The last time Tyler Stephenson attended an Atlanta Braves game, he was a high school prospect with dreams of one day making it to the major leagues.
Like most aspiring baseball players who grew up in Atlanta over the past two decades, Stephenson wanted to become the next Chipper Jones. Living in the suburb of Kennesaw, Stephenson studied the Hall of Famer’s every move during his frequent trips to Turner Field to watch his beloved Braves.
“Absolutely I was a Braves fan,” Stephenson said.
“Every kid my age idolized Chipper, and we would even take field trips in high school to attend afternoon games. It’s surreal to think here I am five years later facing Atlanta in the playoffs.”
After being selected with Cincinnati’s first pick in the 2015 draft out of Kennesaw Mountain High School, Stephenson will find himself Wednesday at the Braves new home, Truist Park, hoping to continue the postseason misery for the team he cheered for as a child.
Atlanta has lost its last 10 playoff series since winning the National League Division Series in 2001. The Braves enter the first round as the No. 2 seed after capturing the NL East crown.
The Reds’ late-season surge secured a wild card berth in the expanded playoff system implemented for this year’s season shortened by the coronavirus. Cincinnati is in Atlanta for the three-game series as the Reds make their first playoff appearance since 2013.
So while Stephenson is thrilled to be returning home for the first time since departing for Spring Training 2.0 in June, things will unquestionably be different. He will be sequestered with his teammates in an isolated “bubble”, shielded from friends and family wanting to celebrate the accomplishments he made during his rookie season.
“It’s weird staying in a hotel in Buckhead and driving past my dad’s office on the way to the stadium, knowing our house is just 20 minutes up the road,” Stephenson said. “It’s very strange because I’m home but I’m not home because we’re not allowed to leave. My parents and friends have called wanting to see me, but I can’t. It’s just the world we’re living in right now. But I told them I will see them in a month after we try to go win a World Series first.”
Stephenson played the 2019 season in Chattanooga, closing the year with a solid final month which he capped off with an impressive showing in the Arizona Fall League. With veteran catchers Curt Casali and Tucker Barnhart entrenched on the major league roster this year, Stephenson was pegged to spend this summer at Triple A Louisville.
But then the baseball world was flipped on its ear with the arrival of the pandemic, and Stephenson became one of a pool of 60 players Cincinnati designated to draw from as positive virus tests shuffled the availability of healthy players.
“No one knew how this season would unfold in case there was an outbreak on our team,” Stephenson said. “I just put in the work to prepare myself because that time might come. Then what happened was a crazy 48 hours.”
Stephenson was promoted from the Reds’ alternate camp site on the northern outskirts of Cincinnati less than an hour before first pitch on July 26, spending the afternoon soaking up his first major league game from the dugout.
He made his debut the next day in the seventh inning against Chicago, becoming the first Reds’ player in 70 years to hit a home run in his first major league plate appearance while adding a single and a walk to his opening game resume’.
After being sent back to the alternate training site, Stephenson made another splash upon his return to the big league squad. With the Reds in need of a spark, Stephenson slugged a walk-off homer against Pittsburgh to ignite a streak where Cincinnati won 10 of its final 13 games to make it into the playoff bracket.
He finished the regular season with a .294 average in eight games with six RBIs. Even though Stephenson is unsure if he will be selected to the active playoff roster, he is still going through workouts and preparation regardless.
“They will set the roster for the first round, and I’m hoping to make it. It’s still cool to be here and obviously a blessing for me to be a part of playing against the Braves in the playoffs my first year. I still have to be prepared because that time could come quickly,” Stephenson said.
As thrilling as the experience has been for Stephenson, it has been bittersweet for his parents. David and Rhonda Stephenson were unable to attend their son’s debut in Cincinnati, being forced to watch games on television and share their son’s experiences via FaceTime. It’s even more disappointing they won’t be able to see Tyler play a short distance from their home.
“We’re probably just going to watch the game at home,” Rhonda Stephenson said. “We recently sold our house of 30 years and have been in a condo for a week so our life has been crazy. We asked Tyler if we could come see him, but he said we could only stand across the street and wave to him. They want to keep them all safe from the possibility of infections.”
Not having his family and friends in attendance is a small sacrifice to ensure safety for Tyler. But there is a silver lining for the rising star.
“I haven’t seen them since I left in June, and it’s different not having them there,” Tyler said. “They could walk from dad’s office to the stadium because it’s so close. But if there’s one good thing that will come from this, at least I didn’t get swamped with ticket requests. There would have been a lot of people I know who would have been there in a normal year.”
Tyler’s emergence with Cincinnati has cultivated a legion of new Reds fans deep in the heart of Braves Country among the Stephenson’s acquaintances.
“I got texts from some friends that are Braves fans that told me they are rooting for Tyler,” Rhonda said. “He’s got a big fan base here at home that want to support him, and that’s what makes it sad we won’t be able to be there. If he’s on the field, we might just drive down to Battery Park and see what we can and just watch it on the big screen outside the stadium just to be close to the game.”
Contact Paul Payne at email@example.com or via Twitter @Paul_A_Payne