ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Braves did more than just build a beautiful ballpark, although they've certainly done that. Beyond the achievement, Commissioner Rob Manfred believes they've drawn up a blueprint for what's ahead.
"The ballpark itself is beautiful," Manfred said Friday night as Atlanta prepared to play its first regular-season game at SunTrust Park. "But the scope of the project around it, I really think is the future for baseball."
Manfred had been on hand for the 2014 groundbreaking and then had returned earlier this year for another look. Finally, on Friday, he saw the finished product, a venue that is both a spectacular, intimate ballpark and part of a year-round retail complex of restaurants, shops and entertainment places.
"Hats off to [Braves CEO and president] Terry McGuirk and his team for the fantastic job they've done here," Manfred said. "The most exciting thing for me is seeing the number of fans here really early and enjoying the place for a full day. Off to a great start.
"When I was here for the groundbreaking, what I walked away with was the realization of how massive this project was going to be. When you see it done, it's even bigger than all that wide open space. It's really impressive."
Manfred said the Braves succeeded in a careful juggling act, building something that appealed to all sorts of fans with all sorts of levels of interest.
"I do think it's a model for other organizations," Manfred said. "We ask our fans to do a lot. They come 81 times a year. You've got to make sure you have a venue that is attractive, provides entertainment alternatives, food alternatives. The Braves have just done an unbelievable job with those concepts.
"It is a classic-feeling ballpark. We just had a little tour to some of the different seating areas -- a lot of imagination, a lot of options in terms of seating. It's the kind of ballpark that will attract not only our hardcore fans that really are the backbone of our game and we always have to pay attention [to], but people who may not be quite as interested. There are so many options here."
Manfred was especially impressed by Monument Garden, an area in one of the concourses near home plate in which the organization honors its iconic players, including, most of all, Henry Aaron.
That area has a breathtaking statue of Aaron, along with 755 bats aligned to form the number 755 for his career home runs. There's a big-screen television running continuous highlights of Aaron's career.
"The Henry Aaron statue may be the best baseball statue I've ever seen," Manfred said. "The detail, everything from the size of him, which I think is reflective of the figurative size of the man, it's just unbelievable."
As Manfred approached the park on Friday afternoon, he had an encounter with a resident of the area that warmed his heart.
"A woman stops me and says, 'I live right across the street here from the ballpark,'" Manfred said. "You sort of hesitate, not knowing what she's going to say. She says, 'The Atlanta Braves have done the most unbelievable job in this community.' When you hear things like that, it just makes you proud of your sport."