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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Stars felt the ‘pull’ to play at home in Atlanta

Matt Olson and Michael Harris II are key components of an Atlanta Braves core that has been locked up with long-term contracts.

By James Wagner

The day after Atlanta acquired him in a March 2022 trade, and before he had even played a game for the Braves, Matt Olson knew he wanted to be with the team for a long time.

It helped that the contract extension they were offering Olson was substantial: $168 million over eight years for a power-hitting, slick-fielding first baseman who was still in his 20s. And it helped that the team was good: Atlanta had won the 2021 World Series and its window for contention was still wide open.

As he considered the extension, Olson, who had spent the previous six years with the Oakland Athletics, said he didn’t really know anyone on the Atlanta roster he could chat with to gain behind-the-scenes insight. In a way, he didn’t need it. He already knew what he was getting into.

Atlanta is home. Olson, 29, was raised in Lilburn, Georgia, a suburb about 30 minutes from Turner Field, the team’s former stadium. He grew up watching and rooting for the Braves when they were enjoying a stretch of winning 14 consecutive division titles, five National League pennants and the 1995 World Series, a run that began before he was born. His wife is also from Atlanta. They married and bought a home there. Their parents still live in the area, too.

“Braves Country has a pretty big pull,” Olson said, using the fan base’s nickname during a recent interview at the team’s spring training facility in North Port, Florida.

“It’s such a big area in the Southeast,” he continued. “Same thing happened to the winning teams growing up when I was a kid. It was always easy to tune in and visualize yourself being a Brave. For the chance to come around and with everything here in place to want to be here, it’s part of the pull.”

As the Braves, who were to begin their season Thursday on the road against the Washington Nationals, have once again been built into one of the premier franchises in Major League Baseball, they have been fueled in part by that local connection. Center fielder Michael Harris II, who won the 2022 NL Rookie of the Year Award, is also from the Atlanta area (Stockbridge) and also signed a long-term contract extension last season ($72 million over eight years).

The chance to remain at home for the foreseeable future, Harris said, was “100%” of his motivation to sign the deal. If another team — say, the bigger-market New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers — had drafted him instead and offered that same contract, Harris said, it wouldn’t have meant the same.

“Just knowing what we have over here, the type of people in the locker room and how we compete every night, it’s just fun to be on this team,” Harris, 22, said late last season. “I wouldn’t trade it for any other team.”

And then there’s relief pitcher Collin McHugh, who has lived in the Atlanta area since he was a child and said he turned down better free-agent offers from other teams before the 2022 season to return home on a two-year, $10 million deal.

“I felt like I was toward the back end of my career, and I always wanted to play here,” said McHugh, 35, who pitched for four other MLB teams over the previous nine years. “And it was like, ‘If they can make a competitive offer, then yeah.’ There’s an opportunity cost, but the opportunity cost is weighted in the way of living in my own house an extra 80 days a year.”

Major league players come from all over the world and suit up for whoever drafted, signed or traded for them. Star outfielder Aaron Judge, for example, is from California but will most likely play his entire career for the Yankees. Two-way phenomenon Shohei Ohtani is from Japan but chose the Los Angeles Angels in 2017.

The same is true for many Braves players, several of whom are from California (such as starting pitcher Max Fried) and Texas (relief pitcher A.J. Minter), while several others, such as Guayama, Puerto Rico-born left fielder Eddie Rosario, are from Latin America. Dansby Swanson, the Atlanta area native who starred for the franchise for seven years, turned down a substantial offer from Atlanta to sign a much larger contract (seven years, $177 million) with the Chicago Cubs this winter. So representing a hometown team isn’t always possible, and when it happens, it’s sometimes by coincidence.

“Don’t get me wrong: I love Georgia and I love Atlanta,” said Alex Anthopoulos, Atlanta’s general manager, who has overseen five straight NL East crowns and a World Series title since he took over in late 2017.

“There’s a lot of great qualities,” he continued. “But in being objective about it, there’s a lot of great cities in the United States. But a big part of it is players want to win. Of course everyone wants to have security and things like that, but they also want to win.”

Olson said the winning culture of the team under Anthopoulos was the No. 1 reason he wanted to be in Atlanta — even from afar. He added, “You hear stuff about teams throughout the league and if you watch them, even without being in it, you get a sense for it.”

But Atlanta, players said, still manages to hold a special place in their hearts. During the franchise’s record run from 1991 to 2005, with stars such as Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, the team built a large and ardent fan base not only because of its success on the field, but also because of its wide reach through its national broadcasts on TBS.

Harris said he remembered watching both Joneses when he was growing up. Olson said he watched on television but also attended games often with his father and brother. McHugh said he knew which key Braves players back then were Georgia natives, such as catcher Brian McCann and outfielder Jeff Francoeur. Even as adults and while on other MLB teams, Olson and McHugh said they kept tabs on their hometown team.

“Atlanta is a big talent hot spot in the country for baseball,” McHugh said before rattling off the names of cities in the Atlanta metropolitan area. “But something goes into having guys who represent the kids who are watching the game and growing up in Decatur or in Stone Mountain or Lilburn or Alpharetta. There’s something to that.”

Despite playing in one of the most competitive divisions in the MLB, Atlanta is expected to contend for the NL East title and a World Series trophy this season. Also lurking in the division are the Philadelphia Phillies, who lost to the Houston Astros in the 2022 World Series, and the New York Mets, who won 101 regular-season games but fell in the wild-card round to the San Diego Padres, whom the Braves will host in their home opener on April 6. To get past those rivals, Atlanta may need a lot of help from its hometown players once again.

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