When my sportswriter friend asked me, back in September of 2000, if I wanted to join him at an Atlanta Braves game that he was working, my first thought was, "That sounds fun!" When he suggested that I use an outdated photographer's pass he had in his possession, issued for a different game vs. a different team, never mind that I was a real estate broker and not a member of the media in any way, shape, or form, my next thought was, "Does Turner Field have a jail cell?"
This wasn't the first time I went somewhere I wasn't supposed to go—when I was a teenager, I snuck into Georgia Tech's football locker room by blending in with a group of recruits I saw waiting outside after a game. But when you get older, you presumably get wiser, and you start to think more about the potential consequences of getting caught. But I had been a Braves fan for most of my life, and this was an opportunity for a behind-the-scenes look that few fans ever get to experience.
When I expressed my concern over the pass, my friend said, "Don't worry, just tie it around your belt loop and keep it covered with your shirt." So with only the bottom third of the pass visible, my shirt obscuring the identifying information above, we walked into the stadium.
We walked down the field level steps as if we were looking for our seats, and I was getting more nervous the closer we got to the field. The usher standing on duty swung the gate open for us, and I continued past the seats of the commoners and on to the field. My first big test was passed.
My friend told me, "Now I have to work, you're kind of on your own from here." In other words, If you get caught, I don't know you. The three rules he gave me were no autographs, no personal photos, and no cheering.
For the first part of the game I sat in the press box. That's where the free food is, after all. "How cool is this?" I thought, as I watched Braves announcer and Hall of Famer Don Sutton helping himself to some soft-serve ice cream.
There is a sign next to the press box entrance informing everyone it's a place only for working media. I pulled out a tiny, spiral-bound notepad, the only thing I had on me with which I could pretend to jot notes, or whatever the press does during a game. Looking around, everyone else had laptop computers. I thought I noticed one Braves employee eyeballing me, but he never said anything. After a few innings I figured I'd better keep myself mobile.
I decided to try the photographer's well on the third-base side. Never had I been in seats this good—I was closer than the front row—and I had to remind myself to pretend to work. I wish I knew what the "real" photographers thought of my camera, my father's old Nikon 35mm where you had to advance the film with your thumb, and a lens that was a fraction of the length of the zoom lenses the pros had. I might as well have pulled out a disposable camera.
I had no idea how to work a camera, either, so any worthwhile pictures I got were pure luck. While the real photographers snapped and looked at their digital displays after each sequence, I just snapped and wound the wheel, ready for the next one.
After the game was over I followed my friend into the Braves clubhouse. A huge security guard warned me, "You can't come in here!" I nearly had a heart attack but realized my pass was completely covered. I lifted my shirt a bit (but not too much), and he waved me through.
Bobby Cox give his quotes to reporters from inside his office as he smoked his regular postgame cigar. I dutifully jotted down some of his responses in my notepad, just to look like I had a reason to be there.
Then I moved around the locker room, eavesdropping on reporters talking to different players. Several had gathered around Kevin Millwood, who had started that day, and I had to strain to hear him: Millwood would not speak in anything above a low murmur. I have to imagine it pissed off the reporters trying to do their job. It pissed me off, and I didn't even have a story to write.
After the game, I told my friend how much fun I'd had and he suggested we do it again some time. I asked, "How hard would it be for me to get a 'real' pass of my own?"
I called up the Braves staffer responsible for handling press access. I explained—let's be honest, I lied—that I worked for a newspaper and was interested in obtaining a pass for a specific game, and asked what the Braves would need from me. She told me I needed to provide a formal written request, faxed to the team on the publication's letterhead and signed by the editor.
Okay. … Microsoft Word 95, check. … access to a fax machine at my office, check … signature of my editor … that's me … check.
Then I asked what I'd need to collect my credential, expecting the other shoe to drop. "Just a driver's license," she said. Check.
But what to call my newspaper? In the days of primitive internet searches, I didn't want something that could be easily verified as nonexistent. At the time, there was a series "community" papers (in reality closer to newsletters) that were published in the suburbs of Atlanta, all with the same name. I just had to pick a town that wasn't covered yet.
I became the first and last "employee" of the Duluth Neighbor.
But what if the Braves called my paper? When I left for work each day, I'd change the outgoing message on my answering machine. "You've reached the offices of the Duluth Neighbor, please leave a message for the person you are trying to reach and they will return your call as soon as possible." We were a small operation.
On Sept. 20, 2000, the Braves hosted the New York Mets. Atlanta was in first, as was usual in those years, with the Mets five games back. This time it was easier to act like I belonged there, because my credential said I did. I stood next to that night's starter, Al Leiter, along with manager Bobby Valentine, while Mike Piazza took batting practice. "Can I take a picture of this?" I thought to myself. I snapped one of Piazza in mid-swing anyway. Nobody seemed to mind.
I saw my friend approach Mets second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo and overheard him ask if he could ask a few questions. "No hablo ingles," Alfonzo replied, shortly before turning and speaking English to a nearby teammate.
I discovered I was allowed to enter the dugout and walk the tunnel back to the clubhouse. In the tunnel, I happened upon Chris Berman chatting with Javy Lopez about a recent injury the catcher had suffered. I pretended to rummage through my camera bag just so I could listen in for a few moments.
I took up a spot in the visitor's dugout-side camera well again, again armed with my woefully inferior camera. I snapped another photo of Piazza, who had had a noticeable female following at the game. I had first spotted them behind the backstop during Piazza's batting practice session, desperately trying to gain his attention. During the game, they had managed seats not far behind the Mets' dugout, continuing to call to him whenever he stepped on deck. They went wild when Piazza homered in the eighth inning.
Chipper Jones homered too, and I managed to catch shots of his swing and his trot, but Tom Glavine and the Braves lost this one, 6-3.
The Braves eventually clinched the division a week later, so I figured that with nothing to play for, the Braves would be likely to approve my request to "cover" the final game of the season against the Rockies, on Oct. 1.
It worked again, and the Braves had my press pass waiting. I had the lay of the land at this point, so I wanted to see what other powers my credential would grant me. After my free press box hot dog, I reclaimed my spot in the photographer's well. I had noticed photographers in the dugout, but hadn't discovered how they got there. The only access was from the field or coming in via the tunnel from the clubhouse. I decided to find out.
I was a Braves fan, and so I wanted to be in the Braves' dugout, on the first-base side. Emboldened, I walked around behind the home-plate umpire while the pitcher threw warm-up tosses and simply walked into the home dugout and to the other camera well. As far as strategies go, "walk until someone stops you" remains undefeated.
It was a whole new level of giddiness for me, getting to see the players interact in the dugout. I wasn't sure what I was allowed to do or not do, once again, but I took a few shots inside the dugout during the game. Every once in a while a player or coach would look at me, but no one said anything.
Entering the ninth with a 5-3 lead, the Braves called upon closer John Rocker to finish things off. He had a horrendous outing. A walk, a hit, an error, and a go-ahead home run by Todd Helton gave Colorado the lead, and after retiring just two of the eight batters he faced, Rocker was yanked.
The winter before, Rocker had given his infamous Sports Illustrated interview and become the most hated man in baseball. Sitting in the Braves' dugout in October of 2000, I noticed not a single Brave talked to Rocker after his rough outing, or gave a pat on the back, or even looked at the guy as he entered the dugout. I snapped a picture of him, too. He glowered at me, but didn't say anything.
I was refused a press pass when the Braves made the playoffs that year, but only because of supply and demand. I maintained my strategy the following season, requesting passes for games where I thought demand would be less.
Then, 9/11 hit. Baseball, along with just about everything else in our country, was put on hold. When it returned, it was completely different. On Sept. 21, 2001, almost a year to the day of the first game I covered for the Duluth Neighbor, the Braves and Mets would play again in New York. I assumed I would have to stop trying to acquire passes after that, figuring that security would be much stricter, access much more difficult. Too risky, I thought.
In February the Braves mailed a memo to the Neighbor's offices (my apartment) and informed me the only change to credentialing procedures was that I'd now have to email them my headshot.
I want to note that, ultimately, I used my press pass exactly as it was intended. I did not get autographs, and I did not cheer for the Braves. I took photos, and I wrote about what I saw. Even if it took me 16 years to publish.
Walking into Turner Field after my press adventures, as merely a fan, felt like an entirely new experience. I could now say things to my friends that only an insider would know. "Ozzie Guillén? He's a funny guy. When he gets to the clubhouse, he likes to bust open the doors and yell "HALLOOOO, TEAMMATES!"
I have lived in Atlanta my entire life, and have been to countless games down where Capitol Avenue turns into Hank Aaron Drive. Turner Field was and is a terrific baseball venue, and while sad to see it go, Braves fans know the real magic actually happened in the neighboring parking lot, the site of the Braves' one and only championship.
Now they're moving up I-75, off to the suburbs of Cobb County. Man, I bet they'll have a nice press box.
Phil Braun is a lifelong Atlanta resident who works in real estate by day, and is a prolific Twitter commenter, also by day. You can follow him @playazball.