There’s a whole lot of real life in baseball. The road to success if often poorly paved and filled with twists and turns that test not only our sense of direction, but our faith in reaching our destination at all. Reaching that glorious endpoint isn’t always as picturesque as the TV shows we’ve watched our entire lives make it out to be either. Often times, you’re without someone who picked you up off of that bumpy road, or maybe the journey itself took something that you were so sure you needed when you got there. It’s hard to take inventory when you’re missing the pieces you feel make you whole.
Sometimes though, that’s what makes it even better.
It was October 26th, 1996 when Mark Lemke weakly fouled a John Wetteland pitch off to the third base side, and it settled into the waiting glove of Charlie Hayes. Under the guidance of their level-headed manager Joe Torre (who had once played for the Atlanta Braves himself), and stars like Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, the New York Yankees had snatched a title away from the Braves, winning four consecutive games to take the World Series. They would go on to win three more before the decade was done, and in fact, didn’t even lose another World Series Game for another four years.
I was eight years old at that time, and that final out occured close to 11pm, so I have no whimsical sad story on what it felt like to see the Braves walk of shame to the dugout that night. Whenever I watch the highlight though, I feel it. I feel the tug of heartache as I watch the sorrowful gazes from the Atlanta dugout while black and white pinstripe uniforms bounce on the pitchers mound in one elated mass. It’s part of being a fan. Like watching home videos of your partner or best friend before you met them, you know you’re not a part of what was going on right in that moment, but you still feel as though you own a small part of it, because of what you know now.
That night a quarter century ago, a journey began, and i’m not talking about the one that starts in the win column. I’m talking about the one that saw a team lead its fans through some of the best, and worst times. It brought us both Andruw Jones and BJ Upton patrol center field. We saw Casey Kotchman and Freddie Freeman play first base. Kenshin Kawakami and Greg Maddux both took the mound wearing “Atlanta” across their chest. We’ve seen the defensive adventures of Andrelton Simmons and Brooks Conrad, and the managerial tenures of Bobby Cox and Fredi Gonzalez. Every year, some combination of players, embodying those highs and lows donned the laundry so many of us have devoted a piece of our lives to and almost always managed to break our hearts in just bizarre fashion.
Loving this team has always been an exercise in brinksmanship. You can enjoy their success to the very edge of total validation, but just when you’re about to lean forward and fall off that cliff, the wind blows you back. As a life-long Atlanta fan growing up in the metro Philadelphia area, I had to choose when to display my team pride very carefully, as despite all those regular season wins earned by all those hall of fame players, there was always a triumphant “yeah, but..” coming, and sadly, it was probably justified. History is written by the winners, and those who can’t finish get to read it when the book comes out.
The 2021 season didn’t seem much different. Expectations were high, but not exceedingly so. You could reasonably make an Atlanta World Series prediction, but they were no one’s first choice. Soroka’s achilles ruptured again, Acuña’s ACL shredded and an already unremarkable bullpen seemed especially shaky. It was good enough though, thanks to the power vacuum in the NL East. The Braves pulled together and rattled off an impressive second half to take their seriously flawed roster to the postseason for another shot at a title. Those who had seen this story though, we knew. The ink seemed to be drying on the wall, and another unremarkable postseason appearance would be added to their franchise history, adding another brick to the wall of fantastic mediocrity that has loomed over Atlanta, and cast a faint shadow on what were supposed to be their time in the sun.
Then Joc Pederson showed up. Well, to be clear, “showed up” two days after the All-Star break, after being acquired from the Cubs as their season faded away, but it wasn’t until the Braves took on the Brewers when Young Joc rose above his station. He didn’t just bring decisive Home Runs against a fantastic Milwaukee pitching staff, he brought the swagger, the wine, and of course, the pearls. The jewelry that would come to define this underdog team and the undefinable qualities that they brought to this city when it was needed the most. It became a rallying cry, a symbol of belonging. A sign that this normally button-up organization was going to make a splash, even if no one else thought they would. My grandmother sent me a pearl necklace, and I wore it proudly, which is not something every 35 year old man gets to say without some really interesting context.
The Dodgers series was incredible. There is no doubt in my mind that Los Angeles was the better team, and if you were to run that series a thousand times, Atlanta might win 10 of them. It was destiny when Ron Washington broke out the windmill and sent home the decisive runs in the first two games, and like Joc’s pearls had done, made a foundation-shaking statement, that this team not only belonged there, but was determined to make it theirs. The legend of Eddie Rosario, the man cast aside and, like Pederson, traded away for little of note was etched into the hearts and minds of Atlanta fans everywhere. In game 6, when the ball came off his bat and screamed towards the right field corner, my first thought was “double”. When it vanished over the wall I sprinted across my Mother’s house, whisper screaming the entire way as not to wake my daughter, who was just on the other side of some french doors, sleeping off a cold. I finally sat down again after the game was over, and said aloud to myself “There’s no way we don’t win the World Series”.
And they did. I knew they were going to win well before Jorge Soler hit that baseball into the Houston sky, but it was no less incredible to watch. I knew they were going to win before I saw Yordan Alvarez’s massive frame collide with the left field fence while the ball flew just a little further above his outstretched glove. I knew before a freakishly similar looking line drive settled into the not-so-sure leather of the newly minted legend Eddie Rosario’s mitt. I am no soothsayer, but I’ve watched enough of the same to know when something is different, and this team was from a whole ‘nother planet.
When I saw the ball settle into Freddie’s glove, I knew it was happening, but it still felt surreal. It was almost like I was expecting Rob Manfred to come out of the seats behind home plate and suddenly declare the World Series was to revert back to a best of 9 series, a stipulation that would surely doom the Braves to another storybook style collapse. I was waiting for Freddie to drop it. Dansby Swanson to throw it away after pumping towards second base. That is the sort of mentality that has plagued this team, this city, and this fanbase for so long, and it just melted away. It truly is a new age for this franchise, and while I still believe there is a LOT that needs to change about it, Atlanta can finally put a jewel in it’s crown, without having to qualify it. No strings attached.