January 29, 2013

Atlanta fans pack Academy

Kimbrel is becoming a big favorite with fans

Chris Whitfield

— While the 2013 Braves Country Caravan brought players, a coach and General Manager Frank Wren to Dalton, it also brought plenty of fans from around the Southeast to Academy Sports and Outdoors.

Fans from as far away as Knoxville, Tenn., and Phoenix City, Ala., joined Whitfield County and Murray County fans in welcoming the caravan to town, standing in a line that snaked its way throughout the spacious athletic warehouse retailer off of Shugart Road and filling the parking lot all the way to Kohl’s on the other side of the shopping center.

The reception given to the players Craig Kimbrel, Jordan Schafer, Gus Schlosser, third base coach Brian Snitker and Wren is the reason for the Caravan, which makes stops across the Southeast and features a variety of current and former players, coaches, front-office staff and radio and television personalities. Kimbrel said it is the fan interaction that he enjoys.

“It is cool to get out on things like this and see how many fans you have,” said Kimbrel, the Major League leader in saves last season and the unanimous 2011 Rookie of the Year. “Not everyone has a chance to come down to Atlanta and see us play, and this gives us a chance to interact with your fanbase and say hello.”

The fans were more than happy to take advantage of it.

“I don’t like standing in the line, but it is worth it,” said Dalton Middle sixth-grader Justin Ketchem, who is a pitcher and plays for Team Rawlings travel baseball. “Kimbrel is my favorite, and I can’t wait to meet him.”

Most of the fans sporting Braves gear — from hats and t-shirts to full outfits for the toddlers — were there to see Kimbrel, who was the headline attraction at the autograph table.

“He’s such a great player, and it is exciting to get to see him in person rather than on the television,” said Chatsworth mother Jeri Davis, who had her children Wally, 10, and Shyanne, 11, with her to see Kimbrel. “To actually have an autograph from him is a big thrill. We are hoping to go to Atlanta this year, but this is definitely worth the long line to get the chance to meet them.”

Morgan Crow of Ringgold said getting a chance to see Kimbrel was something she wasn’t going to miss.

“I have been pretty excited since the first time I heard about this,” she said. “I came because of Kimbrel, and we just hoped the line wouldn’t be too long.”

Crow said that while standing at the back of the line in the camouflage section in the back of the store.

Kimbrel has turned into the game’s most dominating closer with a 3-1 record in 2012 with 42 saves and a 1.01 ERA with 116 strikeouts in 62 2/3 innings pitched. As much as the fans enjoyed seeing Kimbrel, the right-handed closer from Alabama is looking forward to playing in the World Baseball Classic this spring, working with former New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves manager Joe Torre and multiple-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux.

“It is an awesome opportunity,” he said. “I have played in All-Star games and been around top caliber players like that, but it is just for one game. The World Baseball Classic is more than that, and I grew up as a big fan of Greg Maddux. To be in the same clubhouse with Maddux and to work with him and talk to him in the dugout, it is an opportunity of a lifetime.”

Schafer returns to the Braves this season after being signed off of the waiver wire after playing for Houston last year.

Shafer started his career with the Braves and said a return to Atlanta is a blessing.

“I have gotten a lot of support from the fans coming back,” he said. “I’ve had a disappointing career so far with lots of ups and downs, but it is great to be back with an organization where every game matters and the team is fighting for the playoffs.”