ATLANTA (AP) — The Braves are still more than two years away from moving into their new suburban ballpark.
They already know what it will be called.
At a groundbreaking celebration Tuesday, the Braves announced a naming rights deal with Georgia's largest bank that will result in the 41,500-seat stadium being known as SunTrust Park.
The ceremony was attended by a host of team and government officials, including Gov. Nathan Deal, as well as Major League Baseball's next commissioner, Rob Manfred, and Hall of Famer Hank Aaron.
The stadium is scheduled to open in 2017.
"A day like today is great testament to the strength of Major League Baseball, the strength of our product, and the depth that communities feel in terms of their attachment to the game," said Manfred, who was recently elected as Bud Selig's replacement.
The Braves have touted the stadium as not only a new place to play baseball, but a chance to fully integrate a mixed-used development that will give fans other things to do before and after the game. Those amenities are lacking in the neighborhood surrounding Turner Field, the team's current home near downtown Atlanta.
Still, the move to a new stadium — announced last November — was stunner because Turner Field is less than two decades old. It was built as the main stadium for the 1996 Summer Olympics, then was converted to a 50,000-seat baseball park for the Braves.
Crews have been clearing the 60-acre site, even while the team is still finalizing designs of the hurried project. The groundbreaking took place under a tent set up in the middle of the massive construction zone.
Details of the 25-year sponsorship with SunTrust were not released, but Braves Chairman Terry McGuirk said naming rights already were factored into the projected $622 million cost of the stadium.
Braves President John Schuerholz said the next stadium will include a four-story "Chop House" restaurant overlooking the field, as well as field-level seats behind the right-field fence that will give fans a unique perspective. There also are plans for a boutique hotel, apartment homes, shops and restaurants surrounding the stadium, though the team has not provided specific details on those phases of the project.
"The feel of this new ballpark will foster a one-of-a-kind experience unrivaled in all of baseball," Schuerholz said. "A new level of intimacy at a baseball park will be created."
The city of Atlanta is still considering possible uses for the Turner Field site when the Braves leave, including a proposal from Georgia State University to convert it into a 30,000-seat football stadium.
In an interesting twist, the Braves celebrated the future while their current team fades from contention in the playoff race, having lost 11 of 14 games. The Washington Nationals clinched the NL East — at Turner Field, no less — with a 3-0 victory over Atlanta on Tuesday night.
The Braves, who won the division a year ago and have made the playoffs 17 times since 1991, are 5 1/2 games out of a wild-card spot with 11 games left in the regular season.
That didn't dampen the atmosphere in Cobb County, about 16 miles away, where jazz played over the speakers and the construction workers were invited in — decked out in safety vests and hard hats — to grab a lunch of barbecue sliders and potato chips.
Schuerholz said the new stadium will include unique dimensions that "value the home run as well as a well-pitched baseball game," a change from the largely symmetrical outfield at Turner Field.
Critics of the project have cited the secretive nature of the negotiations between the Braves and Cobb County officials, the commitment of nearly $400 million in public funds without putting the issue before county voters, and fears that the site will be a traffic mess on game days. The stadium site is not served by Atlanta's rapid-transit system and will be located alongside one of the busiest interchanges on a notoriously gridlocked interstate system.
The Atlanta area is in the midst of two major stadium projects. The NFL Falcons are building a new retractable-roof stadium next to their current home at the Georgia Dome.
That $1.2 billion facility is also scheduled to open in 2017.
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