Baseball the game again for Gwinnett

LAWRENCEVILLE - Surrounded by ever-changing, suburban sprawl, Gwinnett County's sports identity is just as varying.

High school and youth league athletics are booming more than anywhere in Georgia. Youngsters are playing new sports by the day, likely a stunner for natives who never thought local kids would be playing in ice hockey and lacrosse leagues.

Professional sports franchises have successfully entered the area. Don't be surprised if Georgia Gwinnett College continues growing and brings NCAA athletics with it one day.

But as of Friday evening, baseball is officially king in Gwinnett again. The Gwinnett Braves made their home debut in front of 10,427 fans at their brand-new ballpark.

"It's been received really well (in Gwinnett)," said former Atlanta Braves outfielder Brian Jordan, whose daughter attends Norcross High. "When I first heard the team was moving from Richmond to Gwinnett, I knew it would be. The stadium's in such a great area. You've got one of the biggest malls, the Mall of Georgia right here. And look at the field. These kids are spoiled."

The atmosphere at the new Gwinnett Braves stadium - ushered in with a 7-4 loss to Norfolk Tides - offered a modern-day version of a scene from the county's past. Back when baseball truly was king.

Almost 72 years ago, the Buford-based Bona Allen Shoemakers hosted the state's first night baseball game in Georgia outside of Atlanta. Down the road in Norcross, baseball was a religion and the small town turned out a handful of major leaguers in the early part of the 20th century.

Back then, everyone played baseball. Every town had a team.

Now the entire county has one, the Class AAA Gwinnett Braves.

"I thought it was important to be here for the first game because this is history," said Lawrenceville resident Frank Fore, whose son skipped a 13-year-old travel ball game for the inaugural home game. "You're never going to see another opening day for the Gwinnett Braves stadium."

And what the fans saw was pretty sweet. Not necessarily the game, but the experience.

There's not a bad seat in the $64 million stadium, considered by insiders as one of the best in all of minor league baseball. Some two hours before first pitch, the grassy outfield berm was already filling up with fans who had laid their blankets down for a fun evening.

They were surrounded by inflatable playgrounds for the children, just part of the overall minor league experience that will be available for Gwinnett fans 72 times over the next five-plus months. The players were very accommodating to autograph seekers, typical of the minor leagues, even setting up an autograph table on the concourse that was available up until an hour before the game started.

Those players will change often during the season - roster transactions are frequent in minor league ball - but it won't matter much. Local fans jumped on the G-Braves bandwagon Friday night, laying the foundation for what should be a new tradition in Gwinnett.

"We (played in an empty stadium) all last year (in Richmond)," G-Braves manager Dave Brundage said. "To me, there's nothing better than atmosphere like tonight. When you come out and play in front of a crowd like that, it's great. It was just electric tonight."

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