Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Life Imitating Baseball Imitating Life

Tonight, it became official. The New York Mets are the NL East champions. The Atlanta Braves are not. The run is over.

I do not come to bury the Braves, but to praise them. Many like to belittle the streak of division titles, using their one World Series title in that time as proof they were chokers. Anyone who follows baseball knows anything can happen in a seven game series. The Braves performed over the long haul, and they should be commended for their accomplishments.

I could go on and on about the team, but I'd rather use the Braves as a backdrop to my childhood, adolescence and college years. I was nine when the streak began in 1991, and now I find myself at the end of the streak at 24. I'm sure you could find psychologists who would say that's a pretty important stretch of a person's life: we generally discover our identities, experience love and loss for the first time and grow from children into adults all during that span.

Before the 1991 season even started, I was excited. I was in the dentist's office reading Sports Illustrated's preview, and I saw where they expected the Braves to finish: fourth in the NL West. You might wonder why that would make a nine year-old so excited. The answer: the Braves had finished dead last the previous two seasons (the first two seasons I really knew what was going on), so to see the almighty Sports Illustrated predict a fourth place finish practically guaranteed they wouldn't be the worst team in baseball again. I can't remember much about the season, but when they made it to the World Series I was beside myself. I begged to stay up late to watch one of the games when I was in Fairhope, AL, visiting my grandparents. For another game, I remember using a small telescope to do the Tomahawk Chop since I was bereft of any tomahawks, foam or real. I don't remember Kirby Puckett's catch, but I do remember Lonnie Smith running into the catcher and getting called out -mostly because he was bloodied up from the collision. I don't remember much about Game 7, probably because I fell asleep. I do remember seeing a kid at school in the following days with a Twins shirt on and being mad at him for wearing it.

When the next season rolled around, again I can't remember much about the regular season. I didn't have the attention span for most games (side note: During college football season, I always thought of the games as what came on between scoreboard shows.), so I just kept track of the games through the paper. I'd also track how many steals Otis Nixon had and tried to keep up with him during my Little League seasons. When my season came to a close, though, it was time to follow the Braves in earnest, and like any self-respecting Braves fan, I still remember watching Sid Bream slide safely into home to clinch the pennant. Then I remember all the white towels in Toronto, and I started to think the white towels were an anti-Braves thing more than anything else.

Fast forward three years to 1995. I knew more about the Braves than anyone at school, but for the life of me I can't remember them winning the World Series. I was having a particularly hard time in my life at that point, and since I've never been the kind of person to stake my everyday mood on the performance of a sports team, I was more focused more on my depression than the Braves' good fortune. I wish I could say the sole World Series win was enough to boost my spirits, but that entire postseason is a blank. Cruel irony, I guess, but somehow after that season I became more attuned to the game.

During the 1996 NLCS, the Braves and Cardinals went to Game 7, so naturally I went to a party instead of watched the game (Go find me a 14 year old boy that'll turn down the chance to slow dance with girls...seriously, go do it). But I thought about the game all night and couldn't wait to ask my dad how we did.

Then came the World Series.

Peter Gammons said it would likely be nothing more than a "coronation of the Braves." Those words sounded so sweet to me since I didn't experience the joy of the previous season. I was all ready to watch them thrash the Yankees and take home a second consecutive World Series trophy. We took the first two games in convincing fashion - in Yankee Stadium, no less - so when the Series came to Atlanta I was ready for the party to start. The Braves lost Game 3, but still no reason to worry. Then came Jim Leyritz.

I never hated a player before. I was too young to hate Jack Morris (although I do now). I hated Jim Leyritz. His homerun in the 10th in Game 4 turned the tide of the Series. I watched Charlie Hayes close his glove around the last out of Game 6 and for the first time I felt a real pain from watching my team lose. The pain became a numbing ache as the Braves lost in the postseason for years on end. I remember watching part of the 1999 World Series, knowing we had no chance against the obligatory Yankees dynasty of my generation. I always held on to the hope we would have another championship run in us, but deep down I knew our best days were behind us.

I kept watching in college, but knowing it was going to happen. They were going to lose, and I was going to have to listen to all the obnoxious Cardinals fans compare the Braves to the Buffalo Bills. That one World Series title wasn't enough, not when you had won the division for a decade running. I became a staunch defender, lashing out at anyone calling me a bandwagon fan. Just because the Cubs turned Turner Field into the southernmost North Side suburb in the 2003 NLDS never meant I didn't love the Braves with all my heart. That part of me hadn't wavered one bit, even if the public perception of the Braves had.

However, every life experiences change, and for me one of the most profound changes I experienced was watching the Braves take different incarnations. I had had a grandparent and our family's dog die before I hit the fifth grade, but nothing was quite like the changes to the Braves. I cried the day Dale Murphy was traded and the day Fulton County Stadium was blown up. I watched General Manager John Schuerholz bring in new faces almost every year. I still pine for the days of Ron Gant and Mark Lemke - they were the guys I grew up with. But, like the rest of life, our sports teams can't stay the same forever. The Braves are still my team, and I'll keep cheering for them just like I did as a toddler on my dad's lap. Come on, Braves - start another run next year.

1 comment:

dyoung said...

Nice insight Jason. Gets to the core of who you were. The team of my youth, the 94 White Sox, were the greatest team I'd ever seen and I put all of my hopes into that team. Until the strike happened. And then, to top it off, my favorite player at the time and current manager of the Sox proceded to tell the press that he didn't think the players should apologize to the fans for the strike. I lost my love of baseball right there. It took me 5 years to come back to the game, so don't feel bad about the Braves streak ending. They put together a great organization and you should be proud that they won all of those pennants in a row. Afterall, getting to the regular season is a challenge. After that, it's all a crapshoot anyway.