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Afer 43 years, Braves bid farewell to Richmond
09/01/2008 6:55 PM ET
RICHMOND, Va. -- When Carl Loadenthal ran down the long drive to center field, the second-longest relationship in the Minor Leagues was officially over.

After 43 seasons, Atlanta and Richmond have split up.

The Braves are moving their International League franchise to suburban Atlanta, lured by a new stadium in Gwinnett County, after failing to get a new ballpark in Richmond.

After the final out in Monday's 9-3 victory over Norfolk, present and past Richmond players stood behind a banner reading "Thanks for the Memories" and then helped throw keepsakes to the sellout crowd of 12,167 at The Diamond.

As players showered and got ready to hit the road, children ran the bases one last time and families got a chance to play catch in the outfield, creating a lasting final memory.

"I'm not mad, just sad," die-hard Richmond fan Randy Womack said.

Infielder Wes Timmons, who had a homer and three RBIs against Norfolk, played four years in Richmond and it became more than just his summer workplace.

"I really enjoyed the city," he said. "I'm excited about the move to Gwinnett County and hope to be a part of it next year. But I feel sorry for the fans here."

Richmond and Atlanta had been bound since 1966, when the International League team was moved to Virginia to make way for Major League Baseball in the Southeast.

The only longer relationship in the Minors is between the Baltimore Orioles and Bluefield of the Appalachian League, which began in 1958.

"I still have a lot of memories from when I played here and that was more than 30 years ago," said Atlanta great Dale Murphy, one of the former Richmond players who returned for the final game.

When the 2009 International League season opens April 9, the Gwinnett Braves are slated to debut with a game at Charlotte. The home opener at the new ballpark 35 miles northeast of Atlanta is scheduled for April 17 against Norfolk.

"I feel bad for the fans here, especially the kids," said manager Bill Brundage, who is expected to move with the team to Gwinnett. "But everyone is excited about playing in a new stadium and being so close to Atlanta."

"I'm sure they'll have great crowds in Gwinnett," added Richmond outfielder Jason Perry, a former Georgia Tech standout who also homered in the finale.

Loadenthal had three hits in addition to his game-ending catch as Richmond won for the eighth time in its final nine games. The Braves (63-78) finished tied with Charlotte for last place in the IL's South Division.

"We're all hoping for better things next year," Loadenthal said. "It will be great to play in a new stadium."

The Gwinnett County Commission is set to vote Tuesday on additional funding for the ballpark, which will now cost $59 million instead of the original estimate of $40 million. That is the final hurdle in the relocation of the franchise.

"Minor League ballparks are so much nicer now," Murphy said. "Times change, even though we all want to hang on to the past as much as we can.

"I've only been retired for 15 years, and the only Major League stadiums left that I played in will be Wrigley Field and Dodger Stadium after Shea Stadium closes."

Murphy was one of 13 former Richmond standouts brought back for the finale, with David Justice a late cancellation. Javy Lopez was on hand, drawing an ovation as loud as Murphy's. Ralph Garr, a member of the Atlanta Braves Hall of Fame like Murphy, was also honored.

"It's emotional, but I didn't want this to be a sad day," said Richmond general manager Bruce Baldwin, who will go with the team to Georgia. "For me, it's a time to cherish the past and embrace the future."

Like Murphy, Lopez and Garr, Chipper Jones, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Justice, Glenn Hubbard and Brett Butler passed through Richmond on the way to the Majors. Atlanta manager Bobby Cox even played here in the team's second season.

Richmond won five International League playoff titles, with the most recent Governors' Cup coming last season.

Long-time season-ticket holder Tom Driscoll, known as Tomahawk Tom, savors the bond that developed between fans and Minor League players.

"If we don't get another team, I'll really miss coming to the games," he said.

Richmond is trying to lure a replacement for next season. But it will be a Double-A or a Class A team.

"I hope Richmond gets another team," Baldwin said. "The fans deserve it. This was a great sendoff."

"This is the third stadium I've shut down," said Richmond's Scott Thorman, referring to his stints at Double-A Greenville and Class A Macon, who moved to Mississippi and Rome respectively. "I don't know if that is something to be proud of or not."

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.