You've got your Atlanta Braves, stalwart of the South; your Mississippi Braves, which have long brought baseball to smaller metro areas (first Greenville, SC and now Pearl, MS); and your Gwinnett Braves, the new hotness in the fastest-growing county in Georgia.
Then there's the Rome Braves, no longer novel having been established in '03, based in a town of 35,000 (96,000 metro, neither good enough for top-10 in the state), and infamous for tanking in the late season even more than their Big-League brothers.
Their park - State Mutual Stadium - largely sticks with the theme of being second- (or third-) rate, but I can at least start off with an ace.
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First to address are the regular concession stands, which have altogether way more selection than I can wrap my head around but I say that in the most positive of ways. Sliders offers the regular dogs (starting at $2.50) and 'wiches (hitting a max of $6) with basket options including fries and a drink at $8 or less.
Then there's Chick-fil-A - not with their full menu, but certainly serving the important selections from their craveable fare, and a pizza place, Tony's, which sells by-the-slice ($3.75) or whole pie ($14). Now throw on top a "South of the Border" Tex-Mex option, a dedicated ice cream stand and a slurpee cart, multiply it all by two "" that's a lot of choice.
And that's without even getting to the highlight, Bubba's BBQ Barn. Combination plates, ribs, and bottles of Braves BBQ and Hot sauces to take home make for, like I said, almost too much variety for one to compute. The more refined "Three Rivers Club," a full-service sit-down within the confines of the stadium, also opened up for lunch at the beginning of this season.
There is a distinct feeling at State Mutual Stadium that baseball is not the most serious of sports. Whether that's good or bad will depend on what kind of a fan an attendee is.
Expect the regular gags - people in costumes throwing out freebies, races between young audience members between innings - but also some extra-goofy additives, along the lines of sound effects when foul balls land and "Henry the Hot Dog," who danced on the dugout for a little too long while throwing miniature, edible versions of himself to onlookers whether they wanted food or not.
Perhaps those distractions are meant to make up for the lack of scenery (read below for more on that) - you're certainly not going to get caught up in any beautiful vistas over the fences.
Directly outside the stadium in what basically looks like a continuation of the parking lots is Bella Roma Grill, which has a wide variety of dang-good-lookin' Greek specialties, pastas, pizzas, steaks and even burgers. Of course, trust it'll be completely slammed before and after gametime.
Downtown, you can check out Harvest Moon Cafe and The Gravy Boat for Southern-cooking-influenced food or go for classic barbecue (Uncle John's and Backyard are apparently great).
From talking to some locals in the stands, though, their favorite places were chains, not one-offs like the above. Now, I've got no problem whatsoever with the familiar establishments (Longhorn, Chili's, etc.), but when the first thing out of a Rome resident's mouth with regards to restaurants is reminiscence of the closed Western Sizzler, that might say something about the area cuisine.
To be honest, this category was a little tough to gauge at the game I attended. In the middle of the day in late May, the heat was oppressive enough to make the unshaded seats a veritable no-man's land. Those with some cover were more packed, but the sun was sapping everyone's energy, so there wasn't a whole lot of noise.
From listening to some conversations around me, though, I got the feeling that folks are in-tune with this team as many metro-Atlantans are with the big-league Braves: They're following minutiae of daily injury updates, pitching rotation changes and call-ups.
It's always been my stance that such talk is a good thing to hear, especially when the team is doing as poorly as Rome (26-50, a distant last in the SAL at the midsummer time of this writing). After all, in this age of minor league teams moving every five years or so, they're closing in on a decade, and that can only be a good sign in terms of fan support.
Like a handful of cities in Georgia - and I'm sure across the nation - Rome has a circular perimeter highway, or "loop," that makes getting from one side of town to the other a good bit easier. If you're going to attend a game at State Mutual, you're going to become intimately familiar with State Loop 1.
It doesn't actually form a complete circuit, but curves around the east and north sides of town, which I expect is where the majority of out-of-towners will be coming from (Atlanta and Chattanooga metro areas). The good news is it connects directly with Highway 20 and is just a short jaunt up or down New Canton Hwy. and Adairsville Rd. from I-75. The bad news is the one and only entrance to the parking areas is off the loop, which is just a two-lane road each way, has its fair share of traffic lights, and would be an absolute nightmare upon the mass exodus of a night game.
Coming from the other side (Birmingham or Huntsville) means picking your poison of I-59 and I-20, then preparing to get caught in the web of smaller streets between the two.
For all my complaining, I have no qualms with the price point that tops out at $10 and frequently includes or gives a cheap option for a worthwhile promotion like All-You-Can-Eat Seats and Thirsty Thursdays ($1 drinks). A little grassy section off the third base line called the Miller Lite Marina looks like it could be a good time, what with $4 tickets and drink specials.
There are no bad sight lines considering the layout of the five sections wrapping around just half the diamond. Then again, it's $4 to park, and you will end up in a random uncovered spot at an undetermined distance from the entrance. Good luck with that if it's hot or crowded.
No points can be awarded for the surroundings - it's basically all asphalt, and over the right field fence is highway construction. Yours truly, a notorious hippy-hater, still thinks the number of trees that died for this was gratuitous.
Some subtle touches in the outfield like a mini-Green Monster in center, informative jumbotrons with both game and season stats and a clean blue color scheme throughout are good enough for a little extra credit, but that's it.
You have to love a place where menu items include fried baloney sandwiches and "garbage plate" nachos served in a giant pizza box, fans come dressed in shorts and cowboy boots, and people start up conversations just to hear your New England accent. The phrase "why in the world would y'all come to Rome?" was repeated often. For the record, I started up conversations to hear their southern accents. The ballpark, unfortunately, is located in the middle of nowhere, although there are a few chain restaurants nearby. Put this park in a more attractive area, and its score would rise dramatically.
If you go to Minor League games and already have taken in a few of the South Atlantic League venues, Rome pretty much has the blueprint of Lexington's park. The structure is nearly a carbon copy with fewer sections along the baselines. In regards to it, it is both good and bad they took Lexington's stadium. While I have gone to a few games here since I live near the park, the enjoyment has admittedly worn off on me a bit, but still not a bad place to go.
FOOD & BEVERAGE: This is where they hit a home run on. Food is magnificent and I would put it up there with any other Minor League place. The variety has been great and there is something for everybody. Definitely try the barbecue stand along the right field wall and their barbecue sundae (no, it doesn't have ice cream), but definitely worth a try.
ATMOSPHERE: I am not sure if the newness has worn off on this place since 2003, but seems like everytime the place gets more & more cavernous, even when it is bobblehead nights at the park. It isn't a bad atmosphere but definitely not what it once was from 2003-2008.
NEIGHBORHOOD: You do have some places around so you aren't really hurting.
FANS: Somewhat goes with the atmosphere, though the ones that show really do get into the games.
ACCESS: I still can't for the life of me why'd they move them to Rome, it isn't entirely close to an interstate like other places. Roads are mostly two-lanes any where you go, which creates massive problems when you leave the park, and much like Lexington, parking isn't very fun here to add on top of a small cost to park.
ROI: Overall, ticket prices are reasonable and pending on what you get for food so is food. Saturdays used to be $2 beer night so that is also pretty good.
EXTRAS: The dilemma is, save for some "upgrades" to the scoreboard and the barbecue venue, State Mutual Stadium hasn't changed much since its opening. In fact, it hasn't look like it is maintained well. But, like Lexington, seats are fine and you do get some good baseball at the park so you really can't go too wrong here.
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