``I don’t think pitching 13 innings messed up my arm,″ he said. ``I think if I had missed a start or two, not kept pitching every fourth day, I probably would have been OK.″

The Braves’ catcher in that first game was a pudgy, 25-year-old named Joe Torre. He accounted for both Atlanta runs on solo homers.

``The ball always jumped in this place,″ said Torre, who now manages the Yankees. ``I remember one time I hit a little fly ball against (Tom) Seaver. I think I broke my bat, and it still went out. Boy, was he (mad).″

Torre, who played in Atlanta from 1966-68 and returned to manage the team in the early 1980s, was asked if he wanted a memento from the final game in the stadium.

``I’ll probably grab something subtle,″ he said.

Atlanta Stadium was one of the first of the multipurpose stadiums, an era that baseball purists still look back on with disdain. The Braves were supposed to move to the city in 1965, so the city was forced to erect a structure that was boring even for a park of that era.

Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis had an arch-shaped roof that stands apart from the others. Shea, Riverfront and Three Rivers all have adjustable seats that provide better sightlines for baseball and football. Atlanta Stadium is simply three circular decks, with not a hint of imagination in the design.

Ironically, court battles delayed the Braves’ move from Milwaukee for a year, so the first team to call the stadium home was the Triple-A Atlanta Crackers.

The NFL Falcons also played in the stadium from 1966-91, usually matching the Braves for ineptitude. It wasn’t until the final years of its life that the park began to be viewed with more reverence.

The field, once one of the worst in the majors, is now one of the best. The clubhouse was expanded. Other facilities, such as concession stands, have been upgraded.

More importantly, the play on the field got better. The Braves have been in four of the past six World Series. This past summer, the Olympic baseball competition was held in the old park, while track and field went on at the new Olympic stadium across the street.

``This ballpark has been very good to us,″ said Atlanta manager Bobby Cox. ``It’s a nice facility right now.″

Nevertheless, workers are hurrying to convert the 85,000-seat Olympic stadium into a 49,000-seat ballpark. Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium will remain standing until the spring _ just in case the new park isn’t finished on time _ then demolished to make room for a parking lot.

There will be a monument marking the spot where Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run, and perhaps a section of the fence that the ball sailed over to break Babe Ruth’s record.

``As far as I’m concerned, it’s kind of sad,″ Aaron said. ``I have a lot of fond memories of this ballpark, spent a lot of days out here. But like everything else, I guess, it has to be replaced. Whether it’s ballplayers or stadiums, that’s the way it goes.″

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