The night is hot and sticky, as only Macon can be in the middle of July. A right-handed batter steps into the box, waits on the pitch and smacks the ball with a home run crack. The arching drive rises toward right centerfield, headed for a part of the outfield so deep that it is in dark shadows because the lights of the old ballpark don't quite reach that far.
Against the black sky, it is easy to follow the trajectory of the baseball as it tails to the right. As I watch the ball's arc take it back down toward the field, a white blur flashes in the corner of my eye. I focus just in time to realize it's the centerfielder. He lifts up and flies through the air, this body parallel to the ground. He reaches for the ball, lands flat on his belly, and holds up his glove with the ball inside. It's the greatest catch I've ever witnessed -- a feat accomplished before a crowd of maybe 400 at Luther Williams Field when Andruw Jones was 18 years old and playing centerfield for the Class A Macon Braves. It's a moment forever etched in my mind, still as fresh as a "SportsCenter" highlight I watched five minutes ago.
Even though I was living in Atlanta when the Macon Braves moved north in 2003 to a new $15 million stadium in Rome, it felt like someone had swooped in and stolen my team. Every season, I'd still make at least a couple of treks down I-75 to Macon to catch a game.
Walking into Luther Williams was always like stepping back in time. The second-oldest minor league ballpark in the country, it opened in 1929 with baseball's original commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Landis, throwing out the first ball. Legend has it that the New York Yankees once stopped off for an exhibition game at the end of spring training, and Babe Ruth hit a home run that smashed the window of a house out beyond the outfield fence; the angry homeowner was calmed only after he was given a lifetime pass to the stadium.
There was charm and history at every turn, from the brick arches outside with the "Macon Base Ball Park" sign (the words separated by little diamonds etched into the stone), to the old-style dugouts that made it easy to see the players, to the tin roof over the grandstand that would rumble like thunder whenever a batter fouled one back. Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams all took the field at Luther Williams Ballpark. Pete Rose and Tony Perez -- who would go on to the Big Red Machine teams of Cincinnati -- played for the Macon Peaches. Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and Marcus Giles are Macon Braves alumni.
In 1995, the year of the greatest catch I ever saw, people were tuning out major league baseball because of the strike that had shut down the season in 1994; instead, many baseball fans were relishing the innocence of minor league ball. That just 400 or so people would come out to see the Braves' Class A team in a wonderfully quaint ballpark for an admission price of only $4, even as the minors were experiencing a renaissance in the rest of the country, is one of the reasons the Macon Braves relocated. And Rome wanted the team badly enough to pass a local-option sales tax to build a state-of-the-art stadium that has the same dimensions as Turner Field and seats 5,000.
A friend in Rome coaxed me up from Atlanta to watch a game that first season. "I'll have to check to make sure I can get tickets," he said. "A lot of these games sell out." Sell out? It was a good night at Luther Williams if 500 people showed up to watch the Macon Braves. The new stadium had a lot of nice touches, even a little park outside for kids. Inside, there were 14 luxury boxes and a full-service restaurant and a lushly green field. It was designed as a throwback ballpark and it was all pleasant and pretty and modern, except that I missed Luther Williams. Luther Williams isn't a throwback -- it's the real deal.
But if you have a treasure, you have to treasure it, and city officials in Macon allowed Luther Williams to deteriorate to the point that no minor league team wanted to be there. Although the city spent about $800,000 in 1989 to refurbish the park, it wasn't nearly enough. The baseball offices and the press box were small and cramped. A hard rain meant a flood in right field. New seats were installed in the grandstand, which was great except for one minor detail: They were designed for indoor use and quickly deteriorated.
I can't really begrudge Rome any longer for stealing my team. The crowds there number in the thousands, rather than the hundreds, and I now plan trips up I-75 every summer to catch a game or two. But Rome's State Mutual Stadium will never capture my imagination the way Luther Williams does. The stadium in Rome has yet to build its history. Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron and Ted Williams never ran across the diamond to their spots in the outfield. Andruw Jones never landed on his belly and proudly held up his glove to show that he'd made a magical catch. Yet, there is hope. Macon has announced that Luther Williams will host a new team in 2007, playing in an independent league: the Macon Music.
It may not have the same ring as the Macon Braves, but I'm already planning my road trip south.
For tickets and directions, visit www.romebraves.com.
CL picks the all-time team
This season marks the 40th anniversary of the Braves' arrival in Atlanta. Here is Creative Loafing's all-time team. Use the comments feature below to pick your all-time team.
Catcher: Javy Lopez -- 1992-2003
First Base: Fred McGriff -- 1993-97
Second Base: Felix Millan -- 1966-72
Shortstop: Rafael Furcal -- 2000-2005
Third Base: Chipper Jones -- 1993-
Outfield: Hank Aaron -- 1966-74
Outfield: Dale Murphy -- 1976-90
Outfield: Andruw Jones -- 1996-
Starting pitchers: Greg Maddux -- 1993-2003
Tom Glavine -- 1987-2002
Phil Niekro -- 1966-1983
Pat Jarvis -- 1966-72
Closer: John Smoltz -- 1988-
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