When I was just 7 years old, I got to fall in love and I have been ever since.
Now lets be clear, I married the love of my life well after that tender age...but she wasn’t my first love. I have dated during the course of my semi-adult and adult life and have had my fair share of failures towards that end along the way. However, I remember my first love well as I met it on October 27th, 1991 as I watched my first baseball game which happened to be Game Seven of the World Series....yep, the Smoltz vs. Morris pitcher’s duel of all pitcher’s duels was my first game.
See, where I grew up, there was no cable so we had something like nine channels from our antenna in the middle of the mountains and my parents were not particularly avid sports fans period. My mom grew up a Red Sox fan but never really followed the game much as an adult and my dad grew up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and never really got over the fact that the team left Brooklyn. However, the big sporting events like the Super Bowl, the Olympics, and the World Series always ended up on the TV and I vividly remember sitting in my dad’s lap during that first game with him explaining the rules of the game and him answering my insightful questions like “why doesn’t the batter take the bat with him to scare the other players away from him?” and the like. I was a weird kid.
That game between the Twins and Braves had me hooked and before I ever lived in the state of Georgia, I was a fan of the Braves. I don’t know why I didn’t take a similar liking to the Twins, but I didn’t (I assume it has to do with how livid my dad was with Kent Hrbek). I started collecting baseball cards and after we moved to Georgia, my mom took me to some games at Fulton County Stadium and then Turner Field and I treasured every single Braves game whether I watched it live, on TV, or I just saw the updated standings in the paper, online, or on Sportscenter. While my parents weren’t avid sports nuts like many of you out there on the internets, they fostered and nurtured the love I had for the game of baseball and for the Braves.
My mom passed away 11 years ago (she did get to see her Red Sox win a World Series) and my dad passed away some years after that.
So why does any of this sh*t matter? Well see, when I was growing up...the Braves were really, really good. The teams I grew up watching had Smoltz, Maddux, Glavine, Avery, Justice, Chipper, Javy, and a slew of others I am surely forgetting on them. They were winning division titles and appearing in World Series (even winning one) and had all-time greats on the field every single game. I have no idea if I would have loved baseball as much as I do now if the Braves hadn’t been as good in my formative years, but it certainly didn’t hurt.
Fast forward to present-day me. This is my fourth season actively covering the Braves here at Talking Chop and I am well over 1,000 articles written at this point and many in my shoes would have become more distant and even jaded from their fandom for a variety of reasons and that has been relatively accurate in my case. Being forced to make objective judgments about players and the team combined with simply being completely immersed in it all the time has its effects.
Complicating things has been how poor the team has been at the major league level which makes it hard for any fan. I know I have been lucky in that my primary focus has been on the minor leagues these past few years so I got a sneak preview of the talent we are now seeing at SunTrust Park instead of covering Braves greats like Donnie Veal, Emilio Bonifacio, and Adonis Garcia very much...but the team to whom I had the strongest allegiance to being really bad is going to create a certain amount of emotional distance.
However, I never lost sight of the end goal for me and that was the Braves being good again. Part of the reason I have done my best to learn more about more advanced analytics and understanding the actual value of players in recent years is so I could better understand and identify when things would start to be better in the grand scheme of things because I wanted it more than almost anything.
Like all of you coming into the 2018 season, I had my predictions in my head as to what this season was going to hold for the Braves. I thought the team was trending up and would be maybe a game or two over .500 and if everything went right they could flirt with wild card contention. I even went as far as to outline via the written word five things that, if they broke the right way, could propel the Braves to a winning season in 2018 (hint: some of these things happen, some of them really, really did not).
What has happened since then has exceeded my expectations to an amazing degree. Ronald Acuna Jr. has come up and been amazing, Nick Markakis has put up a career year, Freddie Freeman is still Freddie Freeman, and so much more. More importantly, it is nearing the end of August and the Braves are in first place in the National League East. Insert the “I don’t know what to do with my hands” gif from Talladega Nights here.
We have covered most if not all of the probable and improbable things that have gotten us to this point using multiple vantage points and methods this season. I can personally attest that writing articles as to why the Braves are good are more fun to write than articles as to why the Braves are bad.
However, the biggest takeaway for me this season doesn’t have anything to do with what a given player or coach or front office official has done or not done. I still see areas and ways things could be done better and other things that shouldn’t have worked but did and I will always point those things out as 1) its my job and 2) I want very badly for the Braves to take advantage of every opportunity possible. The biggest thing, though, is that for the first time in a long, long time is that I hang on each and every Braves game again. I look at the standings multiple times a day just to get a smile on my face. I need to know who is starting each day and what the lineup looks like for every game. It is August and the Braves are playing meaningful, important baseball games and it feels really f*%$ing good.
I can’t help but feel a bit of sadness, though. I won’t get to take my mom or dad to a game ever again or talk to them about how well the team is doing. I miss them every day. However, I find a lot of solace knowing that because of how this season has gone, I got to renew my vows as it were with the game of baseball. This season, whether it ends with the Braves in the playoffs or not, has been a gift not just to me...but to Braves fans young and old everywhere.
I know in my heart of hearts that there are kids out there right now in their mom or dad’s laps asking dumb questions and falling in love like I did. Even more folks are rediscovering their Braves’ fandom and enjoying a genuine and improbable playoff push. And then their are others like me who have been there for the lows who are having their faith restored as all of the pieces we have followed and yelled at each other about have fallen into place for a season that we will all remember. It is still possible that this team could break our hearts at some point in the coming months, but that won’t change what this season has meant or make the future any less bright.