all baseball fans can attest to the truism that baseball is a game of time and inches. for fans of a team that dwarfs 100 wins, a season feels happy and fast. other seasons drag on by loss after loss. line drives just cut the free throw line or miss by inches. fly balls barely slip past the center-field wall and the reach of a desperate glove. fans endure, despair or revel in these razor-thin margins. my baseball experience as a young fan reflected these ups and downs, and my team that was about to lose the world series championships dominated the landscape of my baseball history and destiny. Cub fans always, and Boston fans until recently, certainly get it.
I was lucky enough to grow up in st. louis, one of the truly great cities in baseball, when king stan musial was in the prime of it (and my future mother-in-law’s teen idol). i had an occasion last summer to travel from my home in atlanta to st. louis for a weekend series with the colorado rockies, stay at a downtown hotel within walking distance of the new incarnation of busch stadium, and watch a game with friends, one of whom was three furlongs from having been to a game Sadly, in all major league baseball venues, the Red Birds were crushed. but all weekend, downtown was a billowing pedestrian sea of cardinals’ T-shirts and hats. Even during the Braves’ glorious championship streak and brilliant pitching, the energy in Atlanta rarely maintained the depth of baseball passion of any Midsummer Eve in St. Luis Of course, when Atlanta was truly galvanized during the early years of the Brave’s 14-year championship streak, the tomahawk strike and chants of the often sleep-deprived Atlanta fans were phenomena to behold.
in the 1950s, like many young people, i pretended to the parent unit that i was going to sleep when i was actually listening to harry geez and jack buck broadcasting redbirds games on kmox. my transistor radio and its earpiece, an unwieldy, wax-smeared dinosaur by today’s standards, was a precious item, especially during World Series games on school afternoons. i’m still baffled by cub fans claiming harry geez. that rough, low, nasal, seasoned, busch-soaked voice inning after inning was the sound of Cardinals baseball as he said, “could be. . . can be . . . is: a home run!”
musial and his memorable swagger and swing were priceless. The defense was often brilliant, especially with a chopping flood roaming the outfield and Tim McCarver behind the plate and (thankfully) without a microphone. and that infield: ken boyer, julian javier, and bill white! (of course, to ken boyer, my youthful bitterness still burns. he never had a decisive blow during his entire career! and with that last sentence, i have achieved my life goal of avenging in print all those childhood nights of underwhelming shifts at bat. by mr. boyer. but then again, none of us are perfect or perfectly bad. some fans may even recall and cite boyer’s grand slam home run in the 1964 world series; of course, the facts don’t can override childhood prejudices.)
yes, times and fatherhood were different then. When we were ten years old, my friend Martin and I used to ride our bikes to my grandparents’ apartment on one of the main streets of St. louis, where we would take the redbird express bus, traveling alone to and from old jock’s park to see a game. Once, we had the unbelievable good fortune to be directly behind home plate, where we got to see the always scowling, always intense Bob Gibson in action, throwing a gem and another Cardinals win. I doubt any pitcher in all of baseball possessed a more intimidating demeanor, a more ferocious, hard, mean look. Of course, not everything was idyllic; One night, while the bus was idling at a traffic light in one of the toughest parts of town after a sunset doubleheader, we witnessed a stabbing, in what appeared to be a love triangle gone tragically wrong.
All those childhood years of following the Cardinals culminated in them being World Series champions in 1964, the team’s first title since 1946, but timing was not my friend. my family had moved in 1963 to jackson, mississippi, to an industrialized south. my father opened the first integrated factory in that state. (think heat of the night without the murder plot). by then my transistor radio had lost much of its charm; despite the long range of the station in the region, kmox did not find me, nor did I. I felt exiled from that championship run and subsequent ones in 1967 and 1968.
The game in the South, I quickly found out, isn’t baseball: it’s soccer. This perception is obvious to anyone with a passing interest in sports and was something I witnessed countless times as an adult after moving to Atlanta in 1977. Two daily practices by the University of Georgia Bulldogs or even a prominent high school team. School too often usurped a dramatic pennant race from the headlines of the Atlanta newspaper or the sports section of the Constitution. the physicality and brutality of football prevailed over the nuances, subtleties and insight of baseball. still today in old south mississippi or new south atlanta, except for a few precious interludes thanks to the brave, football remains transcendent: football is king.
several disjointed years after living in jackson and elsewhere on the mississippi river, I graduated from a high school in minneapolis, but could barely arouse interest in the american league and the twin cities team. My disregard for the twins in the late 1960s turned to something more vicious later, however, when they defeated the Atlanta Braves in 1991. . . because of dome baseball exacerbated by those ridiculous diapers being waved around by the twins’ fans. all baseball is not the same. The National League is not the same as the American League for those with an allegiance.
that loyalty, not to the National League but to the Cardinals, was to face a brutal challenge. I moved to Atlanta in the late 1970s to attend graduate school at Emory University. The Woeful Braves lost game after game to a small crowd (unless Phil Niekro was throwing his knuckleball in the vicinity of fluttering hitters and an oversized catcher’s glove). attending the games was easy. we could sit anywhere and rest comfortably in four seats. we could see and greet friends in distant corners of the stadium because they were the only occupants. And the traffic congestion for which Atlanta is now infamous was never an issue getting to and from the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Although Harry Caray and I were many years away from St. louis by then, i found solace in skip geez, harry’s son, broadcasting for the brave and the transplanted st. louis hawks. Mindful of their history, the New Falcons proudly hung Bob Pettit’s retired jersey, who had been a scoring machine at St. louis and the winner of the first nba mvp award. he had seen him play many times at st. Louis with my uncle. skip and I were connected. Though Skip didn’t express the verbal idiosyncrasies and mispronunciations of his father, he exhibited a biting wit in his early days that was wonderfully engaging and contemporary, especially when the turmoil of those two grim franchises made them easy targets. Unfortunately, I think his cynicism softened in his later years, eventually turning into the annoying trick of failing to identify fans who catch foul balls as being from somewhere or another in the surrounding area. that some radio show fans thought he was a psychic or asked him on pre-game radio shows what his gimmick was, or even how he knew, might bring on the scathing skip humor of yesteryear (or quickly hang up the phone), But those interrogators also served as a depressing and unpleasant commentary on the state of education in the United States.
a modicum of success finally graced the braves in 1982. that year, the nlcs pitted the cardinals, who had earned an early playoff berth, against the braves, the last team to clinch the win, thanks to a Dodgers loss to the Giants on the final day of the regular season. st. Louis had last appeared in the postseason when they lost in the World Series to the Detroit Tigers in 1968; The Braves’ most recent trip to the playoffs was in 1969, the first year of division play. the st Louis’ list was formidable: Keith Hernandez, Willie McGee, Darrell Porter, Bruce Sutter and the stunt magician himself: Ozzie Smith; The braves responded with the wily Niekro on the mound, the portly but powerful Bob Horner, and a free-swinging Dale Murphy, who would go on to earn the first of his two consecutive NL MVP awards for his season’s work. he had tickets to game 3 of the best-of-five series, the first two of which were taking place at st. Luis Niekro, of course, started in Game 1 for the Braves and pitched masterfully as the Braves led 1-0, three outs from an official game. But then the rains came and refused to go away, wiping out a likely Braves win, Niekro’s chance to dominate the series, and any real hope that the Braves could beat the Cardinals, who would score 17 runs in the final. series compared to a measly five for atlanta. baseball, that game of inches, was not measured here in cut lines to the foul line, but in precipitation.
Finally, after all those years of waiting, I witnessed live playoff action for the first time. In front of me was the team of my youth facing the team that, as an adult, I was beginning to admire and then love. the plucky relied on heartbroken charm to attract charitable and easygoing baseball fans, because too often their game was far from stellar; just being consistently competent would have been enough in those years. The Braves wouldn’t make the playoffs again until 1991. What the Braves had going for them was Ted Turner’s superseason. Because they were ubiquitous, they became just another team that proclaimed itself “America’s team.” the entire country could witness their daily antics or exploits, and the power of the familiar to build loyalty should never be underestimated.
As I sat in the right center field bleachers for Game 3 in 1982 with a native Georgian who had grown up with the Braves, I admitted, at first just to myself, that I was a fan torn by attachments to the competition. this dilemma ate at my brain and my belly with a discomfort tinged with betrayal. however, the tension of the game itself was short-lived. Hernandez, Porter, George Hendrick and McGee scored off Rick Camp in the second inning before manager Joe Torre pulled him out. the feeling that the rain-battered braves couldn’t and didn’t want to counter that gust was palpable, and the game took on that pastoral serenity that baseball offers when the end is called, the weather is delicious, the field looks pristine and the joy of baseball becomes observing the nuances rather than worrying about the outcome. after the camp fire, I was able to frankly admit to my countryman how difficult it can be to shake off the affections of youth. I felt a strange joy. That wish of my youth was partially fulfilled. this formidable st. Louis’s team, before my very eyes, came just four games away from victory over the Brewers, replacements for the Brave in Milwaukee, from being crowned the 1982 St. louis cardinals.
the braves of 1982 seemed to have taken an important, albeit incremental, step as an organization in becoming a promising franchise. promises, of course, can be made easily and carelessly, but the keeping of a promise is something else entirely, a matter of time at first and then of opportunity. The change from worst to first (with staying power) finally came to the brave in 1991, with the gradual rise of a pitching staff that would dominate a generation of baseball for 14 years of division and league championships like no other in history. sports. history. three future hall of famers fueled the momentum: tom glavine, john smoltz, and later greg maddux.
The nature of local newspapers is, of course, to offer copious coverage of local teams and display in-depth knowledge about them, especially when compared to the superficial reporting on franchises in other cities, which invariably seem to be limited. to the game. results unless the scandal du jour lurks there. Thus, time and coverage contributed to my growing attachment to the Braves for the rest of the 1980s. But just as I was separated from my resurgent Cardinals in the early 1960s, in 1989 I was removed from Atlanta and the brave for graduate employment in the department of english and honors program at the university of nevada, las vegas. For three years I watched UNLV’s rebellious running backs dominate their opponents on the basketball court and win a glorious NCAA Championship with Jerry “Tark the Shark” Tarkanian at the helm, chewing on a sodden white towel. Larry Johnson, a future NBA star, towered above the competition, looking like a grown man playing against boys. Presented with all the flare and pyrotechnics Las Vegas could muster, UNLV Basketball was clearly showtime. Perhaps because a group of player readers found little to inspire a bet on the Braves’ agitations, coverage in the Las Vegas newspapers of the Braves’ baseball was minimal. The Braves finished the 1990 season with the worst record in all of baseball (65-97). Las Vegas was a place of basketball and gambling, a city that pretended to be any other city: New York, Paris, Venice. The Las Vegas Stars, then a San Diego Padres minor league team, were a delightful refuge from the tacky, the tacky, or, for the generous in spirit, the postmodern glitz that is quintessentially Vegas. but the stars (now the 51, named for area 51, that tourist destination in the nevada desert to see aliens traversing the universe in ufos, and an affiliate of the toronto blue jays) were not going to satisfy my desire to witness championship baseball at the major league level.
meanwhile, back in atlanta, the emerging story during the summer of 1991 was coming into focus; the braves scrambled their way out of the cellar and began to roll. With surprising victories and unexpected rallies, the braves became as hot as summer in hotlanta or the desert of southern nevada. phone conversations with family and friends in georgia filled with talk about the emerging bravos. For a while, if two-a-day football wasn’t exactly taking a backseat, they were just riding shotguns and not driving the sport utility vehicle from Atlanta. the magic of the season of the brave, from all points of view, was amazing, and I was missing it. my future wife, however, was not. after finishing her graduate school at georgia state university in atlanta, she was approached by a visiting family member from florida or alabama for each postseason game, wanting to share her playoff ticket package and escort her to each and every game . the magic was magnetic.
I, of course, wasn’t on the scene to share in the fun: I got lost once again. The phrase “consecutive seasons” resonates with sinister tones in Georgia. Usually, the reference evokes the inept flapping of the beleaguered Atlanta Falcons, who from their inception in 1966 never until 2009 enjoyed two winning seasons in a row, but the 1992 Braves would break that curse: They were poised to repeat as champions in the dead of summer. . a 13-game win streak from July 8 to July 25 propelled them into first place, and around the same time, through those quirks of fate that so often redirect professional careers, I was offered a position as Faculty member and Director of the Atlanta Honors Program at DeKalb College (now Georgia Perimeter College). I was returning for the bravos race and a first-hand experience of the magic and joy that fuels the season and the city. For the second year in a row, these were exciting times for baseball fans in Georgia, and this time I’d be a part of the madness.
while i may have missed the first round against the pittsburgh pirates in the 1991 nlcs, with stars andy van slyke and a slick, unimproved, playoff beleaguered barry bonds, fate would not allow me Missing the 1992 replay and what many observers, myself included, consider to be the greatest moment in team history for the Atlanta Braves: Game 7. The series began with an auspicious turnaround from the first game in 1991 when the braves had succumbed 5-1 at three rivers stadium. In 1992, the Braves, throwing a Smoltz pitch, easily prevailed, 5-1, at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. game 2 featured timely production from ron gant, david justice and terry pendleton: braves 13, pirates 5. and for the second year in a row, my friends caravanned to pittsburgh for the games played there, witnessing mixed results: the Braves avoided a hometown sweep by winning a game behind the pitching and eventual series MVP Smoltz’s second win. Going three games to two and with Glavine and Smoltz scheduled to pitch Games 6 and 7 at home, the Braves and their fans weighed in on the prospects and basked in considerable optimism. . . until inning two of game six when the Pirates scored eight runs en route to Glavine’s second series loss and a landslide victory, 13-4.
perhaps the two late runs in the ninth inning of game 6 on tuesday night hinted that the plucky bats were being resurrected, and that prospect, coupled with smoltz and his previous two wins vs. two-time loser doug drabek, offered some threads of hope . the atlanta newspaper headline read “now or never!” I, however, despaired; he didn’t have tickets to the game until the call came in at noon Wednesday. In line was Hippie, one of the owners of my favorite neighborhood bar, the Euclid Avenue Yacht Club, in the Little Five Points of Atlanta. (The nautical motif, of course, in landlocked, often drought-ridden Georgia, is irony incarnate.) why did you call me with the offer of two free tickets that i couldn’t use for the game on wednesday night the 7th? I’ll never know for sure, and years from now, I know hippies won’t remember why either. however, thank you, fate, and thank you, hippie.
The atmosphere in the stadium before the game encompassed all the clichés (charged, electric, dramatic, tense), but clichés often reveal a truth. Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter shared the owner’s box with Ted Turner and Jane Fonda. everyone was in their place, including me. ethereal emmylou harris sang “the star-spangled banner,” which concludes with the perfect catchphrase for atlanta baseball games: “and the home of the braves!” And at the end of the song, my friend Robert Byrd, a longtime season ticket holder, delivered the refrain that he, with the delightfully morbid charm of his, would often play that night: “Oh, we’re doomed.” I was privileged to hear Bobby repeat that phrase as he prepared me to write this article. Bobby found the video recording he had made of the game; it was nestled deep in the corners of a storage closet, in a box of vhs cassettes flatly labeled “save these”. we watched the tape of the game on his TV while we drank beer from well-worn and faded but authentic 1992 NLCS stadium cups. In anticipation of the ninth inning to come, we left a bud on the kitchen counter to crack open and drink hot, late-inning ballpark style, when Pendleton led off the final inning with a double to right field.
The first inning established the dominant motif for much of the game for Braves fans: anxiety and misery. The Pirates loaded the bases in the first and scored a run on Orlando Merced’s sacrifice fly; For only the second time in the series, they were ahead of Smoltz. Braves fans weren’t the only ones feeling queasy. veteran home plate umpire john mcsherry was sick and went to the box of bill white, president of the national league and former first baseman for the cardinals, to talk about replacing him; McSherry’s hospitalization that night was perhaps a sad and ominous precursor to his fatal heart attack at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati on the opening day of the 1996 season.
that lonely run gave license to two pittsburgh fans sitting a row behind and to the left of us. somewhere, batches of these alien fanatics are cloned and then shipped through local parks, a couple to each section. the mold is familiar: beer-bellied, loud-voiced, scruffy-dressed, drunk, obnoxious, and emboldened as they lead their team. (My friends who caravanned to Pittsburgh, of course, were made of finer stuff, a different and higher order of beings.) .”
Each release caused a fickle mood swing. Fans cheered after a strike thrown by Smoltz or held their breath sadly every time he threw a ball, a pirate reached base, or a brave man was eliminated. fans were itching to cut and sing, doing so frantically for a moment, but then fear prevailed and misery returned.
van slyke singled in the second pittsburgh run in the top of the sixth to extend the lead to 2-0. Bobby captured the collective sadness: “Oh, we’re doomed.” but at the bottom of that entrance, the braves gave some much-desired signs of life. they loaded the bases with no outs. the song of the braves and the blow of the tomahawk exploded in the night; the sound was wild and passionate, then muffled and silent. Jeff Blauser lined a double play that erased the runner at third, and Pendleton lined Bonds for the third out. The increasingly inebriated couple from Pittsburgh once again expressed their euphoria and the promise of certain victory.
The bottom of the seventh lit up some hope for the braves and their fans. the runners occupied first and second with one out, but even this didn’t seem like much of a threat after failing to score under better circumstances in the previous inning. my ominous presentiment came true; the braves at the base were stranded once again.
In the top of the eighth inning, david justice’s big jump shot from right field on a jeff king double erased merced at the plate, reigniting some hope, as it can sometimes beget great defense, that this talented team of plucky might yet reappear with bats brandishing timely hits before all remaining opportunities and outs were extinguished. If nothing else, the succession of brave pitchers up to that point (Smoltz, Mike Stanton, Pete Smith and Steve Avery) had kept the Pirates to just two runs. the bottom of the eighth, however, came and went. the braves had managed only five meaningless and unproductive hits and not a single run, and those two pirate counts on the scoreboard seemed insurmountable. “oh, we’re doomed.” drabek was throwing a masterful game.
The change to the bottom of the ninth brought the Bravos fans to their feet once again, and the chants, claps and slashes began in fervent prayer. More disaster had been averted in the top half of the inning when Jose Lind sent a long, scary fly ball to Gant on the wall in left field for the first out, and a runner was stranded on second after reaching him on a walk. and wild pitch from jeff reardon. Leading off the bottom of the ninth inning, Pendleton hit Drabek’s third pitch into the right-field corner for a double, making amends for his sixth-inning rally. the chants and applause resounded with new vigor and growing tension. Justice followed up with a relatively routine groundout to second, but Lind, a talented fielder who had committed just six errors during the regular season, may have succumbed to the contagious tensions and pressures emanating from Braves fans. his backhand stab at the ball deflected it past him. Pendleton ran to third on the error. Ray Miller, the Pirates’ pitching coach, and the infielders converged on the mound. waiting to get to home plate was sid bream, cheered all the while by shouts of “sid! sid! sid!” Bream had left Pittsburgh in 1991 for Atlanta, where his lanky frame and thick, distinguished, if not entirely distinguished, mustache made him an immediate Braves fan favorite. Bream walked on four straight pitches. Manager Jim Leyland replaced Drabek with Stan Belinda. Gant, who had hit a grand slam in Game 2, rocked the crowd when he backed Bonds up the wall in left. Pendleton bunted and scored, but the other baserunners couldn’t advance. maybe our fortunes were changing, but the anxiety was mounting: there were only two outs left. Catcher Damon Berryhill, the late-season replacement for an injured Greg Olson, fouled on the first pitch and then walked four in a row, thanks to incredibly close calls by Randy Marsh, the umpire he had replaced. to sick mcsherry.
Now, with the bases loaded, the noise from the crowd, the yelling and chanting, intensified. Brian Hunter, who in Game 7 of 1991 against Pittsburgh hit a two-run homer in the first inning, was the pinch hitter and was poised to be a pirate killer once again. After fouling out on the first pitch, he threw a smooth line drive that fans longed to see slide past Lind’s reach at shortstop, but he caught this ball cleanly. the crowd quieted down for a moment after that, but then regrouped and the chanting and cheering resumed with passion.
Pulled forward by manager Bobby Cox, twenty-six-year-old Francisco Cabrera, the only position player left on the Braves’ bench, came to the plate. He had spent much of the season in Richmond with the Braves farm team, where he hit .272. His experience in the major leagues in 1992 amounted to 10 at-bats in the 12 games he played.
The drama was palpable and the crowd roared. But my friend Bobby Byrd’s thoughts of “oh, we’re doomed” had dissipated. He confidently pulled the baseball card of one Francisco Cabrera from inside the front of his Atlanta Braves cap. Ever since his youth, Bobby had kept the baseball card of a favorite player from that year inside his baseball cap to keep him in shape and keep the front end straight. Francisco Cabrera was his pick in 1992 because he was a hitter. he wasn’t a great fielder, but he was a pure hitter. When Cabrera got to home plate, Bobby stood up. he held the cabrera card at shoulder height with his arm outstretched and slowly turned around, showing that card to everyone around him.
After two balls and a vicious line drive foul to left that would have easily won the game if it were fair, Cabrera hit an infield line drive to Bonds in left field. justice scored easily from third, and he and otis nixon, standing back from the on-deck circle, frantically motioned for bream to slide once he’d labored past third from second and headed toward home plate.
Go-ahead home runs are a memorable way to cap off a victory; they have all the climactic finality of a heavyweight knockout punch. But even home runs can’t compete with a play at the plate in the ninth inning of a Game 7 when the World Series is on the line and the outs are number two. The beneficiary—or victim—of five knee operations, the sea bream headed home as if in slow motion, as if the steam propelling it was barely enough to sustain its momentum. Bonds’ throw to the plate drifted several feet to the first base side, and catcher Mike Lavalliere’s dive was late.
Justice seemed to be the first to hug and then throw herself at the bream, and her teammates piled on top of it in wild glee. the fans were screaming at full blast. there were high-fives, hugs and kisses everywhere in the vicinity. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the two suddenly sober Pittsburgh fans walk away. they would soon understand the curse of the bream, the goatherd, and the bravos, as they were fated to endure the plummeting fortunes of the pirates and their subsequent 17-year run of losing seasons. Sitting on one knee, Bonds watched the infield madness for several minutes before walking off the field, and Van Slyke, cap perched on his head, sat in center field in a daze, presumably looking on in disbelief. /p >
The crowd cheered, yelled, stomped, high-fived, hugged and kissed some more. the decibel volume reverberated like the lumbar puncture amps, which were set not at 10 but at 11. no one wanted to leave. no fan could leave, at least not until he was too hoarse to yell anymore, and that was easily 30 or 40 minutes after sid! sid! by sid! slide. The Braves would not win the World Championship that year against Toronto; In fact, they would win just once during their glorious streak and thus ultimately bring home the first championship for a major league team in Atlanta history. In 1995, the Atlanta Braves defeated the Cleveland Indians in six games. of course i had tickets to game 7. but about that or missing any other game i will never complain – i had been a part of game 7, and this moment was truly the best as a team for the braves and their fans. .
broadcast on the radio, skip geez immortalized this baseball event with his exuberant celebration after the bream slide: “braves win! the brave win! the brave win! the brave win! the brave win!” Even now, that call remains the most frequently played to conjure up the magic and majesty of the Atlanta Braves, and at the end of every Braves victory in our home, and I suspect many others where the fans reside. of the brave, we recognize a new victory of the brave. and recalls that fateful ninth-inning turnaround from despair to sheer joy with that same call: “the brave win! the brave win! the brave win! the brave win! the brave win!”
jeffrey a. portnoy, a professor of english at georgia perimeter university, writes about popular culture and british literature of the restoration and the 18th century. His work on honors education has appeared in the “Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council.”