The Atlanta Braves had not one, but two, parades on Friday, plus a special concert at Truist Park with rap luminaries Ludacris and Big Boi to celebrate their improbable World Series championship.
Tens of thousands of fans lined up in downtown Atlanta and along Cobb Parkway as the Braves’ caravan made its way to the ballpark.
For a moment, the exuberance almost got the best of Cobb County’s finest, as police surrounded a man whom they thought had wandered out from the crowd, but who was actually Braves’ relief pitcher Tyler Matzek.
It was hard not to get caught up in cheering on a team that was devastated by injuries, didn’t have a winning record until late in the season, then knocked off teams predicted to beat them, including last year’s champions, the Los Angeles Dodgers, in the playoffs.
As someone who grew up in metro Atlanta and whose family’s ties to the Braves go back to their days in Milwaukee, this last week truly has been special for me.
My first game as a fan was as an eight-year-old in 1969, when the Braves won their first pennant in town.
In 1995, when the Braves won the World Series at the same venue, I was a sportswriter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I don’t remember much about that decisive Game 6 on a Saturday night at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, as I was coming back from somewhere after covering a college football game.
So it was a real treat to savor the first sports team I had ever followed beat back all the obstacles. This year’s Braves are a testament to determination, resilience, teamwork and optimism, qualities that take on special significance during these abnormal times of a pandemic.
The euphoria was bound to go overboard, of course, as these occasions sometimes do.
On Thursday, in a commentary published in our local daily newspaper, the headline referred to the late Tim Lee, the former county commission chairman who brokered the stadium deal that brought the Braves to Cobb, as the “angel in the outfield.”
Even more tellingly, the narrative glossed over the dubious process by which Lee, the Braves and local business insiders worked in secret for months, until they could keep their secret no more.
The above commentary asserted several times that “Tim did the right thing.” But the glaring lack of transparency, a bevy of investigations and ethics complaints and a rushed timeline without much of a chance to get meaningful feedback from the public are still gnawing.
This coming Thursday will mark the eighth anniversary that Lee announced a proposed 30-year memorandum of understanding with the Atlanta Braves to help construct a stadium in the Cumberland area.
In that agreement, Cobb would commit to a $300 million subsidy—taxpayer money—to help finance the ballpark, as well as to regular capital maintenance, public safety and other costs.
The four district members of the Cobb Board of Commissioners had exactly two weeks to digest a complicated long-term deal. The public had an even smaller window to ask questions of their elected officials at hastily arranged town hall meetings.
I covered these proceedings during my time at Patch, a hyperlocal network founded by AOL a little more than a decade ago.
Bob Ott, the former Cobb commissioner whose District 2 included the area along Windy Ridge Parkway and I-75 where the stadium would be built, was thrust into a sudden, and very glaring, spotlight.
Always accessible, Ott prided himself on holding informative town halls all over his Cumberland-East Cobb district.
But he made himself scarce for most of those two weeks, inundated with messages and calls from constituents and the media like no other issue in his then-two terms in office.
On the night before the vote, Ott held a town hall meeting not in his district, but in the commissioners’ meeting room off the Square in Marietta.
I found that odd, and asked him after it was over if he had made up his mind. He said he would do so when he pushed the button to vote.
Like the other town hall meetings I attended during that intense fortnight, I realized that the Braves stadium deal was a done deal.
Twenty-four hours later, in a cramped board room dominated by pro-stadium forces, the commissioners approved the MOU with a 4-1 vote, with Lisa Cupid, now the chairwoman, voting against.
Like many people who raised questions about the deal, Cupid wasn’t opposed to the Braves coming to Cobb County, or even having a partially publicly financed stadium built.
Like many of those same people, I also wondered about the rushed, secretive proceedings. Citizens groups as disparate as the Tea Party and Common Cause tried to get some answers, but community scrutiny wasn’t well organized.
Lee defended the timeline and process by asserting that if Cobb didn’t act, then the Braves would go elsewhere.
But as longtime Braves executive John Schuerholz admitted not long after the Cobb vote, the team didn’t have another venue in mind after wanting to leave the city of Atlanta after nearly 50 years.
In other words, the Braves played Cobb like Max Fried toyed with the Astros’ lineup on Tuesday, setting down the commissioners in almost perfect order.
The timing of all this is important to remember, as Cobb and much of the nation were starting to come out of the recession.
Commissioners JoAnn Birrell and Helen Goreham were doing verbal cartwheels from the moment the proposed stadium deal was announced, smitten by the catnip of economic development that has tempted elected officials everywhere.
You can love the Braves, as I have for most of my life, and still hate the way that stadium deal came down.
You can be excited about the dining and entertainment options at The Battery Atlanta, which the Braves have financed to the tune of nearly $400 million, and wonder why the franchise still needed the public’s “help” to build a ball park.
The process stunk to high heaven, lacked even a modicum of transparency, gave no thought to a referendum, and was followed by lame excuse-making.
Lee paid the ultimate political price when he was ousted in the 2016 Republican primary by Mike Boyce, and didn’t get to enjoy the ultimate payoff of his stadium efforts. He died two years ago of cancer at the age of 62.
After the stadium opened in 2017, the Cobb Chamber of Commerce commissioned an economic impact study proclaiming a nearly $19 million annual benefit to the county.
One of the more vocal critics of such claims, Kennesaw State University economics professor J.C. Bradbury, noted in an op-ed during the World Series that one can cheer for the Braves and not get caught up in such runaway economic development fever.
Not wanting to rain on a parade, but I feel the same way. The economic “home run” that was promised Cobb citizens still hasn’t been realized, and shouldn’t be conflated with success on the baseball field.
When a public official is hailed for doing something “right” without that individual being examined for how he/she conducted public business, that’s more than blind cheerleading.
The ends never justify the means, especially public officials spending tax dollars and not giving the citizens much of a say.
Holding elected officials—or the legacies of those who are no longer with us or who are out office—to account isn’t just about determining if what they did was the right (or wrong) thing to do.
It’s also scrutinizing how they do it that should matter.
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