I am a long-time fan of the Atlanta Braves, and as I prepared to share some selected memories, it occurred to me that the half-century ride has been bumpy, but with a good number of highs.
I was among the first to board the Braves bandwagon, turned onto them by my old Tanglewood community running mate Dave Carroll when I was 12 and didn’t know better. Davo made a fundamental flaw in adopting a major-league baseball team, and that was to pick a team that was on the doorstep of extended mediocrity, making the choice when the Dodgers and Yankees were also available.
My inaugural 1969 season was a treat that turned into a tease, with players like Hank Aaron, Phil Niekro, Ralph Garr, Dusty Baker and Darrell Evans leading the Braves to a division title, where they would get swept by the Miracle Mets, who would go on to win the World Series.
What followed was 13 seasons of bad baseball, but I am glad I tagged along, watching the games on WSB-TV, which like the Braves was owned by media mogul Ted Turner. The broadcast crew of Skip Caray, Ernie Johnson and Milo Hamilton was the best in the business.
I cannot forget April 8, 1974, when Hammerin’ Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run in Fulton County Stadium off Dodger Al Downing, with a record 53,755 people in the stadium. I watched on a small black-and-white television at my childhood home on Rowland Avenue, listening to Hamilton declare “there’s a new home run champion of all time, and it’s Henry Aaron.”
I remember where I was on Aug. 1, 1978, when Braves reliever Gene Garber ended Pete Rose’s then-record National League 44-game hitting streak — listening to it on a transistor radio on Franklin Street while zig zagging back to my fraternity house after quenching my thirst at Troll’s.
I remember when Dale Murphy was a rookie in 1976, and Sports Illustrated did a cover story on him, sending me to the dictionary when the magazine labeled him “peripatetic.” Murphy hit with power and had a strong arm, but he was more accurate throwing it from centerfield to home then from home to the pitcher. He settled in centerfield, was the NL MVP in 1982 and 1983 and continues to be snubbed by the Hall of Fame.
I remember the baseball strike in 1981 that forced the cancellation of a third of that season, and telling my mother that my suffering had been diminished by 33 percent.
There was the unfulfilled promise of the 1982 season, which began with 13 straight wins. The Braves lost to the eventual World Series champ St. Louis in the division series, and it would be another nine years before there was postseason play.
I remember returning from Jamaica in 1983 and learning the Braves had traded Brett Butler to the Cleveland Indians for pitcher Len Barker, who had a perfect game on his resume but was now sore armed with a 5.11 ERA. I couldn’t believe the Braves made that trade when I was
otherwise occupied, robbing Atlanta of a young star whose name was plucked from the pages of “Gone with the Wind.”
I remember the 10-minute fight with the San Diego Padres on Aug. 12, 1984, which resulted in the ejection of 17 players. It remains baseball’s poster child for brawls.
I remember where I was at 4 a.m., on July 5, 1985, when Rick Camp, a relief pitcher batting .074, hit perhaps baseball’s most improbable home run with two outs in the bottom of the 18th inning to tie a game at 11-11 against the New York Mets. Camp, exhausted from circling the bases, promptly gave up five runs in the 19th inning and the Braves, true to form, would lose 16-13, ending the eight-hour, 15-minute affair. I was in bed, asleep.
I remember driving home from work on Oct. 14, 1992, and listening through the static on AM radio as Sid Bream lumbered home in the bottom of the ninth inning on a two-out hit by the Braves’ third-string catcher Francisco Cabrera. That capped a 3-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates, and sent the Braves to the World Series, where they would lose for the second straight year.
I remember 1993, and the Braves being 9.5 games behind San Francisco in early August but winning 104 games and the division by a single game over the Giants, who lost on the last day of the season to the Dodgers. John Fish, a buddy of mine who was the managing editor of The Robesonian and then held the same title at the Augusta Chronicle, called for help with the headline. “We Love LA” remains the only headline I wrote for a newspaper for which I didn’t work.
I remember 20 division titles, and the World Series disappointments of 1991, 1992, 1996 and 1999.
I remember the at-last moment of the 1995 World Series title, which was delivered by future Hall of Famers Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine. Despite the 26-year wait, there was more relief than joy.
There is too much to unpack, so apologies to skippers Joe Torre and Bobby Cox, the Rocking Man Leo Mazzone, Pascual Perez, who might still be lost on I-285, John Rocker, Pete Van Wieren, Joe Simpson, Chief Noc-A-Homa and many more.
Following the 1999 World Series loss, there were a couple of decades of indifference, during which I rooted for the Braves, but no longer with the same passion. But thanks to COVID-19, which locked me indoors, and politics, which steered me away from watching news, the Braves and I have a second marriage.
The timing is perfect as the Braves are – as this is being written – a single win away from another trip to the World Series, only needing to finish off those dodgy Dodgers.
There is a Dodgers fan who hangs out at Pinecrest Country Club, where I work, having boarded that bus when guys like Koufax and Drysdale were hanging banners. This Pembroke town councilman will remain anonymous because the people of that town might not appreciate that a Lumbee Indian roots for a team from a foreign country, California, instead of the Braves.
So I told Larry Mac before Game 1 that if the Dodgers beat the Braves that I did not want to hear one word out of his mouth. The next day, after the Braves had taken a 1-0 series lead, a despondent Larry walks in.
“Larry,” I said. “Remember when I told you not to say a word to me if the Dodgers beat Atlanta?”
:”Yep,” he said.
“Well, I am not extending the same courtesy,” I said, and then I then let him have it.
I hope I didn’t speak too soon. You never know with the Braves.