If one were to ask Coolray Field at Gwinnett Stadium if it would have ever thought it would be scrutinized in this fashion, the little ballpark would probably let loose a chuckle (and subsequently set off car alarms throughout its surrounding parking lots).
It's just that this, the home of the Gwinnett Braves (Atlanta's AAA affiliate, playing in the International League), has never taken itself that seriously. This is a place for family fun, where kids celebrating birthdays get to stand on top of the home dugout and eyeballs with legs race between innings.
But more on that later.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
As usual, a game attendee is assaulted from the moment they set foot inside with various stands with cute team- or sports-related names hawking more or less the same stuff. I'd put money down that every counter in this place could serve you the same burger and fries, popcorn, or slice of pizza despite them all being billed as different from one another.
But there are a few options at each that you won't find at the next. Gwinnett Grill has a veggie (bean) burger and a few more creative sandwich toppings; Top Your Dog has different regionally-themed condiments for your weenies; Catcher's Mitt has the "Sea Dog," made of an as-of-yet unidentified kind of fish; and Country Buffet will do meat and two (or three) if for some reason you want to be hassled with that at a game.
The prices are just a skosh cheaper than your average pro park's, with my cheeseburger combo coming in at $8, no drink included. There is beer, in case you were wondering, but the focus really being on the kiddies here, Fat Tire is about as interesting a choice you're going to get.
Allow the author to fess up: At his first minor league baseball game, he marveled at the blend of small- and big-time elements. Yes, there was an usher for my section just behind third base - but he was not checking tickets, instead shooting the breeze with season ticket holders he had come to know in the front row.
The outfield seating is on a sloped lawn, and behind that are inflatables that kids jump in throughout the course of the evening as their parents attempt to have a good time. But above them is a great-looking digital screen that flashes stats and headshots of the players and runs silly little clips from "The Simpsons" and A League of Their Own at opportune times.
So the presentation is, in a word, masterful. This is exactly what I would hope for from minor league baseball - a chance to be significantly closer to both the action and the rest of the folks there, except that both of those things are dangerously close to the "real" thing, meaning pro ball. A full point comes off, though, for things being so new and no history being developed; the team only relocated from Richmond, Va., where they were from 1966, for the 2009 season.
Take it from a Gwinnettian (it's a word, meaning "one hailing from Gwinnett County," look it up): Labeling this neck of the woods "the boonies" makes little to no sense. There are more isolated areas in the vast county, and the place could be harder to get to.
But as my compadre and I brought up at the game after he struggled to even find the place, there are about a million better places this thing could have been built. Yes, it's close to the Mall of Georgia, that pit of consumerism that once upon a time excited the greedy little kid in me, but it takes forever to get there, even from some of the most prominent towns in Gwinnett.
Coming from Snellville, which is a decent-size hub and growing at a rapid rate, it took me dang near an hour to get there, so toss in parking and I might as well have made the trip to Turner, home of the real Braves. I was absolutely positive I had gone too far down 85 a full five minutes before I saw a sign for the place.
Oh, and as for places around there? Guess what, unless you want mall food or one of the chain spots in its near vicinity, you're getting back in the car and heading where you came from. There's a Pizza Hut the other way from the mall and a QuikTrip between the field and the interstate, but otherwise you're closer to the Gwinnett County Detention Center than food.
So this score could vary wildly based on what stage of your life you're at. I figure give it an average; don't be too harsh and ignore the little boy and future father in you, but evaluate fairly as a 22-year-old.
There are a lot, a lot, a lot of families that come to G-Braves games, and perhaps even more high schoolers on "dates." While tripping over the little ones is hazardous, it's the latter group that more gets on my nerves. Better believe I was there once, in fact not long ago, and you better believe I hate their guts.
Those most into it are the dads. You can spot them from a mile away, as theirs are the only heads turned towards the game. Son and daughter are distracted by Chopper the gopher mascot or a moonbounce and Mom, whether she wants to be or not, is preoccupied with them and doesn't have the selfishness in her to just let them run rampant.
But for a fun family outing or a great date for teenage couples, you'll find plenty of company!
As alluded to before, Coolray is further out there than I thought it was, meaning further east of Atlanta and many of its more prominent eastside suburbs. Zoom out on your Google Maps, and you'll see it's fairly far north of Lawrenceville (placing it even further from Lawrenceville's concentration, which is in the southern part of the city limits), decently south of Buford, and only weakly connected to the powerful and popular Johns Creek area.
It is, however, right off I-85, one of the four primary highways us Atlantans are on all the time. Coming from the city, there aren't many turns - it's a straight shot. And someone living in Gwinnett (what's the word...that's right! Gwinnettian!) knows how to get on this artery from any number of spots.
But the only street that provides access to the parking lots is the four-lane divided Buford Drive, which is ill-suited for a Friday or Saturday night game's flow. There are also far too few entrances and exits to the parking lots, which are massive but have foolishly cramped spaces that cause people to park further and further away from each other, thus accomplishing the opposite of what the planners tried to do by making more spots.
Inside, it all takes a turn for the better, as the concourses are crowded but wide and easy to navigate and there is a men's and women's bathroom for just about every two sections.
Again, I should disclose completely: This was my first minor league baseball game. Having been to a zillion Atlanta Braves games and covered high school baseball, I had tasted the two extremes, but never the sweet, sweet middle. So maybe this is a little slanted.
But seriously, the seats I sat in were listed at $18, and I could have easily let Nate McLouth know just what I thought of him. At one point, I was sure Troy Glaus heard me and my bud's jibes, as he went from looking up into the stands hopefully to staring down at his feet as he returned to the dugout.
And while I was a tad annoyed with some of the people around me - the father behind was answering basic questions about the sport in a most unsatisfactory manner, and teenagers stared at me though I tried to stay incognito with my hood up the whole time - it was actually a lot of fun to be there.
What can I say besides it was relaxed while exciting; I had my feet up as I took in Norfolk Tides shortstop Robert Andino's excellent fielding skills.
One point here for the friggin' eyeball race (told you I'd get back to it). So I guess one of the sponsors is an eyecare clinic, and someone had the idea that they could dress two people up as eyeballs and have them race from first to home to third and back? It makes Milwaukee's sausages look normal, but you haven't heard the best part...
During the particular iteration of this spectacle that I witnessed, one of the eyeballs drop-kicked the other. Yes, you read that right, and yes, it was that awesome.
Another point for this being not just my hometown but my home neighborhood team; I called Gwinnett home for the first 18 years of my life and still visit my parents there often. I would have preferred it had the stadium been built close to my childhood house, but if they rep Gwinnett, the G-Braves are alright by me.
Picture this... it's a typical hot July day in Georgia, except hotter. I'm talking 97 degrees, 90% humidity, and not a cloud in the sky. We know we have seats in the sun so we plan ahead by lathering up with sunscreen and storing our water bottles in the freezer to get them good an cold. Now we're ready to go...
Getting to the stadium is a breeze and parking is quick and easy-- though no shade in the parking lot either. After the short walk to the stadium we're greeted by a very nice lady who tells us, "sorry ya'll, but can't bring your water bottle inside, you'll need to drink it here or throw it away". Seriously? I'm sorry but there should probably be a law against taking away somebody's water on a hot day. Inside, much smaller and warmer water bottles were available for $4. Again, seriously?
This stadium is only a year old so I'm hoping the uproar of the crowd will have the folks at Cooray re-thinking their rules a bit. Until then, I won't be going back.
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6310 Sugarloaf Pkwy
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