As I write this, the Atlanta Braves have a record of 41 wins and 33 losses, a .554 winning percentage, which would have them in first place in any other National League division. But the Braves play in the Eastern Division, where also reside the dreaded Philadelphia Phillies. Once again, an aggressive, obnoxious group from the Nawth oppresses the gentlemanly, courteous fellows from the righteous South. Shall we rise again? As it ever was, we’ll see: the season is long, and you gotta play ‘em one at a time.
Is there any other professional sport besides baseball that allows—nay, REQUIRES—fans in residence (by which I mean, fans who live in the general geographic vicinity. For the Braves, this essentially includes baseball fans south of the Mason-Dixon and east of the Mississippi…Florida, a land unto itself, not included.) to cheer for “the home team?” For example, we often want the local professional football team to win, but just as often, our favorite football team is somewhere else, if for no reason other than a college player from our alma mater now plays there, or we liked their helmets when we were kids.
I’ll try not to write of baseball as “metaphors for life.” Lawd knows, that’s been done to death (even if it IS true). But how about baseball—and in my case, the Braves—as a chronology, a census, of life? Because I can remember, with unbound clarity, the times of my life based on the games of the day…
– September 29, 1973: I’m 15 years old, and I’m sitting in the stands of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. I’m with my Boy Scout troop; even at 15, with my body teeming with weird-behavior-inducing hormones, I believe in the Boy Scout credo (still do, now in my 50’s; that is one powerfully effective mind-control organization, the Boy Scouts). One day remains in the regular season, and the stadium—no, the nation—is ELECTRIC because the mighty Henry Aaron is close, so very close, to eclipsing the unthinkable: Babe Ruth’s all time home run record. At the beginning of this game, Hammerin’ Hank has 712; he will finish the game, and the season, with 713. Shameful though it was, and is, my thought then was, “What if he doesn’t get another? I’ll be able to say, ‘I was there when Hank Aaron got his last home run.’” Thank you, Mr. Aaron, for helping this lifetime, flawed, failed Boy Scout remember that he is supposed to be trustworthy, loyal, and kind.
– August 1, 1978: I’m 21 years old, and I’m sitting in the stands of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. I’m a college junior, and at my side is the smart, funny, pretty girl whom I’ve fallen completely, hopelessly, gloriously in love with. I know without a doubt—without a clue—that she and I will be together forever. The baseball world is ELECTRIC once again, this time because Pete Rose is questing for Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak record. “Charlie Hustle” comes into the game with 44; he finishes it with the same number, thanks to the Braves’ sidearm-throwing Gene Garber’s ninth-inning strikeout. Rose will whine after the game that Garber was pitching “like it was the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series.” Uh, like you weren’t hitting like it was the same situation, Pete? But my own time to whine would come a couple of months later, when my love broke up with me…by phone. It was a magnificent fall day, the air fresh, the sky achingly blue, the leaves just starting to change. It was the kind of day that makes you thankful to be alive. Even now, 30+ years on, pretty days make me distrustful and anxious.
– October 24, 1996: I’m 38 years old, and I’m sitting in the stands of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The Braves are once again in the World Series, heavily favored to beat the Yankees. I mean, with a pitching lineup of Maddox, Glavine, Smoltz, and Avery, how did the Bombers stand a chance? I’m by myself this time, having scored a solo, coveted World Series ticket through my wonderful wife: the OTHER smart, funny, pretty girl who I fell completely, hopelessly, gloriously in love with, a couple of years after that ugly, pretty fall day. I’m also a father now, of two smart, funny, pretty girls, and I have a job, a mortgage, and, of course, the obligatory dog. I’m a happy fellow, jeering “DARE-uhl…DARE-uhl…DARE-uhl!” with the rest of my 36,000+ new best friends each time Darryl Strawberry comes to the plate. Despite our fervent chanting, the dog-butt Yankees win the game, 1-0…and go on to take the Series in six.
– May 18, 2004: I’m 46 years old, and I’m sitting in the stands of Turner Field, “The Ted.” I’m a little nervous, because this will be my first attempt to score a baseball game solo. With me is a friend, a baseball fanatic—no, ADDICT—who has been patiently teaching me the art of game scoring, but this is one I want to do on my own. Mike Hampton is on the mound for the home team; Randy “The Unit” Johnson is his opposition for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Both Hampton and Johnson pitch masterful games, but Johnson pitches a masterpiece…a PERFECT GAME. There have only been 20 pitched in the entire history of Major League Baseball…and I was there for one! And I’ve never been prouder to be a Southerner…because that whole damn crowd stood and game The Unit a long, LONG standing ovation. By the way, I have the scorecard—which was, as you would imagine, quite simple to do, thanks to otherworldly pitching (Hampton himself pitched a helluva game, allowing only two runs over nine innings)—now hanging on the wall, with the ticket stub and box score. (I’ve also by now taken my daughters to several games. While they don’t seem to have developed a passion for the game, and “our” team, I think I’ve planted a seed. In life, as in baseball, there is always hope. Whoops, I let a “baseball-as-life” comment slip in after all; sorry.)
In between, of course, were all the other Braves moments: the 1982 season-opening 13-game winning Streak (cap “S” deliberate); the heart-stopping Sid Bream ninth-inning slide into home to win the ’92 NLCS (his run from second is still referred to as “the longest two minutes in sport”); the heart-breaking ’91 and ’92 World Series losses (considered by many the best World Series ever); the incredible, unprecedented run of the ‘90’s and through the mid-2000’s. In their own way, or maybe just in my own mind, the Braves did what an entire Army didn’t, 145 years earlier: we beat them damn Northerners. (I’m really not bitter; but there IS a sense of loss which permeates Southern life and literature, and if something like what the Braves did over 14 years can erase even a little of that, well, OK.)
I’ll close with this. It has little to do with what has just come before, but it does have to do with the Braves through their entire time in my life: I miss Skip Caray.