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Gwinnett Braves will be closest to MLB affiliate

With their top minor league team just over 30 miles away, the Seattle Mariners had been in a unique situation.

Not any more.

The Atlanta Braves will have their Class AAA team even closer when the Richmond Braves move to Gwinnett County.

The International League and Pacific Coast Leagues are just one step from the majors, with players routinely moving up and down on short notice.

Until now, the closest call-up in Class AAA belonged to the Mariners, whose Pacific Coast League team is in neighboring Tacoma. The shortest distance in the International League was about 50 miles between Boston and the Red Sox affiliate in Pawtucket, R.I.

When the Braves make their move to Gwinnett, which will be about 36 miles from Turner Field, they will have both the Mariners and Red Sox beat.

The Braves already have a minor league team in Rome - just 75 miles from Atlanta. But that is in the Class A South Atlantic League, near the bottom of the minor league ladder.

The International League is at the top.

Class AAA teams are made up of former major leaguers and players on the verge of reaching the big leagues. Most players are in their mid-to-late 20s, although some are well into their 30s.

Last season, players like Yunel Escobar, Willie Harris, Martin Prado, Brayan Pena, Jo-Jo Reyes and Blaine Boyer spent time in AAA and Atlanta.

International League teams play 144 games, with the regular season ending in early September. The majors play a 162-game schedule.

Richmond won the International League title last season as the wild-card team, beating Columbus and Durham in the playoffs. It was team's first championship since 1994 and fifth overall.

Richmond then lost to Pacific Coast League winner Sacramento in the Bricktown Showdown at Oklahoma City for the overall AAA title.

Atlanta is one of the few major league franchises that owns a majority of its minor league teams. Most have individual or group ownership.

Minor league attendance has boomed in recent years, setting another attendance record last season with nearly 43 million fans attending games in 14 leagues.

Attendance in Richmond, however, has been declining since the mid-1990s. Last year, the team ranked near the bottom of the league with a regular-season draw of less than 350,000. Some AAA teams draw double that.

The Braves and Richmond officials had been talking about a new stadium for years, with several proposals falling through. The latest, just revealed publicly a few days ago, would have demolished The Diamond and built a new 8,000-seat ballpark on North Boulevard nearer I-95.

The Diamond was state of the art when it opened in 1985, but the 12,000-seat stadium is now outdated and in disrepair.

The Braves signed a lease agreement last August that extended through 2010. But there are out-clauses after the 2008 and 2009 seasons.

The Braves have had a team in Richmond since 1966, their first year in Atlanta. The Crackers were moved to the Virginia capital to make way for major league baseball in Atlanta.

In addition to Richmond and Rome, the Braves also own a Class AA Southern League team based outside Jackson, Miss. Their other full-season team is in the Class A Carolina League and based in Myrtle Beach, S.C. That franchise has private ownership.

SideBar: By the numbers

Facts and figures on the AAA Richmond Braves, which will play one more season before moving operations to Gwinnett for the 2009 season:

1966

Braves' first season with a franchise in Richmond

1985

Date the now-outdated ballpark in Richmond was built

5

Governors' Cups won by Richmond as the International League champion

43

Million fans, an all-time record, who attended minor league baseball games last season in 14 leagues

356,028

The Richmond Braves' attendance for the 2007 - 12th out of 14 teams in the International League