Column: A long, slow crawl to the new home of the Braves
ATLANTA (AP) It was time to head to the historic first game at SunTrust Park.
A full tank of gas and fully charged cellphone? Check.
Two bottles of water, a banana and a pack of cheese crackers for sustenance on the long journey? Check.
Some good tunes to listen to along the way? Check.
Plenty of patience? Fuhgettaboutit.
On a day when sprawling metro Atlanta faced the reality of a gaping hole in the freeway and braced for what figures to be months of Trafficgeddon, the Braves moved into their shiny new stadium in the suburbs, a $622 million homage to motorized gridlock.
Even before Friday, the decision to abandon perfectly functional Turner Field - a stadium near downtown that occupied the region's geographic center and at least provided the option of using Atlanta's rather limited mass-transit system - has been much debated in a city that largely lives and dies by the automobile.
Then, in what can only be viewed as a stinging dose of karma, the Braves held the soft opening of SunTrust Park against the New York Yankees just 24 hours after a massive fire engulfed a major interstate overpass, sending it crumbling to the ground.
Just like that, the Atlanta area - and, really, the whole Southeast - was deprived of an artery that funneled through more than 200,000 vehicles a day.
While Interstate 85 does not directly serve the new baseball stadium, the collapse will undoubtedly force all those cars, trucks and buses to find alternative routes. Many of them will end up on I-75 and I-285, which hook up in a spider's web of an interchange right next to SunTrust Park.
With that in mind, I set out for the first game at the new place, one of those unfortunate souls who wound up a lot farther away when the Braves decided to move after just 20 years at Turner Field.
I departed home at 2:30 p.m. - five hours before the first pitch, hopeful that would put me a bit ahead of the notorious Friday rush hour, which everyone was warning would be much, much worse than usual.
The commute started promisingly enough. Speeding along the interstate at 70 mph, I zipped through the first 10 miles without a hint of a jam. But, just as I crested a hill that provides the initial glimpse of the Atlanta skyline, a sea of red appeared before me.
Brake lights, blockading all three lanes.
I popped some Alabama Shakes into the CD player and settled in for a slow crawl over the next few miles.
A fender-bender had sent two vehicles into a narrow emergency lane along the left side of the freeway to wait for police to arrive. Once that altercation was cleared, the speedometer climbed back toward 60 mph. The traffic was still thick but moving - a real-life version of Frogger as cars ducked in and out of lanes, constantly probing for a clearest lane.
About 35 minutes into the journey, a sign came into view that sparked fond memories.
''Exit 58B. Hill Street. Turner Field.''
For the last two decades, this is where I departed the freeway when covering the Braves, meandering a couple of miles through a combination of gentrified Victorian homes and some of the city's most hardscrabble neighborhoods until I popped out next to the Ted.
Now, it's just past the halfway point to the Braves' new home.
Fortunately, the traffic continued to flow at a good pace, providing that fleeting bit of euphoria that any seasoned Atlanta driver knows will never last.
Exiting onto I-285 for the last leg of the journey, up the west side of the city, I was deposited into a molasses-like crawl of cars and tractor-trailer rigs, crammed together across all four lanes.
The adjustable speed limit signs ridiculously called for a pace of 55 mph.
My speedometer was more realistic: 5 mph.
The final eight miles or so were that familiar Atlanta dance: Hit the brakes, gently pump the accelerator, hit the brakes again, come to a complete stop while hoping the pickup truck bearing down in the rearview mirror manages to stop in time.
Crossing the Chattahoochee River into Cobb County was a lot like taking the white flag, a hopeful sign that this turtle of a race was almost over. Finally, beckoning in the distance, the newly installed exit signs for ''SunTrust Park.''
The finish line.
I pulled into the parking lot at 3:40 p.m. - under the circumstances, a respectable pace for the 44-mile trek.
Then again, I was already at the stadium before many people had gotten off work and rush hour really unleashed its wrath on a city deprived of one of its most indispensable conduits, a development that prompted state officials to declare ''this will be our new reality.'' The overpass will take months to repair, a project that could last as long as an entire baseball season.
For those who live near SunTrust Park, it's not really an issue.
''It took me about 15 minutes,'' Braves manager Brian Snitker said. ''A nice, welcome change.''
For just about everyone else, a different reality.
After settling into my press box seat, I ran into an old friend who lives south of the city. He had tested out his route to SunTrust Park before Friday, finding it to about 45 minutes without any major issues.
How long did it take him on this day?
''I left home at 2 o'clock,'' he said with a chagrined look, ''and got here at 4:30.''
Suddenly, I felt a whole lot better about my commute.
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .
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