Former Turner Field gets another crack at baseball _ sort of

ATLANTA (AP) — Hank Azaria attended a baseball game at Turner Field a few seasons ago.

He can’t believe what it’s become.

“I don’t even recognize it,” Azaria said incredulously, glancing out on the former ballpark now known as Georgia State Stadium.

Even though it was converted to college football after the Atlanta Braves left for the suburbs , the stadium worked just fine as the stand-in for a fictional Florida spring training site in Azaria’s IFC show “Brockmire.” In it, he portrays a tart-tongued baseball announcer trying to recapture his former glory after a failed marriage, a very public meltdown and struggles with addiction.

“You’ve gotta put a lot of fake palm trees everywhere,” quipped Maurice Marable, who came aboard as director in the second season. “If you tell the audience they’re in Florida, they’ll believe you.”

The first two seasons were a no-holds-barred look at what happens to Azaria’s character, popular Kansas City announcer Jim Brockmire, when he learns of his wife’s serial infidelity. He has a profanity-laced breakdown right in the booth, which leads to a decade-long descent into pretty much every vice known to man.

While Brockmire revolves largely around Azaria’s ample comedic skills, it took a very dark turn in Season 2. Brockmire dealt with the death of his horrific father and an increasingly reckless lifestyle of booze, pills and powder that culminates in a near-fatal game of Russian roulette.

“This is a comedy?” Marable remembered asking when approached about the series. “But the thing about comedy for me is that I tend to gravitate toward comedy that is really based in something, that is based and grounded in something that’s real. The idea of following a character — especially Jim Brockmire, who’s in a constant journey of redemption of some sort — it just has to feel real. Funny comes from real pain. Funny comes from real awkward situations.”

After being renewed for two additional eight-episode seasons, Azaria & Co. arrived in Georgia to film at various sites in the Atlanta area. Season 3 will begin airing on IFC in April.

The show has already filmed at SunTrust Park, the new home of the Braves, as well as minor-league parks in nearby Macon and Rome. Historic Oakland Cemetery, where Bobby Jones and Margaret Mitchell are buried, was passed off as a cemetery in New Orleans — where, on the show, Brockmire earns a shot to get back to the big leagues with a gig at a Triple-A club. French Quarter revelry was depicted in suburban Conyers. It wasn’t much of a stretch to transform Georgia State Stadium into King Venom Vape Cartridge Stadium, Oakland’s fictional spring training home set in central Florida.

Joel Church-Cooper, who developed the show after hooking up with Azaria to shoot a “Funny Or Die” short in 2010, was incredulous that the Braves abandoned a stadium that was only two decades old . In a fitting twist, he reveals that the third season of “Brockmire” allowed him to take a jab at spending billions of dollars in public money on sports venues.

“Don’t get me started,” said Church-Cooper, wearing a vintage Boston Braves cap. “They could’ve fixed this place up and made it fantastic.”

Azaria, an avid New York sports fan, based his character on former Big Apple broadcasters Bob Murphy and Phil Rizzuto.

“I always thought that this was a funny way for a human being to express himself, especially if he wasn’t in the booth,” Azaria said, morphing into his Jim Brockmire voice. “Is he always talking like this? What’s happening? I tried for many years to find a comedic premise that would work.”

A potential movie deal fell through, and it was tough finding a network that would green-light a series based around baseball.

“There was a lot of reticence from a lot other networks because, let’s face it, the demographics of baseball are bad,” Church-Cooper said. “The average baseball viewer is a white man who’s 58. That’s tough if you make money in the entertainment business if that’s your average viewer.”

Azaria has promoted the show on MLB Network and lined up numerous figures associated with the game for guest-starring spots, including Joe Buck, Bob Costas and Hall of Famer George Brett.

But Major League Baseball has been reluctant to fully embrace “Brockmire,” which is not really surprising given the strong language, rampant alcohol and drug use, and all the tawdry shenanigans that were such a big part of the first two seasons. That forced producers to tread lightly to avoid the legal wrath of MLB; for example, actual team nicknames are only hinted at but never used.

Church-Cooper considers that an opportunity missed.

“One of the reasons baseball is struggling with the younger demographic is because it does seem very stodgy, does seem to hold very tight to traditions and the way things used to be,” he said. “You know, everyone who works on the show loves baseball. I think that comes through even as we sort of tweak it, even though a central tenant as we go along in the show is that baseball is dying. We don’t want it to die. That’s one of the reasons we made the show.”

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