Video: Lunch crowd shows Chattanooga's love of Atlanta Braves

Video: Lunch crowd shows Chattanooga's love of Atlanta Braves

February 10th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Professional

Atlanta Braves right-fielder Jason Heyward signs a baseball for Jake Flippo, 12, Thursday afternoon at the Atlanta Braves Caravan at Taco Mac in downtown Chattanooga. Also included in the signing were first-baseman Freddie Freeman, relief pitcher Cory Gearrin from Rhea County and hitting coach Greg Walker.

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

Freddie Freeman couldn't believe it.

As the Atlanta Braves Caravan bus carrying Freeman, Jason Heyward, Rhea County's Cory Gearrin and new hitting coach Greg Walker drew near the back of the Taco Mac restaurant along Broad Street on Thursday morning, the fans waiting to meet their baseball heroes was at least 100 strong.

Or so they thought. Then they saw the line continuing along Fourth from Broad to Market.

"Then we saw them wrapped all the way around to the front," Freeman said. "Amazing. Really great fans."

That line eventually swelled to nearly 500, and almost all of them received autographs by the time the bus headed to Knoxville later in the day for the final stop on the organization's 13-day tour.

"Four thousand miles, four to five thousand autographs," said Braves executive marketing director Gus Eurton. "We've gone to a fire station in Atlanta for 200 firefighters. We had more than 90 people camp out on the night of the Super Bowl - they actually missed the game - to be first in line the next day in Cumming.

"But this looks like about as good a crowd as we've seen. This truly is Braves country."

The first folks in line actually drove all the way from Atlanta on Wednesday night - Jason Johnson, Kyle Hess, Danny Wilcox and Jimmie Boulware arriving at the front of Taco Mac around 2:30 in the morning, then spending the rest of the night in Boulware's car to make sure they'd be the first in line.

"We wanted to get Heyward and Freeman's autographs," Johnson said. "They're kind of hard to get."

But weren't they cold?

"Lots of jackets and blankets," Boulware said with a grin. "Then we got some breakfast around 8 at Panera. The cinnamon crunch bagel is excellent."

The last person to be assured an autograph was 15-year-old Jason Boone of Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School, who was the 250th person in line, having arrived at 9:30, though the doors didn't open until close to noon.

"I've got a baseball I want Freddie Freeman to sign," he said. "But Chipper [Jones] is my favorite player."

Just ahead of Boone were 31-year-old Josh Rolleston and his 7-year-old nephew, Logan Carmona.

"I just want anything they'll sign," Rolleston, who travels to Turner Field at least once a year, said with a smile. "I'm a huge supporter."

Freeman said the whole squad felt they let that support down with last September's collapse down the stretch.

"That hurt's never really gone away," he said. "I think we've all got a chip on our shoulder this year. We don't want that to happen again."

But even if it does, expect the Braves faithful to turn out for the Caravan in similar numbers next year.

For as the sleep-deprived Boulware noted, "We all love the Braves."