My relationship with the Atlanta Braves is a long and complicated one. As a child of the Team of the ’90s, I have no choice but to give in to my first love.
You never forget your first love. Mine was Atlanta Braves baseball.
Professional sports have been in Atlanta since 1966 when the Braves moved from Milwaukee. The Atlanta Falcons were an NFL expansion team arriving in the same year to share a multi-purpose stadium with their baseball brethren. The Hawks made the trek down from St. Louis two years later in 1968. Hockey has come and gone twice, but these three professional teams remained.
For the first 25 years of professional sports in Atlanta, there was not a single championship game appearance to be had. All three teams had their stars, but Hank Aaron, Phil Niekro, Dale Murphy, Tommy Nobis, Claude Humphrey, Deion Sanders, Lou Hudson, Pete Maravich nor even Dominique Wilkins could lead his team to the right to play for a championship in Atlanta.
Though these teams had their moments, they didn’t happen consistently enough to overtake the stranglehold college football has on Atlanta. It might always be that way, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, there have been professional teams in the last 30 years who have hoped to change this. The best example of this is the peak of Braves baseball in the 1990s.
Like many of my peers, I’m the son of transplants. Great weather and even better economic opportunities brought people like my parents down South from the Midwest and Northeast in the early 1980s. My arrival in September 1989 only predated the greatest 15-year run baseball has and will ever see by two years. Fate would have it this all went down in my hometown.
After moving from Milwaukee, the Braves made the postseason twice in their first 25 years in the city. They lost to the Amazin’ New York Mets in 1969 when the Senior Circuit was split into divisions. Thirteen years later, Murphy’s Braves lost to the 1982 St. Louis Cardinals in the early years of Whiteyball. New York and St. Louis went on to win World Series.
Atlanta was left empty-handed.
For most of their early Atlanta years, the Braves were the cellar dwellers in the old NL West. Aaron, Niekro and Murphy gave people reasons to watch largely-bad baseball being played on TBS during the old superstation days. Truthfully, the Braves sucked, but they were America’s awful baseball team in the 1970s and 1980s. What came in the 1990s was a shock to almost everyone.
The 1990 Braves were putrid, the worst team in baseball. It was Murphy’s last year with the team. It looked to be the dawn of another worthless decade of baseball futility for Atlanta. Too bad Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz had big plans in mind. Together, along with media magnate owner Ted Turner, the Braves were about to take over the city in a manner I can barely describe.
You just had to be there.
By upgrading their corner infield positions with Terry Pendleton at third and Sid Bream at first, Atlanta improved drastically defensively overnight. The pitching staff was young and talented. 1991 was the year Cox and Schuerholz’s meticulous care of the farm system yielded a most bountiful harvest, one that would repay Atlanta in dividends over the next 15 years.
Pendleton won NL MVP, Cox won NL Manager of the Year, Tom Glavine won the Cy Young and above all, the Braves won the pennant. Sanders, who was in his prime as “Prime Time”, brought the Tomahawk Chop to Atlanta from Florida State, while providing blazing speed in the outfield for the Braves. We all caught pennant fever that season. People quickly became Braves fans for life.
As a toddler with a big head and blonde hair, this meant I got to stay up sort of late, eat a lot of ice cream and wear a hat all the time. Going on 29 years later, those are still three of my favorite things to do. More proof that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
From 1991 to 2005, the Braves won their division 14 straight times. The first three came in the old NL West. 1994 might have been a strike-shortened year without a division champion, but the Braves rattled off 11 straight NL East championships from 1995 to 2005. That will never happen again.
From 1991 to 1999, Atlanta represented the NL in the Fall Classic five times, but only won one World Series, in 1995. The only other National League teams to win a pennant in the 1990s were the Cincinnati Reds (1990), the Philadelphia Phillies (1993), the then-Florida Marlins (1997) and the San Diego Padres (1998). This was a dynasty unlike anything we’d seen in the expansion era.
But to me, the craziest stat of all involving the “Team of the 90s” era of Braves baseball is this: From 1991 to 2001, the Braves played in every single NLCS. They advanced five times to the World Series, coming up short in the other five. Since falling to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2001 NLCS, the Braves have yet to advance in a postseason series. How is that even possible?
What’s even stranger is I was a junior in high school the first time the Braves didn’t reach the postseason in the years in which I have memories. As a 17-year-old, I knew what I grew up with regarding the Braves was unprecedented and dark days were ahead for my favorite team. But what a ride though, and one where I barely remember all that happened.
Though I remember the start of kindergarten in Fall 1995, I can’t say I remember the Braves actually winning the World Series. I knew all the players, I knew the Braves were amazing, but I don’t remember Carlos Baerga putting too much air under Mark Wohlers‘ offering and flying out to Marquis Grissom in late October 1995.
I want to remember it so badly, but I can’t.
Sometimes when I’ve got nothing better to do, I’ll look for a YouTube video of When Sid Slid in 1992 to beat Barry Bonds‘ glass arm at the plate. If it’s not Skip Caray on the call, I try again until I find the audio that speaks to me. I’ll do the same thing to watch Grissom catch that fly ball in 1995. I’ve even watched the 1991 locker room celebration when Steve Avery was at his apex.
There were plenty of other moments from 1996 to 2005 I remember and remember fondly. I just wish I could have been a tad bit older to remember how it all got started. As for the 1996 Fall Classic, yes, I do remember that and HATE watching clips of the Yankees win yet another World Series.
1996 was the first year I really remember specific games. This was Andruw Jones‘ rookie season and Chipper Jones‘ second in the league. The Braves had the young offensive stars to complement John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Glavine. Andruw Jones was a teenager hitting bombs off the Pinstripes in 1996. I also remember the Braves ending Ozzie Smith‘s illustrious career in the NLCS.
I also remember Jim Leyritz…
Him going yard on Wohlers would be my first moment of Atlanta sports PTSD. My poor babysitter couldn’t get me to stop crying. By that point, I knew the Yankees were going to win it all and the Braves weren’t going to repeat. Despite being up 2-0 in the series, Atlanta found a way to lose that one in typical Atlanta fashion. This is the closest I remember to the Braves winning it all.
This was around the time I started playing youth baseball myself. I played all the way through high school. At my peak, I was good enough to bat sixth and play first base for a summer travel league team, but not quite good enough to make the high school junior varsity team. People literally moved into my high school district, just so their son could play for the Walton Raiders.
I could hit for a high average and play slick defense at first, but being right-handed with not enough power and arm strength was my undoing. I played like Don Mattingly after he wrecked his back or what I like to define it as, S****y Freeman. I do love watching Freddie Freeman be a new generation of Braves fans’ version of Chipper. It’s even cooler he’s only one day younger than me.
There are so many great moments that stick with me from my youth with the Braves. The amount of times I went to the Ted as a kid are innumerable. Andrés Galaragga being an All-Star in 1998, beating cancer in 1999 and being an All-Star again in 2000 was unforgettable.
Seeing Walt Weiss make the greatest defensive play in team history during the 1999 NLCS to keep those sorry Houston Astros at bay is why Atlanta’s bench coach will always be a legend in Braves country. The year Chipper knew he had no pop in his bat and just decided to win the 2008 batting title anyway just because he freaking could, how is that not awe-inspiring?
But the moment I always go back to is one I share with my dad. I don’t remember what year it was. It really doesn’t matter because I’m sure it happened more than once. This was just your typical mid-summer afternoon in Atlanta in the late 1990s or early 2000s. Maddux was on the mound. He had his patented two-seamer working and there was nothing a poor hitter could do.
I’m sure I could look up the exact game it was, but I don’t want to ruin this memory. What’s the point in that anyway? My dad and I were in the yard either playing catch or doing yard work or something. Maddux threw something like 75 pitches in a complete game shutout victory.
Fellow Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton was calling the game on radio. This was arguably the greatest pitcher in Dodgers history dissecting nothing short of a generational pitching clinic Maddux was putting together over the airwaves. The game was over in about two hours.
Maddux would leave the Braves in free agency in 2004, but this game is why he is the greatest pitcher in baseball in the last 50 years and it’s not even close. He could throw 84 mph using only two pitches and would embarrass you and your entire family at the plate. That’s why he’s The Professor, the Mad Dog at his finest.
Years later, my dad ran into Sutton in a restaurant in Atlanta. This was shortly after Sutton spent a few years calling games for the Washington Nationals. My dad talked to Sutton about this game and how great it was he and I got to share this moment together, bonding over Braves baseball in its essence. Sutton said, “thanks for listening,” but he was obviously moved by this story.
God dammit, that’s everything, man.
Shortly after Turner sold the team to Time Warner, the Braves would lose one star player after another. Glavine played for the Mets we all hate. That was tough to watch. Maddux would return to the Cubs, which was cool, but seeing him with the Dodgers and Padres was not. Smoltz in a Red Sox and Cardinals uniform was Johnny Unitas in a Chargers jersey level wrong.
At least Chipper never played for anybody else.
He was my favorite player of my childhood, the guy every kid at EastSide Baseball rolled up his pant legs to copy. His last game in a Braves uniform is one I have mixed feelings about. “The Infield Fly Rule Game” was trash and that’s why Braves Country threw heaping amounts of garbage on the field after the worst call in baseball since the 1985 World Series. We weren’t going to win, but come on!
Though Atlanta lost the inaugural NL Wild Card game at home to those stupid Cardinals, I will always remember Chipper’s final at-bat. He could have grounded out to end the season and his career in one fell swoop. He made contact and I thought, “not like this, man.” With no cartilage left in his knees, Chipper somehow legged it out. His illustrious career was NOT ending on that play.
In the years to follow, there was a lot of bullpen botch-jobs from one Fredi Gonzalez and a lot of dropping games you can’t afford to lose to the Dodgers and Cardinals along the way. I thought last year would be the first year in my life I could finally watch the Braves play in an NLCS and drink a beer from the comfort of my home, maybe even trim my beard between innings if I got nervous.
But no, “Worst Inning Ever” happened and I had to pound vodka out of a Guilty Eats coffee mug at work in River North Chicago to cope with some more Atlanta Braves October B.S. It was a strange concoction of laughter and pity from my colleagues. I thought 2019 would be different. Stupid me. Atlanta sports will always find a new and creative way to ruin my livelihood in spectacular fashion.
So as we all sit around in our dwellings getting fat off toilet paper and canned food, seriously contemplating how cutting our own hair is gonna go (not great), I remember the last time the Braves played in a shortened season. It’s not a strike keeping us from watching baseball this year, though we all kind of wish it was the reason for America’s pastime has to be absent from our lives.
It’s been a long 25 years, but I’m still waiting. I love Braves baseball and I hate Braves baseball all at the same time. One of these days, it’s going to be our year. Brian Snitker‘s team has the talent. Maybe October 2020 will be different? If I have to keep waiting, I can do that. Practice makes perfect. We’ll have baseball again one day soon. For now, I’ve got my memories to lean on.
This child of the “Team of the ’90s” is all grown up.