For any MLB franchise, the connection between their past, present, and future provides some of the best storylines and memories throughout their respective histories. Any interaction between the best talents in the past and the present is always a magical moment for fans and players alike. It is the best reminder of why someone fell in love and continues to love being a fan of the game of baseball and the team they cheer for.
This is especially true for the Atlanta Braves.
The Braves organization has experienced many versions of itself over its 145 years of existence. Though their were certainly significant moments of success during its time in Boston and Milwaukee, it is hard to deny the peak of its prosperity has occurred during its 55 years in Atlanta. Though it did take a while, the Braves success over the past 30 years has made them one of the consistent winners in all of sports. While it is had plenty of heartache, it has certainly been a thrilling ride for us all.
Many of the best memories for each of us as Braves fans centers on the many moments of triumph that Atlanta has had on the field and in the postseason. However, beyond the triumphs of the team, many more wonderful moments have come from witnessing some of the most exciting talents to ever play for the Braves. For over half of a century, Braves fans have been lucky to have witnessed the majesty of seeing a few of the past four generations’ best baseball talents thrive in Atlanta
Furthermore, these talents have remained connected with the franchise, and one another, that made their careers and legacies even more special.
Though Hank Aaron may have had his best seasons in Milwaukee, he still experienced tremendous success during his time in Atlanta. Between 1966 and 1974, Aaron made the All-Star team in each of his nine seasons in Atlanta. Despite being past his prime, Aaron still remained one of the best offensive players in the game, leading the Majors in home runs and finishing second in fWAR over this time frame. However, perhaps the best thing about his time playing in Atlanta is that Braves fans got to experience many of his record-breaking moments in person. This included breaking what many consider to be the most significant record in all of baseball, Babe Ruth’s home run record, a moment whose significance certainly extended well past the realms of baseball and sports.
Though Aaron parted ways with the Braves after the 1974 season, his record-breaking long ball and last year in Atlanta were not the only significant moments that occurred that year. In the same calendar year that one “face of the franchise” played his last game in a Braves uniform, another began his journey in Atlanta. In the first round of the 1974 MLB Draft, Atlanta’s selection was a high school outfielder from Portland, Oregon named Dale Murphy.
As the Braves began a span of 15 years where they struggled to win from 1975-1990, the success of Phil Neikro defined the last half of the 1970’s. However, Murphy would truly take the reigns as the premier talent in Atlanta in 1980, achieving his first All-Star appearance that year. Between 1980-1987, Murphy would achieve six top-15 MVP finishes over an eight year stretch, including back-to-back MVP awards in 1982 and 1983. He is the only Brave to ever achieve that feat, and one of only 13 players to do it in MLB history, a list that includes some of the best hitters in the history of the game.
In similar fashion to the exit of Aaron and arrival of Murphy in 1974, the Braves experienced the exit of an all-time great and introduction of their next “homegrown hero” in 1990. While seeing Murphy’s departure was certainly not easy for the Braves and their fans, having the number one overall pick in the 1990 MLB Draft certainly was a small yet significant consolation prize. Fortunately, the Braves selection with that pick would be a main reason why the organization would achieve unprecedented success during the wonderful career of Chipper Jones.
The hope was that Jones’s career would truly begin in 1994, but a leg injury while running to first base during Spring Training prevented that from becoming a reality. However, everything worked out just fine for the Braves and Jones, as not only did he emerge as a true middle of the order producer as a rookie, he also helped the Braves win their first and only World Series title in Atlanta. Jones himself experienced his best season in 1999, winning the MVP award in another World Series run for Atlanta. Though Jones may have never been considered the best hitter of his generation, he certainly was one of the the best during his career. Between 1995-2012, Jones produced the fourth highest fWAR among all hitters in baseball, a tremendous feat when considering the increase in offensive production across baseball during that stretch of time.
As Jones was entering the twilight of his career, some new and exciting young talents were just beginning their careers for the Braves. Many had hopes that Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman could become the new dynamic duo that the Braves could form World Series contenders around for the next 15 years. While things unfortunately did not work out with Heyward, Freeman has likely exceeded even the most positive of expectations that many had of him over the past decade. As Jones finished his career in 2012 as an All-Star, Freeman was simply laying the foundation to take over as the new “face of the franchise” in Atlanta.
From his first career home run off the late, great Roy Halladay through his consistent and elite production over the past decade, Freeman truly emerged as the best hitter in the majors in 2020. Though it may have come as a bit of a surprise, there certainly has been plenty of evidence that Freeman had the ability to win an eventual MVP since he finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2011. Since that season, Freeman has arguably been a top 10 hitter in the majors. Winning both the MVP and the Hank Award award in 2020 certainly seems to be the perfect way to validate Freeman as one of the best hitters of his generation.
Without a doubt, Braves fans have certainly been spoiled witnessing these four great talents perform over the past 55 years. Though all franchises can easily identify their all-time greats, few have been able to witness one of the best hitters of each of the past four generations for all or the majority of their respective careers. The impact and legacies each of these four players have created on the field Braves is certainly one of the greatest stretches of production that any franchise has experienced in baseball history.
However, what makes the overall significance of each of these individuals in the history of both the Braves and Atlanta truly special is their connection with each other, the franchise, and the fans.
Whether it be kind words or gestures toward each other in appearances and ceremonies or it is one MVP saving another in a blizzard rescue mission, it has always been a moment to cherish when any of these four interact with each other. There is a true sense of mutual respect and admiration, as well as a mutual understanding of the significance each carries in Atlanta. Each of these greats has consistently embraced the franchise and its fans throughout their playing careers and retirements, and the franchise and fans have certainly returned the favor. Whether its a feeling of pure reverence when seeing Hank wave or being overwhelmed with youthful nostalgia as Chipper or Dale joyfully embrace past or present teammates, it is always a sight to behold and cherish for anyone connected to the Braves.
It is quite fitting that Freddie Freeman earned both the MVP and Hank Aaron Awards in 2020. He is the first Brave to win the MVP award since Chipper Jones in 1999, the same year the Hank Aaron award was first introduced (Sammy Sosa won the award that year.) Though fellow Braves legend Andruw Jones is the only other Brave to win the Hank Aaron in 2005, it feels as if the “Face of the Franchise” legacy has finally come full circle and in perfect form for the Braves with Freddie winning both awards in the same year that the Braves had their deepest postseason run since 1999.
However, an even stronger feeling suggests that statement may be a bit premature. Though Freddie Freeman will be going no where anytime soon, the emergence of Ronald Acuna Jr. as the next true “Face of the Franchise” certainly seems all but validated. However, this time around, instead of seeing one franchise icon end his career just as another is about to begin his, Freeman and Acuna Jr. seem destined to enjoy many great years of success together this decade. For Braves fun, the hope is that will also lead to unprecedented success for the franchise in the near future.
After many examples of heartbreak when in comes to Atlanta sports over the past few decades, Atlanta sports fans truly deserve a stretch of splendid sports successes courtesy of the Braves. Fortunately, as many wait for that dream to become a reality, Braves fans will at least have plenty of memories and moments from the past, present, and future to cherish for generations to come due to their past, present and future “Faces of the Franchise.”