In this week’s edition of “Conversations with Clayton,” I interview Tucker Wells, co-host and creator of the Running the Bases podcast, one of the web’s best baseball podcasts. Now in its third year, the Atlanta-based Running the Bases has made its mission reconnecting with “baseball-loving audiences the world over,” in the words of Wells. RTB aims to “put the focus on the human element of baseball, and move past this ‘statcast’-era obsession with just the numbers.” A lifelong Braves fan, Tucker brings a decade of experience in film production to his current multi-media pursuits.
Clayton Trutor (CT): How did you get involved with doing the Running the Bases podcast?
Tucker Wells (TW): After stepping away from the film business, I basically “wondered the desert” for a few years to re-calibrate my life. During that time, I started watching baseball all the time. In 2013, while working as a bartender in Sandy Springs (just north of city of Atlanta), started the “Running the Bases” podcast with Coach Bounds, my AP English teacher from high school. After a year of producing the podcast, decided to go "all in" and start the RTB website.
CT: Can you compare the atmospheres at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Turner Field and Sun Trust Park?
TW: I’ll speak just to the latter years of Atlanta Fulton Co, 1991-1996, as your next question is about the years prior to 91. After the “Worst to First” season in 1991, finishing with the epic World Series vs the Twins (top three WS of all time), AFCo was a constant party. It was an amazing place to be, because it was sold out almost every single night, and practically every single night, a Hall of Famer was taking the ball. We drew over three million fans in 1992 and 1993, and were on our way to a third consecutive season of three mill until the strike hit in 1994. Everyone at the game, was into the game. This was well before cell phones came along and ruined the sports experience (my personal opinion). The majority of fans were keeping scorecards each night, I think about half the summer birthday parties of friends were at the Braves game, it was awesome. You really had a hard time getting tickets, and when October rolled around, it was near impossible.
Everyone knew the players almost as family. Bobby Cox was the papa bear, the “4 Aces” rotation of Maddux, Smoltz, Glavine and Steve Avery, and that 5th spot was no slouch, either (Kent Merker for years, later Denny Nagel, etc.) On the field, you had Ron Gant, David Justice, Prime Time Neon Deion Sanders (a local icon, considering he moonlighted as a Hall of Fame football player…), Mark Lemke, Jeff Blauser, Rafael Belliard, the speed demon Sid Bream, MVP- Terry Pendleton, I mean, this group stayed mostly in tact for 5-6 years, so they were ours.
And then, there was the Chop. It really was a college football atmosphere when the Chop got started (seeing as how we stole it in broad daylight from FSU). The difference at that time was that the Chop started organically. No one had to cue the fans, like they do now. It was our home field advantage, our Rally Monkey of the time, and if it didn’t fire you up as a Braves fan to be in the (real) Chop house, you needed to check your pulse.
The Ted, that was my second home. Admittedly, I was fairly young when Atlanta Fulton County was in operation. Turner Field opened in 1997, right before I entered high school, got a summer job, driver’s license, etc. When I was able to use my own means to go to games when I wanted too, not just when parents would take me, I was at the Ted for 12-15 games a season. I loved the sight lines, really loved the concourse attractions (which were classically baseball-oriented- batting cages, pitch speed cage, Braves hall of Fame) and the team was competitive from day one. Attendance was solid, great on the weekends, fans were passionate, Ted Turner still owned the team, they had a lot of southern touches (playing devil went down to Georgia at the 7th inning stretch), I really thought it was a perfect atmosphere, and the yard really was beautiful. Great views from the upper deck of the Atlanta Skyline, great sight lines in more than 90 percent of the park, ticket prices were reasonable, so there were lots of young kids bringing lots of energy. Beyond that, the Braves were in the prime years of rivalries with the teams in our division, particularly the Mets. Those games with the Mets were especially pretty rowdy, and from 1998-2005, it was deciding the division.
All of our Hall of Famers were still in their primes, the big three of Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz, plus Chipper, Andruw Jones, Javy Lopez, Rafael Furcal. We made the postseason every year for the first nine years of the Ted, and in hindsight, I don’t think the fans truly appreciated how fortunate we were to basically expect October baseball each season. Once the corporate ownership came in, and fans got complacent on how the Braves could never seal the deal in October, the atmosphere died down. We did not seem to have much of a home field advantage. There was a renaissance in 2012-2013 with Chipper’s last season [and] Kimbrel as a stud closer, but behind the scenes, ownership was not putting much effort into building a winner, and they were already plotting the exit to Cobb County.
Too early to say much about Sun Trust, although the early returns are that the new digs make baseball secondary to other forms of entertainment. Current ownership want the fans at the new park to want to go to the expanded chophouse bar, or the rock climbing wall, or monument garden behind home plate. They certainly want you to enjoy all the restaurants and entertainment in the Battery development, and so the majority of fans do not seem really engaged in the game on the field. Sadly, that seems to be by design. Still, too early to tell. Need to see what happens when (if?) the Braves are contending for a playoff spot.
CT: What was the atmosphere at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium like before 1991?
TW: Atlanta Ful-CO, pre ’91 “worst to first”, was the absolute worst. The city parks and rec took care of the stadium, and I use that term “care" almost sarcastically: the playing field was awful. The team was awful. The concessions were awful, and contaminated with rat feces (not even hyperbole). There were weeds growing on the outfield walls, the warning track was fashioned from some mixture of dirt and gravel, it was truly the worst field in all of baseball for more than a decade. Every visiting team that came into Atlanta made mention of the terrible playing surface.
You could pretty much count the number of fans in seats at AFCo, often just north of 2,000 people. It was a big, echoing structure, and on a scorching, humid Atlanta day in July, it was an oven.
CT: For those who've never been to the area, describe Metropolitan Atlanta to an outsider.
TW: Metro Atlanta is hard to describe to an outsider, but the words I used to sum up is “Frustratingly Beautiful”. The skyline, the buildings downtown, the dense trees that still (mostly) texturize the city neighborhoods, the vast Piedmont Park, it’s all very beautiful. But, the congestion, terribly poor layout of streets, and third class public transit, it’s a frustrating place to sink into, if you’re an outsider.
That said, there’s every popular attraction in the world to enjoy, some amazing places to eat, and generally, the culture is very friendly and fun-loving. We have the art museum, the symphony, large public parks, four professional sports teams, two major colleges in the downtown area, funky artistic communities, throwback southern-style communities, CNN center + Aquarium + Coke Museum, all in the centennial park area, which is the very heart of downtown. There’s truly everything you want to do, in Atlanta, and there’s no mistaking that it’s a major-metropolis in 2017.
But it really does live up to the new mantra of being a melting pot of culture (as long as you’re strictly talking downtown). The odd duality is that we really don’t have an identity. I don’t think my “being from Atlanta” really says much about my personality, as it would from someone from NYC, Boston, Chicago, NOLA, maybe even the Bay Area? You can pretty much be who you want to be, here, but because of that, the governing mentality is very fickle. Nothing is sacred. The powers that be will knock down historic neighborhoods in a heartbeat to capitalize on gentrification trends.
CT: Word Association: Bobby Cox
TW: Junkyard Dog
CT: Ted Turner
TW: Crazy Genius
CT: Rafael Belliard
TW: The Glue
CT: Deion Sanders
TW: Prime Time
CT: David Justice
TW: Hot Head
CT: Bob Horner
CT: Arthur Blank
CT: Chip Caray
TW: Braves Win
CT: Skip Caray
TW: Legacy Brat
CT: Joe Simpson
TW: Get Off My Lawn
CT: Mark Lemke
CT: How did the move of the Braves from TBS to Fox Sports South affect coverage of the team?
TW: We definitely lost the whole “America’s Team” moniker from the 90’s, and settled in to “Braves Country” with the move to Fox Sports South. We seemed to embrace the notion that we are the Team of the South, and this is where we want our fans to be. It’s unfortunate, because it was great to travel and meet Braves fans in far off lands, but now, we’re just a regional entity.
CT: When you think of Cincinnati, you think of ________
TW: WKRP, of course! But really, I think the Big Red Machine maybe first, with WKRP a 1A, and then riverboats a distant second.
CT: Favorite Major and Minor League ballparks?
TW: These are the ones that I’ve been to, because mind you, I’m sure that AT&T in San Fran, PNC in Pittsburgh and Camden Yards will be on this list as soon as I get there…
Comerica Park - Detroit
Citi Field - New York
Safeco Field - Seattle
Dodger Stadium - LA
Wrigley Field - Chicago
Kaufman Field - KC
Regions Field - Birmingham, AL (Barons AA)
AT&T Field - Chattanooga, TN (Lookouts AA, but more for being in downtown Chattanooga, one of the great smaller American cities.)
Autozone Park - Memphis, TN (Redbirds AAA)
MCU Park - Brooklyn, NY (right on Coney Island)
Joker Merchant Stadium - Lakeland, FL
CT: What other sports/teams do you follow?
TW: Pretty big fan of most all major team sports. In baseball, I take a rooting interest in Detroit and Seattle, Pittsburgh to a lesser extent. The Braves and I are in a fight, right now, so I’d say I pay more attention to the Tigers than any.
Hockey - St. Louis Blues fan, by virtue of going to college in St. Louis. No chance in hell I was going to adopt my nemesis Cardinals, but Atlanta never was an NHL hockey town, and Blues fans/games are awesome. For the up-tempo sports, nothing compares to seeing an NHL game live, particularly a Stanley Cup playoff game. I also have some love for Calgary, beautiful city, loyal and passionate fanbase, and they were the Atlanta Flames for a minute.
NBA - Die-Hard Atlanta Hawks fan. I really shouldn’t be, because it’s been one of the most pathetically-run franchises in all of professional sports history, but I love playing basketball, and I love going to Hawks games. Little known fact, when our home crowd is the true Hawks fans, packing the arena for a big game, we are one of the loudest arenas in sports. Atlanta is a great NBA city, but most people are fans of other teams. NBA players love coming here, love living here, but no big free agent wants to play for the Hawks in their prime. We, the true Hawk Fans, are simply that abused, neglected rescue-dog, and should a real owner really take care of us, the Hawks would rocket past the Braves in popularity. I also have love for Portland. Love that city, lived there for close to five months working on a TV show, and their fans are ridiculously passionate, almost to a fault (Only-Child pro-sports city syndrome).
Football - Georgia Tech and then the Falcons. Falcons, I could say all the same things I said of the Hawks, just change the name to Falcons. Having Arthur Blank as owner since 2002, they are a respectable franchise, and by far the most popular pro-sports team in the City/State. I, personally, have a hard time cheering for NFL football, because I hate the NFL and how violent the game has become. Other sports, I like watching other teams play, especially in baseball. I could watch any baseball game, at any place, any time and get into it. With football, I pretty much just watch Falcons games, and that’s it. Occasionally, I pay attention to the Lions, because I have a lot of love for the Motor City, and I relate to that particular fan base. If the Lions ever won the Super Bowl, Detroit would go nuts.
Soccer - Atlanta United FC is legit, they’ve gotten me invested in that team and the MLS. Soccer has been one of those sports I always appreciate, certainly the World Cup is great, but never really followed, because all the best soccer is played outside of the US.
CT: What are you working on right now?
TW: I’m developing a web-series for RunningtheBases.com on Minor League stadiums, which I’m pushing to have online in 2018. Still working on producing regular written content and podcasts for the website, looking for more human-interest baseball stories to feature. I still do freelance video production work in Atlanta, but on a smaller scale, doing mostly camera lighting and editing.
For more of the same, follow me on Twitter: @ClaytonTrutor