ATLANTA — Joe Biden and Rep. Hank Johnson tangled verbally, dozens of protesters shouted down Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms narrowly avoided an embarrassing shutdown of the stadium.
Amid that din, Atlanta’s hometown team lost to the Washington Nationals 8-3 on Sunday, giving the winning team two in a row and leaving several thousand Braves fans at SunTrust Park outraged that their team allowed the season finale to turn into a political circus.
The day’s protest broke out shortly after Freeman hit an RBI double in the fifth inning, and it grew from peaceful heckling of Braves players to a tense standoff between the home team and supporters spilling out of the stadium onto the concourse.
Johnson called the protesters “fascists” in a speech at a nearby hotel and players started backing up their autographs with profanity. People eventually got pushed and shoved in the melee, which had the stadium in lockdown mode for about 30 minutes.
A protester was arrested for illegally using the city’s convention center as a staging area for the rally. No serious injuries were reported.
Plenty of Braves fans refused to let the partisan atmosphere dissuade them from cheering for their team. Others, including the wives of some players, sang “Georgia on My Mind” during the seventh-inning stretch.
Nurse Natalia Armando watched in disbelief as fans hurled criticism toward Braves players.
“After talking to them for 20 minutes, it’s not what you see on TV,” she said. “It’s just passion. I feel bad for the players.”
Former President Barack Obama tweeted his displeasure with the protests, and pitcher Julio Teheran told reporters that the yelling and offensive chants showed how divided the country has become.
“It’s very troubling,” said Teheran, who got booed as he exited the game in the eighth inning. “The little kids, and their moms, and dad, it hurts.”
But a sea of shouting Braves fans made it clear that the team should have done a better job of protecting Freeman and Johnson as they gave speeches.
The Braves crowd also had mixed feelings about Mayor Bottoms, who was booed by most Braves fans when she came out of the dugout to congratulate the Nationals in the bottom of the fifth. A mass of boos met any mention of the team’s championship season.
Johnson told the crowd that Bottoms “uses your money and you put trust in her to give us a better mayor, and she turned it into a circus.” Johnson suggested Bottoms should be kicked out of the dugout, and when she gave a halfhearted handshake to some of the protesters in the front row, Johnson slapped the mayor in the back.
“I might just have to make her learn how to box,” Johnson joked.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Bottoms defended her handling of the protests.
“If you stand for something, that doesn’t make you a Nazi,” Bottoms said. “Yes, folks may disagree with the mayor’s stands, but you have the right to protest. We respect the right of expression.”
Johnson said he was disappointed about his outburst but did not apologize. Johnson, a longtime public servant, was elected to Congress in 2010.
“In America, people have a right to express their points of view and I don’t like it when they do it disrespectfully and disrespecting the athletes,” Johnson said. “That’s a very serious event, from my point of view.”
Johnson blamed his outburst on the pressure he felt from protesters and his criticism of Bottoms.
“I was also getting yelled at and harassed,” Johnson said. “I was incensed. When I made those comments, I could see it clearly.”