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Minor Braves are major fun
Hall of Famer and Flowery Branch resident Phil Niekro autographs baseballs for fans Friday before the Gwinnett Braves' home opener. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

It was a beautiful spring night for baseball Friday in Gwinnett County, yet the hometown Atlanta Braves were playing 500 miles away in Pittsburgh.

But local fans still were able to bask in the glow of professional baseball when the Gwinnett Braves made their home debut at their new ballpark off Ga. 20 near the Mall of Georgia.

The Atlanta Braves’ Class AAA affiliate was moved after 43 years in Richmond, Va., to a new 10,400-seat, $64 million ballpark off Interstate 85 near Buford that was built in just a year.

The sellout crowd was dazzled by the new ballpark and eager to welcome its new home team.

"Thank God it’s finally open," Gene Holcomb of Jefferson said. "We’ve been looking forward to tonight. We canceled several opportunities to attend this grand opening."

"It’s a wonderful day for a baseball-loving family," said John Brickell of Lawrenceville, who brought his wife, Valerie, their 11-year-old daughter, Madeleine, and 14-year-old son, Josh.

Fans also were excited to see some of the big-league Braves’ top future prospects.

"I think it’s pretty cool to see the upcoming major leaguers that could one day be a Hall of Famer," Buford’s Brenden Mitcham said.

The G-Braves lost their debut to Norfolk 7-4. The teams play again at 7 tonight and 2 p.m. Sunday, part of a 10-day homestand.