Munsey on Ballparks

Atlanta and Montgomery

by Paul Munsey (archive)

April 16, 2005

This is a tale of two southern cities and their ballparks. One ballpark is in a big city and hosts a Major League Baseball team. The other is in a small city and hosts a Southern League (AA) team. Sometimes, big things come in small packages.

Last weekend I had the opportunity to visit two ballparks: Turner Field in Atlanta, Georgia and Riverwalk Stadium in Montgomery, Alabama. Because I am staying in Atlanta, it was an easy drive to Turner Field. We made a day trip out of our visit to Riverwalk Stadium. On the way there we stopped in Auburn, Alabama, looked around Auburn University and had an early lunch. It is a beautiful campus.

The last time I was at Turner Field, back in 1999, the place was only a couple of years old. What stood out in my mind were the unusually strict security and the great food. Well, six years later the security is still strict, but the food is not the same, literally. According to employees I interviewed, the Braves recently changed concessionaires. From what I was able to learn, the Braves used to run their own concessions, but contracted them out to Aramark a couple of years ago.

For me, the food is an important part of going to a ballpark. Many ballparks offer a cornucopia of culinary delights. SBC Park in San Francisco, while expensive, offers a wide variety of high quality food. A lot of ballparks, like PNC Park in Pittsburgh, are located in urban neighborhoods with a wide selection of nearby eateries. Unfortunately, Turner Field is not among the aforementioned ballparks.

Whether by accident or by intent, Turner Field's location is such that fans must purchase their food and parking from the team. That is why it was so disappointing to find such a poor selection of mediocre food at the ballpark. In 1999, I had one of the best grilled bratwursts in memory. Now, you can not get a grilled bratwurst or grilled sausage of any kind anywhere in the ballpark.

Many years ago, while attending college, I worked at a concession stand in the Frank Irwin Center in Austin, Texas. It was operated by Volume Services, which was later bought out by Aramark. My lasting memory of that brief experience was that we were told to put the unused food in the freezer at the end of an event. So, the same hot dogs would go from the rollers to the freezer and back several times. It took me about a decade to finally work up the courage to eat a hot dog from a concession stand, and that's only after I had thoroughly interrogated the staff to make sure the food was fresh.

Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) runs Atlanta's subway system. There are two main subway lines which fan out from Atlanta in four directions, with a couple of spurs in the suburbs. It is very extensive for a city of Atlanta's size and I'm sure it was very expensive. I'm also certain they have a good reason for this, but the subway does not stop near Turner Field.

The subway predates Turner Field. However, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium had been standing across the street for two decades before the subway was built, and both the Braves and the Falcons (NFL) used that facility. This is the long way of saying that if you're going to Turner Field, then you're going to be driving a car to get there. As I stated before, the parking lots close to Turner Field are controlled by the Braves. You might be able to find a place to park on the street, but it won't be close to the ballpark and you'll be wondering if your car will still be there when the game is over.

It might appear that I don't like the Braves' ballpark, but that is not the case. I think it is a fine place with a great team and many amenities, including a gigantic, brand new scoreboard that looks better from the upper deck than the television in my living room. I also like being able to pay a dollar for upper deck seats, but sit in good seats near the field. My issue with Turner Field is that it isn't reaching its potential.

This brings us to Riverwalk Stadium in Montgomery, Alabama. Home to the Biscuits AA team, this is a real gem of a ballpark. HOK Sport designed Riverwalk Stadium, but this is a cut above their usual work. They managed to capture the sense of importance which comes with a major league park, while preserving the intimacy of a minor league park. They used a century old train shed to house the entry plaza, concession stands, luxury suites and team offices. This brings charm to the ballpark which can't be found at many other new ballparks. Trains still use the tracks beyond the left field fence. In fact, several trains went by while we were there. A prize was offered if a batter hit a passing train with the ball.

Several years ago, I attended a few Birmingham Barons games at Hoover Stadium. They play in the same league as the Biscuits, but Birmingham is a much, much larger city than Montgomery, as is their ballpark. The food at Hoover Stadium was terrible (perhaps it was prepared by Volume Services?). At the time, I incorrectly assumed that was typical for a minor league ballpark. So, my expectations were low for the food at a small ballpark in the nearby small city of Montgomery. That's why we ate lunch in Auburn (at Hamilton's downtown, which is a very nice, very good and inexpensive restaurant).

The food at Riverwalk Stadium was fantastic! There is plenty to choose from, including biscuits, of course. The food is fresh and you don't have to wait in long lines to get it. Most importantly, I got my grilled bratwurst.

Parking on the nearby streets is plentiful and doesn't cost anything. There is a parking lot nearby that costs a couple of bucks, but it is really only necessary when they sell out a game. Traffic just doesn't seem to be a problem because they only have to worry about accommodating a few thousand people.

There are many beautiful turn of the century buildings across the street from the ballpark which have probably been vacant for decades. It is just a matter of time before those buildings are converted into offices, restaurants and brew pubs. In fact, work has already begun on a couple of buildings. The old Union Station, which is a wonderful Victorian era creation, is just down the street and has been converted into an office building. It is worth a walk to visit the place.

I plan to return to Montgomery over the summer and visit their wonderful ballpark. Of course, I will be attending some more Atlanta Braves games as well.

Paul Munsey is the editor of

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Munsey on Ballparks © 2005 by Paul Munsey.

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