When my family moved to Georgia in 1981, I became a Braves fan almost immediately. At the start of the next season, the Braves would win their first 13 games. They led the National League West from start to finish, and in the process, they became national darlings. Thanks to TBS, Dale Murphy, Bob Horner and Phil Niekro were household names. Kids from all corners of the country collected Braves baseball cards. It was a good time to be a Braves fan.
Of course, what followed were bad times. Baseball is like that. It gives you hope and then it rips it away in the most painful way possible. Take that remarkable 1982 season for example. It ended with the Braves battling the Cardinals in the NLCS. The Braves sent Phil Niekro to the mound in the first game. After four innings, the Braves were up 1-0 and Niekro’s knuckler was dancing. Of course, the rain came and the game was wiped from the record books. The Cardinals would sweep the Braves in three games.
Hope followed the pain heading into the 1983 season. The Braves looked to be good again. Dale Murphy was even better than he had been in his first MVP season. In fact, the Murphy led offense was the best in the NL that year. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. Superior pitching allowed the Dodgers to hold off the Braves and capture the division crown. Still, the Braves finished 14 games over .500 and looked to contend again in 1984. Early in the season, Bob Horner would go down with a fractured wrist, the team would sputter, and the Padres would run away with the division. Manager Joe Torre was replaced with Eddie Haas, and any hope Braves fans had heading into 1985 was gone as of May 17. The Braves fell to 5th place that day and aside from a single day in July, they wouldn’t rise above 5th place for the rest of the season. Hope was gone.
When did hope return? That’s hard to say. It was clear that after Bobby Cox returned to the Braves organization as GM before the 1986 season, they were making the right moves on the scouting and player development side. Unfortunately, the situation was dire and it was years before the changes would bear fruit. When Cox returned to the dugout late in the 1990 season and John Schuerholz followed him as GM, I didn’t know what to think. When Schuerholz’s big off-season moves were signing Terry Pendleton, Sid Bream and Rafael Belliard, I was skeptical. I expected more of the same.
Without a doubt, the hope was there relatively early during the 1991 season. The team just kept battling and as the season wore on, they just seemed to get better. Pendleton was the veteran leadership, and his MVP season cannot be discounted, but it was the starting pitching that carried the team, led by the rise of Tom Glavine into one of the game’s best. The Braves played well as deep into the post-season as possible. Hope would turn to pain in the top of the 8th inning of game 7 of the World Series.
Lonnie Smith was on first base after a single when Terry Pendleton drove a ball deep into center field, off the wall. Smith certainly lost sight of the ball. He may have been deked by the infielders as well. I can only assume he didn’t pick up Williams in the third base coaching box, since I cannot recall seeing Jimy Williams’ arm making any motion other than a windmill. Ever. He didn’t make it any further than third. In a scene that is all too familiar to Braves fans, despite having runners on 2nd and 3rd with nobody out, the Braves could not score and would lose the World Series in the 10th.
That 1991 season would lead to an amazing run of 14 straight division championships. Each year during the run, Braves fans were filled with hope. We knew that it was within the realm of possibility that the Braves could win it all. Save a Dave Justice home run and a Tom Glavine pitching performance for the ages in 1995, every single year that hope would turn to pain.
The last two seasons the pain has been even more visceral for me since I was in the stadium for the most painful moments. In my life, I have never screamed as loud as I did after Eric Hinske blasted his home run against the Giants in game 3 of the NLDS last year. It was mere moments later than in a flurry of bad defense and bad pitching the Braves would cough up the lead. There wasn’t a Braves fan in the stands that day that didn’t feel like they had been punched in the gut. Even that didn’t compare to this past Wednesday. Words fail me.
Still, I’ll take the pain. I’ll take every double play the Braves have grounded into in every crucial moment. I’ll take every dribbler back to the mound the Braves have hit with a runner on third and less than two outs. I’ll take Eric Gregg calling balls and strikes for Livian Hernandez. I’ll take the Sterling Hitchcock shutouts. I’ll take the Jim Leyritz homers and the Kyle Farnsworth gophers. Why? Because in order to suffer the pain, in order for it to really hurt, you get the hope, and in that hope that are always great moments and great memories.
Someday, I’ll look back at my baseball cards for the players on the 2011 Braves, and I’ll remember all of the reasons I was hopeful this season. I’ll remember Dan Uggla finally breaking out of his slump. I’ll remember Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel forming one of the great bullpens in the history of the sport. I’ll remember Freddie Freeman’s rise, Chipper Jones reemergence and Brian McCann’s pre-injury MVP run. I’ll remember watching three Braves pitchers pitch back to back to back in the All-Star game. Someday, the pain of how it all ended will subside. Not today, but someday.
I’ll take the hope and I’ll take the corresponding pain because I can remember the 1986 - 1990 seasons. These were bad baseball teams. Braves fans went into each season knowing that the team would not compete. As much as we loved the teams and the players that comprised them, we also knew that the games did not matter. I was still one of those fans who watched every game I could. If I couldn’t watch, I would find it on the radio. There was no pain in the losses and little joy in the wins because not one of them meant a thing. I can only speak for myself, but I’ll take a season like this past one over the 1990 season any time.
As discouraging as the collapse has been, I look forward to next few seasons for the Braves. After all, we have a number of reasons to hope for the future.