The Braves provided yet another cardboard memory of John Smoltz by retiring number 29 Friday night.
The first two months of the season came and went and I didn’t set foot at Turner Field once. Like most baseball fans, I have a love affair with the ballpark. It started with my first visit to Tim McCarver stadium in Memphis as a small child to see the AA Memphis Chicks play. It continued after my first visit to Atlanta - Fulton County Stadium in 1985, where I watched the Braves defeat the Pirates with a walk-off hit by Chris Chambliss in the 10th. When Turner Field opened in 1997, I was living in Chicago and had fallen in love with Wrigley Field. Still, I hit the Ted on my first trip home to Georgia after moving, and I go as often as I can. Except when I get lazy.
I love the game, but I hate a hassle. When I lived in Midtown, it was easy to get to and from the stadium. I now find myself east of Atlanta, nearly an hour from the stadium. Getting to the game isn’t a big deal. Leaving makes me cranky. Yes, I’m destined to be that old guy sitting on their front porch yelling “get off my lawn” at the neighbor kids. Still, I get over it and I get to the ballpark. Depending on my finances and my work schedule, I get to the Ted anywhere from five to twenty-five times a season. It never feels like enough and I remain jealous of those who get to go more often than me.
I rarely plan a trip to a game well in advance. More often than not, I’ll just grab seats a week or so before with whoever I can persuade to go with me. Fortunately, my wife and my Mother-In-Law are almost always up for a game. Sometimes though, something is announced where I know I have to get tickets immediately. I was riding up the elevator at work when I saw on Twitter that the Braves were planning to retire John Smoltz’s number on June 8. I went to my desk immediately and got on the internet and purchased tickets. John Smoltz ranks, along with Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, as one of my three favorite players of all time. I couldn’t miss this.
Three years ago, my wife and I were there when the Braves retired Greg Maddux’s number, and it was an eye opener for me. The Braves were no longer a staple of national television. They hadn’t seen the playoffs since 2005. It looked to me as if the city of Atlanta had given up on the Braves. Worse yet, it didn’t seem that anyone had any appreciation for just how special those 14 straight division championships were. When Greg Maddux took the stage that day in 2009 and the throngs at the Ted screamed and clapped for Mad Dog, I knew everything was going to be all right. The Braves were connected to their past and they weren’t going to let us forget.
I was also there with my wife when they retired Tom Glavine’s number in 2010. For me, there was a sense of overwhelming relief when the Braves announced that Glavine would be joining the organization and would have his number retired. I had feared that the relationship between Glavine and the team had been severed irrevocably when the Braves more or less forced him into retirement. Despite a rain storm that delayed the ceremony, Atlanta showed up to honor Glavine. I was again proud to be a Braves fan and happy to see that the team’s commitment to honor their past was in full force.
So yeah, I snapped up tickets to the June 8 game the second it was announced they would be retiring number 29. I just assumed that I would end up at another game before then, it just didn’t happen. As this past week started, I was already excited about the prospect of going to the game Friday night. I mentioned to some family and friends that it was too bad I couldn’t get tickets to the Saturday game too. The Sid Bream Slides bobblehead looked awesome, and I’m a sucker for a ceremony involving the old Braves players. I just didn’t want to drop money on more tickets and I didn’t want the hassle of driving to the park two days in a row. My lovely wife decided I should get that bobblehead and not only got us tickets to the game, but also got us a hotel room at the Holiday Inn.
We left Loganville and headed for the hotel early Friday afternoon. We liked the idea of getting a nap in before heading over to the Ted. Upon our arrival at the hotel, it was obvious that this weekend was going to be memorable for more than just baseball. After we checked in, we drove around to the rear of the hotel to park. The back windows of the convention area were covered with butcher paper, and there was a sign on the door instructing us to enter from the front. While dragging our suitcase around front, we saw the usual collection of families dressed in their Braves gear. We also saw people dressed, shall we say, strangely. As we waited with what seems like hundreds to board the elevator, we noticed that all of the non-Braves guests of the hotel head on some form of leather. For some it was just a vest. Others had on more extensive gear. My wife checked the web once we got to our room and it was discovered that yes, there was a leather fetish convention in the hotel. It made for a strange weekend at the Holiday Inn.
When leaving for our short walk to the stadium, I had high hopes for the evening. I had little doubt that the ceremony itself would be special. I just hoped that the game itself would honor the night. The evening that Maddux’s number was retired, the Braves destroyed the Mets and Jair Jurrjens turned in a masterful performance. The game was the perfect complement to the ceremony. The Braves didn’t rise to the occasion the night of Glavine’s ceremony, and while that did nothing to diminish the impact of seeing number 47 unveiled next to number 31, it did spoil the evening.
The ceremony was great of course. It wouldn’t have surprised me if Smoltz had turned his speech into a stand-up comedy routine, but he did not. Instead, Smoltz gave a short, heartfelt speech thanking all those that made his career possible. Smoltz’s speech was as polished as Maddux’s was rambling and Glavine’s was serious. He had special praise for Bobby Cox, Chipper Jones, and his rotation mates. Smoltz hit a home run. Even better than the speech was the moment when the black tarp was pulled back from the number 29. I got goosebumps and I don’t mind telling you that I might have shed a tear or two. It was a special moment and I’m grateful that I could attend.
The game itself was exciting. All the ingredients were just about perfect. My favorite young starting pitcher, Brandon Beachy, wasn’t at his most efficient, but he battled. My favorite young player, Jason Heyward, swatted a double to the gap to score a run. The Braves scored on a balk of all things. I got to see Everyday Jonny look like his old self. Craig Kimbrel’s entrance might be more spectacular than his pitching, and that’s saying something. Christhian Martinez looked, to me anyway, to be unusually dominating. Best of all, I got to see the Braves win in walk off fashion after Heyward legged out a single, moved to second on a sacrifice and forced an errant throw from the Blue Jays catcher while stealing third. Great, great finish. It didn’t hurt that throughout the game they played video tributes to John Smoltz from Bobby and some of his former teammates.
Smoltz would provide some more memories the next night when he led the 1992 Braves against a group of Braves Alumni All-Stars in a softball game before Saturday’s game. Before the game, he blasted several softballs deep during practice. During the game, where he played shortstop, he made two spectacular plays. (Well, he muffed at least one as well.) This was the clowning, fun Smoltz we’ve all come to know as a broadcaster.
Saturday was a bit of a blur for me. We were tired and there was still so much to soak in. The Sid Bream / Francisco Cabrera ceremony was nice, but the strongest moment was as the end of the ceremony where they played Cabrera’s full at-bat on the big screen with Skip Caray’s original announcing. It was another moment that brought a tear to my eye. The game was great as well with the Dan Uggla and Andrelton Simmons home runs, the diving catch by Jason Heyward, and the dominating pitching by Tommy Hanson and Craig Kimbrel. The perfect cap to two great days at the ballpark.
I say again that I am grateful that John Smoltz put the accordion down and picked up the baseball. I expect my next cardboard memory of him to occur at Cooperstown. I plan on being in the crowd.