Just about 45 minutes northeast of Turner Field, the top farm club of the Atlanta Braves participates in the AAA International League. Celebrating their fifth season in 2013 after 43 seasons in Richmond, Virginia, the Gwinnett Braves have found a comfortable home not too far from The Show.
Call-ups and send-downs hop in their car for a short 37-mile drive along Highway 85, never having to move into a different living space, keep their families in one spot and feel a little more connected to the community instead of getting acclimated to a new one. The close geographic proximity of the parent-child team relationship allows for comfort.
Coolray Field, formerly known as Gwinnett Stadium, is a 10,475-seat ballpark in Lawrenceville, Georgia. The naming rights have been awarded to an air conditioning and plumbing company based in nearby Marietta. The ballpark features 19 luxury suites, a 30-foot-by-40-foot video board behind the field towering over the general admission lawn area, a 6-foot-by-42-foot LED board along the left field wall and chair back seating complete with cup holders throughout the stadium.
As you would expect, the major league Braves have made sure their top farm team feels as close to the big leagues as possible with amenities which help the players adjust to major league life. In attending a game at Coolray Field, fans get to enjoy major league entertainment when they come to see the Gwinnett Braves play.
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".
The main concourse provides access to all of the food and beverage options you could ever want at a ballpark. Walk in the main gate behind home plate and you will find an array of options to satisfy your taste buds whether you walk straight ahead down the left field line or turn right and curl around home plate and head to right field.
In the way of fountain drinks, small sodas are $3.75 while a large souvenir cup is $4.50, a great buy. The G-Braves serve Coca-Cola products, not too unexpected given Gwinnet's close proximity to Atlanta, the soft drink company's headquarters. Bottled water is $3.75 and Powerade is $4.25.
For beer lovers, domestic draft beer is $5.25 while canned beer is $6.25. The G-Braves serve Anheuser-Busch products.
As with most minor league parks, expect to show your ID at an armband station to prove you are of age to drink alcohol and then show this armband when ordering.
For main courses, corn dogs are $3 while hot dogs are $3.50. Hamburgers are $6.50, but add a quarter to get a slice of cheese added to it.
Roasted peanuts are $4 and a box of popcorn is $3. Nachos with cheese are $5 while a nachos grande with chili, tomatoes and jalapenos is $8. Pretzels are $3.75 and you can add a cup of nacho cheese for $1. Cracker Jacks are $3.25. A cup of French fries is $3.50.
There is a Kid's Combo which for just $5 includes an entree, chips and a small soda. Choose from PBJ, ham & cheese or mac & cheese.
For something sweet, check out the Catcher's Mitt just behind sections 104 and 106. They offer funnel cakes for $5.50, churros for $5, novelty ice cream for $4 and fried Twinkies or fried Oreos for $3.
As for some unique items, consider three things to order while at Coolray Field. The Georgia Dog is a foot long hot dog covered in Cole slaw and Vidalia onion relish for $6. I had one of these dogs. Make room for it on your visit, very tasty.
The Braves Dog is also a foot long hot dog, but with chili, cheese and jalapenos. I did not have one of these and the person sitting behind me was grateful I didn't. These are also $6.
The last item is "The Knucksie", the G-Braves signature sandwich and in the running for "Best Minor League Concession Item" in 2013. This item is the famed pulled pork, coleslaw, cornbread combo cooked up by legendary Atlanta Braves pitcher Phil Niekro and available only at Niekro's Restaurant. The location is just next to the team store on the main concourse and seats up to 100 guests.
The Home Plate Club (seats up to 100 guests) and the Suite Lounge & Bar (seats up to 150 guests) are worth looking into should you and your group want indoor comforts and wider selection of food and liquor.
See photos of some of the unique food items and prices at Coolray Field in the photo gallery.
Coolray Field opened in 2009 so it is still feeling new and clean. Still, you can tell the team takes great pride in their venue as it is spotless. The games are well-staffed with knowledgeable, friendly officials giving it an almost Disney-like atmosphere.
Having been to over 400 sports venues myself, the staff at Coolray Field stood out among the rest as giving that appropriately applied feel of welcoming you to their home. You can tell they are committed to making sure all fans enjoy their time at the ballpark.
One nice benefit of Coolray Field is the walkway atmosphere of the ballpark, one that allows fans to walk an entire circle around the playing field enjoying the game from every vantage point should you choose to take a stroll.
I can appreciate venues which restrict fan access to certain seating areas, but allowing a walk around the diamond is particularly rewarding and the G-Braves encourage it.
As you gaze out to the field from behind home plate, you will see a home run wall at a distance of 330 feet down both lines with straightaway center field at 410 feet (estimate as the marking 400 is to the right of the straightaway center point). The distance between home plate and the seats behind it is shallow allowing the sensation of being "in the game".
The team plays on beautiful, well-kept natural grass. There is no dirt strip from the mound to home plate, but the territory between the bases which separate infield from outfield are laden in dirt.
Pitch speed can be monitored at left center field just above the secondary scoreboard. Behind the outfield wall at this area is where the home bullpen is situated. The main scoreboard, the primary source for in-game statistics and video replays, is behind and above the general admission lawn area of right field close to the foul pole.
The home run wall measures 10 feet high and the out-of-play area tapers close to the foul line as it approaches wall. The press box is atop the reserved seating area between section 100. All 144 games are broadcast on three radio stations, 550 AM and 102.9 FM or 100.1 FM.
The visitor dugout is on the first base side with their bullpen taking up the area behind the right field wall. The home dugout is on the third base side with the out-of-play bullpen behind the left center field wall. Both dugouts are sunken below field level adding to the appeal of the box seats being right on top of the field.
Seating is multi-tiered with nine options from the Home Plate Club at $40 each including the 2-hour, all-you-can-eat buffet to the $6 general admission lawn seats ($7 day of game, $4 for groups of 200 or more). Assigned seats number from largest to smallest from right to left as you are looking down at the seats while standing in the concourse. This is important if you are choosing an assigned seat and need to know what side of a row you are sitting.
Home Plate Club seats are in sections 1 through 7 right behind home plate while lawn seats allow you to bring a blanket or towel and spread out anywhere between the foul poles behind the outfield wall.
If the top seat is too pricey for your liking, take a step down to the Braves Dugout for $18 ($20 day of game). Three sections behind each dugout provide for great views with the backstop netting not obstructing your view.
The best seat for the money in my view is the Field Box, $12 in advance ($13 day of game, $12 for groups of 200 or more). Surrounding the entire infield, these seats are closest to the concourse providing ease in getting to the concession areas and restrooms.
Consider a row closest to the back of the section as it will provide coverage in the event of rain. As for side of the field, consider the third base side as the main scoreboard and replays are shown straight ahead and the sun is at your back for evening games.
Party deck areas with picnic tables can be found down the right field line and in the suite level behind third base. The Bullpen buffet behind the G-Braves bullpen offers group fun in a private area. The suite level also includes open-air decks. Check with the team on availability for these areas.
If you want something a little more unique, consider the "Infield Fly Seats" in the seating area in the former left field corner next to section 122. Tickets are just $10 a seat and include selected Infield Fly Gear (a Gwinnett Braves fly swatter).
The section is named after the infamous play between the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals in the 2012 wild-card game. The ruling at Turner Field favored the Cardinals and came with Atlanta threatening to comeback from a 6-3 deficit in the eighth inning. The ruling led to a 19-minute delay when debris was thrown onto the field creating a safety risk for the players.
Although it was a judgment call by the umpires to rule an "infield fly rule" on the play, the type of call made on a daily basis, the incident drew screams of protest. In fact, the Atlanta Braves filed an official protest which was promptly denied post-game. The Cardinals ended up winning the game and the entire play and ensuing events can be seen here.
For all seats, special discounts are provided to Seniors, military and youth.
There is nothing for the visiting fan to enjoy around the ballpark, but a shopping mall and stretch of commercial business on the North side of Highway 85. You have to drive to the ballpark as it is not within walking distance from anywhere. It seems like at one point there might have been several planned developments, but none of them ever were built. There is one gas station close to the ballpark. Not much else commercial is within walking distance.
While the fans in Gwinnett enjoy their baseball, there is nothing that separates them from ordinary fans except for their knowledge of the Braves organization from top to bottom.
I found this to be the case during a weeknight game where several groups of fans were overhead talking about player rehab assignments, when certain players were coming back from injury and which players might be called up from their AA affiliate in Pearl, Mississippi.
There is great pride in the Braves franchise with a rich tradition of great players and teams even though the club has just one World Series title since 1957.
If you approach from Turner Field in downtown Atlanta, you would travel Northeast along Highway 85 to exit 115. This is Buford Drive NE, also known as Route 20. Make a right, continuing south and the ballpark is on your right. Please be aware, there is nothing near the ballpark, but a gas station.
If you want food before the game, you will have to get off at exit 115, but then turn left. Along this stretch are a number of chain restaurants and a shopping mall with national chain restaurants on the outside perimeter.
Parking is just $5 per car with plenty of space around the ballpark.
Ballpark bathrooms are spacious and plentiful down the left and right field lines of the main concourse. They are clean and well-kept adding to the appreciation of this venue.
If you make a trip to Atlanta, you should try to spend an afternoon or evening at a G-Braves game. While the ticket prices might be a little higher than some AAA venues, consider a lesser option to see a game at Coolray Field. It is well worth it. You will probably even forget you are at a minor league facility as the amenities are truly major league. You will walk away from seeing a game here satisfied that your money was well-spent.
The Braves are fortunate to have a pretty new ballpark, but even modern facilities can lack flair and a sense of fulfillment. It depends on the people who run the team and the facility, their creative efforts and commitment to making sure every visiting fans comes away with a sense of fulfillment for the money they spend. The folks at Coolray Field understand exactly what it takes to achieve this goal.
Promotions are the lifeblood of a successful minor league team and the Gwinnett Braves have things covered.
Sunday is Family Sunday when all fans are allowed to bring their ball and glove for a pre-game catch in the outfield twenty minute after gates open. After the game, all kids 12 and under get to run the bases.
Monday is Kids Eat Free Day when all children 12 and under receive a voucher for a free hot dog, bag of chips and a small soda.
Tuesday is Team Tuesday when the first 500 fans through the gate receive a collectible 5th anniversary poster with a G-Braves player available for signing before the game.
Wednesday is Winning Wednesday when fans play a baseball version of bingo fueled by on-field action enabling fans to win great prizes.
Thursday is $3 Thursday with food and drink specials for the low three-dollar price all game long. General admission lawn seats are also just $3 on Thursdays (except for July 4th).
I found it nice that while most teams promote their special nights on their team schedule and online, that the G-Braves have special signs which show blocks of games for a given month promoting these games. The result is a fresh look which keeps regular fans seeing different visual messages.
The programs, a 5x7 size souvenir, are free and available as you walk in the front gate. The content is substantial, but not overdone and while advertising is a nice revenue driver, the balance between it, interesting content and fulfilling details is well struck.
The programs are updated with current information for the next few home stands. If you like updated statistics, pay a visit to the customer relations table behind the seats in the main concourse just as you walk-in through the front gate.
As far as merchandise, the store behind section 103 is huge and packed full of Braves-branded items. From foam tomahawks to fitted caps to baseball cards, the store is stocked full of everything a fan can imagine.
The Kids Fun Area is just inside the main gate and to the right of home plate along the main concourse. For $2 per inflatable or with a $10 wristband, kids can bounce around in an area designed for little ones to get all of that energy out of their systems.
Also, the G-Braves feature Chopper, the team mascot, a groundhog. He roams the area and involves himself in the fun around the ballpark. I found him to be playful and visible throughout the game without being obnoxious or too outrageous. Again, this is something the team works diligently on as an extension of their brand and it is seen throughout the venue.
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.
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.
Coolray Field is a nice enough place to watch a game, it's very comfortable, and has the amenities fans want in a new minor league park. Unfortunately, the sum of the parts don't add up as well as they should. Perhaps this is due to the location, which is in the middle of nowhere in suburban Atlanta. There are no places to hang in the neighborhood before or after the game. The only option for parking is the team-owned lot, and there are no notable concession items. This park could be located anywhere and make the same impression.
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