Richmond Braves era coming to an end

Richmond fans have two more chances to say good-bye to Class AAA baseball. Then the International League team is off to Gwinnett County.

The Virginia capital's loss is Georgia's gain.

"I played there more than 40 years ago, so I know how long the Braves go back in Richmond," said Atlanta manager Bobby Cox, a member of the 1967 club. "But it will be good to have our top farm team so close."

The 43-year relationship between the Atlanta Braves and Richmond ends after games today and Monday at The Diamond. The only longer bond in the minors is the Appalachian League relationship between the Baltimore Orioles and Bluefield, W.Va., which began in 1958.

The Braves' connection to Richmond dates to 1966 - the team's first year in Atlanta. It was the old Atlanta Crackers that moved to Virginia to make way for major league baseball in the South.

But the Braves couldn't get a new stadium deal in Richmond despite years of trying and Gwinnett County stepped up to grab the team. The announcement was made in January.

The new ballpark north of Lawrenceville - only about 35 miles from Atlanta's Turner Field - is under construction and will debut in April.

The final season in Richmond hasn't been a good one on the field or in the stands. The R-Braves have the second-worst record in the 14-team league and are last in attendance.

The crowds should be better than the average of 4,220 for the final two games, however, as Richmond recognizes its 43-year history with the Braves.

Ralph Garr and Tommy Aaron - Hank's late brother - will be inducted into the International League Hall of Fame at ceremonies today.

On Monday, some of the top players from Richmond's best years as the Braves' top minor league team will be honored. Among those scheduled to be on hand for the 2 p.m. game against the Norfolk Tides are Dale Murphy, David Justice and Javy Lopez.

Afterwards, the Braves will pack up for Gwinnett County. It won't be an easy day for long-time Richmond general manager Bruce Baldwin, who is moving with the team to Georgia.

"It's really bittersweet," Baldwin said. "I have not really allowed myself to get caught up in the end. It is starting to set in. It's a difficult time for me to handle."

Richmond won the International League Governor's Cup playoffs last season in Dave Brundage's first year as manager, but dropped into the South Division cellar this year after being in first place for most of the first two months. The team has had to make nearly 150 roster moves because of injuries and call-ups.

Attendance has reflected on-field struggles and the team's lame-duck status.

"For the most part, the fans have been good," Brundage said. "They understand it's not the players' fault that the team is leaving. We have no control over it."

That doesn't mean, though, that Brundage and the players aren't excited about the move to Gwinnett County. "It should be great," the manager said.

Richmond, meanwhile, will likely get a lower-level team as discussions about a new stadium continue. The latest rumor has a Class AA Eastern League team moving to Richmond for next season.

Gwinnett County, meanwhile, will be enjoying its first year of Class AAA baseball.