Thursday debut special for G-Braves

FORT MILL, S.C. - The Charlotte Knights' season opener Thursday morning lacked an abundance of fanfare.

Except for screaming youngsters bussed in for a special school event, it was just another regular-season, minor league baseball game in a stadium that was maybe 1/3 full. It was even more empty when the students left in the later innings.

But for the visiting team, the kickoff of the International League season meant a little more.

A total of 24 players and three coaches donned Gwinnett Braves uniforms for the first time in an official game Thursday, playing the inaugural season opener for the Atlanta Braves' new Class AAA franchise - a 9-1 win over Charlotte.

"I know (this game) means a lot to the people of Gwinnett, win or lose," G-Braves manager Dave Brundage said. "But it is nice to win that first one."

A group of Braves fans more than 100 strong in the lower level witnessed the milestone victory, the first of what Gwinnett supporters hope will be many more. The first eight games for the new franchise will be on the road - today through Sunday vs. Charlotte followed by a four-game trip to Durham - but they should expect strong support on the road swing since Durham was home of a Braves affiliate from 1980 to 1997.

Then the real fanfare will begin.

The Gwinnett players should make their home debut in front of a packed home stadium, making more history with the first game in a sparkling new stadium. Unlike the low-key atmosphere on Thursday morning, that evening game will feature a raucous home crowd and a true kickoff for the team's inaugural season.

If Thursday was any indication, the home fans will get to see a pretty good baseball team, too. Built with an ideal mix of young prospects and veterans, Gwinnett fans should expect a winning tradition right away.

The G-Braves, much like the rest of Atlanta's farm system, are stocked with top-notch pitching talent, led by Tommy Hanson and Kris Medlen, who combined for 14 strikeouts in the season opener. The offense didn't disappoint either with two veterans, Barbaro Canizares and Brooks Conrad, belting homers.

Canizares' shot barely topped the right-field wall while Conrad's blast went so far that no Knight fielder moved as it sailed way up the hill in right center.

Both of those homers would have landed in the grassy berm seating at Gwinnett's new home stadium. Soon enough G-Braves fans will see those kinds of displays in person, but Thursday's road debut was still pretty enjoyable, too, for both the fans and the players.

"First and foremost, you want to start off the season with a win every year," G-Braves second baseman Brooks Conrad said. "But to get the win for a brand-new franchise in Gwinnett was great, too. It was nice to get them off to a good start."

Will Hammock can be reached via e-mail at will.hammock@gwinnettdailypost.com. His regular column appears on Thursdays.