I was 10 year old when the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966. My fifth grade teacher at Montgomery Elementary School, Miss Wells, had season tickets for that inaugural season. Class began every morning with a discussion of the previous night’s game. I didn’t want to be left out, so I began listening to games on the radio, reading the sports page, and studying box scores. A lifelong Braves’ fan was born.
The Braves were the backdrop to so much of my childhood. Our neighbor sat in the front yard listening on her transistor radio to Milo Hamilton and Ernie Johnson call the games as we rode our bikes up and down the street on summer evenings. We spent months collecting special Coke bottle caps that could be redeemed for pictures of our heroes — Felipe Alou, Rico Carty, Joe Torre, Phil Neikro, and of course, Hank Aaron.
In 1969 we were at the game when the Braves clinched the Western Division (yes, Atlanta was a “western” team). My Dadu drove us home with the windows open, horn honking, yelling our excitement to all we passed. That we were promptly beaten three games in a row by the hated New York Mets for the National League Championship is still a disappointment.
There were long stretches — years long — when the Braves, to put it politely, stank. At one point a losing streak lasted so long that owner Ted Turner announced games were free until the team won again. We were fans anyway.
Life took me far from Atlanta for many years, but I still kept an eye on what the Braves were doing. With the TBS “Superstation,” and later cable, watching the games on television, rather than listening on the radio, became a ritual.
Joe and I drove down from Chattanooga for Opening Days and were in the stadium in October 1999 when Andruw Jones walked with bases loaded in the bottom of the 11th inning to this time defeat the Mets for the National League Championship.
That was the last time the Braves went to the World Series — until this year. As everyone in the city knows, last night the Braves won it all, defeating the Houston Astros to win the World Series in six games. The victory was all the sweeter for the enormous, well-documented odds the team overcame to do it.
As the euphoric players and coaches stormed the field after the last out, I saw and felt something that has been sorely lacking for the last 20 months — pure joy. And I realized again that baseball is much more than a simple game.
I thought back to yet another game between the Braves and the hated Mets, this one on September 21, 2001 — the first baseball game in New York after the 9/11 attacks. The stands were full of the families of victims of those attacks, and the heroic first responders. Diana Ross sang “God Bless America” before the first pitch, and players from both teams met in the middle of the field and embraced each other in tears.
“We had no enemies on the field at that moment,” Braves’ right fielder Brian Jordan remembered 20 years later. “To go out and embrace each other, it was the right thing to do. It was not about baseball, it was about coming together.”
In that game Jordan drove in a run in the top of the eighth inning to put the Braves up 2-1. But the baseball gods had other plans for the game that night. In the bottom of the inning Mets’ catcher Mike Piazza blasted a two-run homer to put them ahead.
For once, Braves’ players and fans did not mind losing to their arch rivals.
“No doubt about it,” Jordan remembered. “That’s the only time in my career I didn’t mind losing a game. It was just meant to be.”
Baseball and other sports were so important in the weeks after the attacks that the 9/11 Memorial and Museum had a special exhibition two years ago: “Comeback Season: Sports After 9/11.”
“When Major League umpires instructed the teams to play ball, for just a few hours fans were given permission to breathe normally, albeit briefly. It was good to smile,” Hilary Giorgi wrote about the exhibition for Yankees Magazine.
“It’s easy to say that sports are just games, but in the days and weeks after the tragedy of September 11, sports offered a safe space for an entire population to come together, to grieve and celebrate simultaneously. Spontaneous moments of unity emerged amid the smoke and ash.
“Minutiae such as flag-emblazoned hats and ceremonial first pitches became poignant symbols of pride and resilience. After 9/11 the world changed. But sports stayed mainly the same. And that comfort and consistency was so crucial in a time of distress.”
In a similar way last year, when the coronavirus shut down most of life, especially public life, the return of baseball helped restore a sense of normalcy. The season didn’t begin until August, lasted only 60 games, and was played in empty stadiums, but it brought us together in our isolation and provided a much needed distraction from the daily death tolls.
We still need distracting. Maybe we always do. So I am grateful to Freddie, Ozzie, Dansby, and Austin. To Ronald, Joc (and his pearls), Adam, Jorge, and Eddie. To Charlie, Max, Ian, and Travis. To AJ, Tyler, Luke, and Will. For the ups and downs of the season, for their perseverance, and for the joy they brought to our living room each night.
My only regret is that there is no game tonight. But opening day is March 31 in Miami.
Let the countdown begin.