RICHMOND, Va. - The Richmond Braves are history. Let the Gwinnett Braves' countdown to opening day begin.
Richmond's 43-year run as Atlanta's top minor league team came to an end Monday, a sellout crowd of 12,167 reluctantly sending the International League franchise off to Gwinnett County.
"It's a sad time for the fans here," said Dale Murphy, one of the former Richmond players brought back for the final game. "I know that they have so many memories."
Gwinnett fans will be able to begin forging their own next April. The first games for the new team are just seven months away.
The Gwinnett Braves are scheduled to begin the 2009 season on April 9 at Charlotte. The home opener is slated for April 17 against Norfolk, beginning a 10-game homestand.
More than 4,000 season tickets have already been committed to by Gwinnett fans. That is more than Richmond ever sold.
"I feel bad for the fans here, especially the kids," said manager Bill Brundage, who is expected to move with the team to Gwinnett. "But everyone is excited about playing in a new stadium and being so close to Atlanta."
"I'm sure they'll have great crowds in Gwinnett," said Richmond outfielder Jason Perry, a former Georgia Tech standout who homered in the final game.
Wes Timmons, an infielder in his fourth season with Richmond, also hit a home run as the Braves routed Norfolk 9-3 for their eighth victory in their final nine games. Despite the late spurt, the team finished 63-78 and tied for last place in the South Division.
The Gwinnett County Commission will vote today on additional funding for the Gwinnett ballpark, which will now cost $59 million instead of $40 million. That is the final hurdle in the relocation of the franchise.
Gwinnett got the opportunity for Class AAA baseball after Richmond and the Braves failed to agree on a plan to replace The Diamond - already outdated although built in 1985 -- with a new ballpark like in Class AA Mississippi or Class A Rome.
"This is the third stadium I've shut down," said Richmond's Scott Thorman, referring to Greenville and Macon. "I don't know if that is something to be proud of or not."
"In this case, it was definitely time," Richmond pitcher Damian Moss said. "You need a better place than this to play."
"Minor league ballparks are so much nicer now," Murphy said.
"Times change, even though we all want to hang on to the past as much as we can.
"I've only been retired for 15 years, and the only major league stadiums left that I played in will be Wrigley Field and Dodger Stadium after Shea Stadium closes."
Murphy was one of 13 former Richmond standout brought back for the final game, with David Justice a late cancellation. Javy Lopez was on hand, drawing an ovation as loud as Murphy's. Ralph Garr, like Murphy a member of the Atlanta Braves Hall of Fame, was also honored.
"It's emotional, but I didn't want this to be a sad day," Richmond general manager Bruce Baldwin said. "For me, it's a time to cherish the past and embrace the future."
Baldwin will go with the team to Gwinnett. He will be joined by six other members of his Richmond staff. All will be in place in Georgia by the end of the month, working out of temporary office space.
The relationship between the Braves and Richmond was the second-longest in minor league baseball. The longest is between Baltimore and Bluefield in the Appalachian League. It began in 1958.
Chipper Jones, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, David Justice, Glenn Hubbard and Brett Butler passed through Richmond on the way to the majors in addition to Murphy, Lopez, Justice and Garr. Atlanta manager Bobby Cox even played here, in the team's second season.
Richmond won five International League playoff titles, the most recent Governor's Cup coming last season.
"I really enjoyed it here and Richmond and Atlanta were together so long it became like a family," Garr said. "It's hard to break up."
"I'm not mad, just sad," diehard Richmond fan Randy Womack said. "I'll miss the Braves."
Long-time season-ticket holder Tom Driscoll - known as Tomahawk Tom - loves the bond that develops between fans and minor league players.
"If we don't get another team, I'll really miss coming to the games," he said.
Richmond is trying to lure a replacement for next season. But it will be Class AA or maybe even Class A.
"I hope Richmond gets another team," Baldwin said. "The fans deserve it."
SideBar: Gwinnett Braves
The Gwinnett Braves will begin their first season in the Class AAA International League with an eight-game road trip, then play 10 games at home. All will be against South Division rivals Charlotte, Durham and Norfolk:
April 9 at Charlotte, 7 p.m.
April 17 vs. Norfolk, 7 p.m.