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Starting Nine: Bored in quarantine? These Braves stories will brighten your day

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Let the Braves alter your mood with Freddie Freeman’s “fondest” memory of his mom, Hank Aaron’s friendship with a famous sportscaster and more

MLB: Atlanta Braves-Press Conference
Chipper Jones’ dad idolized Mickey Mantle, and back in 1992 when the future Braves icon finally met the Yankees legend, “I literally threw up on myself ... I couldn’t say a word.”
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

At this point, we’ve all somewhere on the spectrum of quarantine life. First, there’s elation you don’t have to go to the office, then the realization you haven’t bathed in days, the onset of cabin fever, and for us parents, that special hell of cabin fever where your children have become caged animals amid their digital learning days with. Peace and quiet? They’re a foreign country.

Wherever you’re at in your personal version of quarantine, the coronavirus reality is made all the worse without sports in a time when it dominates everything with March Madness, the final days of spring training, etc.

We could all use a pick-me-up — or at least a distraction — right now, and this week’s Starting Nine has Braves Country covered with moments and stories from around the diamond that are feel-good, heartwarming or to make you smile.

Enjoy.

1. Pitcher: Jonny Venters and the comeback of all comebacks

You’d be hard-pressed to find a better story of perseverance or someone who went through it all with a more positive attitude. Four elbow surgeries, including undergoing Tommy John THREE times, and he returned to baseball in 2018 with the Rays, and was back with the Braves in ‘19. No, the left-handed reliever was no where near as dominant as he was in 2010-12, when he had an ERA+ of 175, fanned 10.1 per nine and teamed with Craig Kimbrel and Eric O’Flaherty for one of the lock-down bullpen trios in franchise history, but that he’d go six years between MLB appearances and return to throw in 50 games in ‘18 was nothing short of remarkable. It had been so long between big-league games, that by the time Venters took the field April 25, 2018 for Tampa Bay, one of his teammates from his last appearance — Chipper Jones — was three months from his Hall of Fame induction.

2. Catcher: The unbelievable story of Evan Gattis

It’s a script so far-fetched we’d scoff at it on the big screen. Big, fun-loving brut of a guy goes from dropping out of school and vowing never to play baseball again to working as a valet, at a pizza place, a ski lift operator and a janitor. He goes on a spiritual journey, seeking out gurus in California, New York and New Mexico, which simplified his life and he felt the pull of the game again. He joins a Division II roster and four years later, he arrives in Atlanta with a catchy nickname (El Oso Blanco) and was belting 21 home runs for the Braves, the first of which he would hit in his MLB debut, while his father was being interviewed. To top it off, the guy winds up with a World Series ring. The story of Evan Gattis, far-fetched as it seems when you write it out, is only believable because we watched it unfold before our eyes.

3. First base: Freddie Freeman’s first home run his “fondest memory”

Freddie Freeman knows heartache, having lost his mother to skin cancer. First diagnosed when Freddie was four, she beat it only for the disease to return six years later. It spread rapidly, and after months of a balancing act of school, baseball and the hospital — which had Freeman seeing baseball and anything as “an inconvenience” that kept him from his mom — they lost Rosemary at age 47. Freddie was just 10 and he honors her each time he takes the field with his long sleeves and her initials inside the soles of his cleats. While she never the player her son would become, she was, by chance, there when he hit his first home run ever at eight years old. While Freddie and his father went through their hitting ritual — a bucket of 48 balls he had to hit to a specific field a routine Fred Sr. didn’t want him trying to go deep during — on the Little League Majors Field, Rosemary was walking the family dog and Freeman hit a ball right toward her. Father and son screamed for her to move, but when the ball nearly hit her, Rosemary began jumping up and down, elated at her son’s first homer. “That’s the fondest memory,” Freeman said.

4. Second base: Chase d’Arnaud’s lunch lady concert series

There’s a new d’Arnaud in town as the Braves signed catcher Travis to a two-year, $16 million deal, but it’s worth remembering the exploits — especially the musical ones — of his older brother and former Atlanta utility player, Chase. He’d spend 2016 and part of ‘17 with the Braves and was known to take his guitar on road trips and went on to play a postgame concert at Turner Field with his Chase d’Arnaud Band in 2016, but before a game that season, d’Arnaud asked if I wanted to go up to the pressbox so he could play for the cafeteria workers. He wasn’t kidding. D’Arnaud grabbed his six-string and — wearing his batting practice attire — serenaded the stadium cooks, something no Braves player has probably ever done before or after.

5. Third base: When Chipper met The Mick

Chipper Jones’ place in the pantheon of switch-hitters is undeniable, ranking third all time in home runs (468) behind Mickey Mantle (536) and Eddie Murray (504) and third in OPS (.930), trailing Mantle (.977) and Lance Berkman (.943). Jones has said many times that it was Mantle, The Mick, who was his father Larry Sr.’s favorite player and Chipper had a chance to meet the legend in 1992 at a baseball card show in Gwinnett, Ga., while he was playing in Double-A. The night before, Jones was a bundle of nerves. “It’s one of the only times where I ever found myself the night before practicing how I was going to meet somebody in the mirror. Mickey? Mr. Mantle? Mickey Mantle?,” Jones recalled. “I literally threw up on myself when I met him. I couldn’t say a word. That’s how high a pedestal this guy was on.” Of course, he didn’t actually spew on himself, but Jones recalls being speechless when Mantle introduced himself. He watched Mantle sign autographs and finally built up the nerve to talk to him. Recalled Chipper: “I sat there and I watched grown men go through the line fawning over this man. Tears in their eyes. I finally got up the nerve to ask him ‘Mickey,’ I go. ‘Does this ever get old? How do you deal with this?’ How do you keep this in perspective.’ He said ‘Son, I have a recurring dream. I’m standing at the pearly gates and God walks up and apparently I’ve got this worried look on my face. (God) says ‘Mickey, I’m going to let you in … but can you sign these dozen baseballs.”’

6. Shortstop: Charlie Culberson, a truly good sport

Way before the shared bobblehead and the Swanberson nickname, super utility man Charlie Culberson strolled into spring training in 2018 for the first time as a Brave and he had everyone doing a double-take. Yes, he looked like Dansby Swanson, and maybe best of all — and unsurprisingly as we’ve seen in his demeanor over the years — Culberson was a spectacularly good sport about it. So much so that he completely on board when I pitched him about riffing on Zach Galifianakis’ Between Two Ferns with a spoof in which I ambushed him with an interview where I thought I was talking to Swanson. A deadpan Culberson was perfection, as you can see. It was the other guy in the video whose acting chops were questionable.

7. Left field: Nick Markakis doesn’t forget his roots

While Nick Markakis has played all of 12 games in left field for the Braves, this is where we’re fitting him in. When metro Atlanta’s Woodstock High School was in the process of building an indoor batting cage, Wolverines coach Scott Krug received a phone call. It was recently-drafted Nick Markakis, the future Braves outfielder was a product of Krug’s program who had been taken with the seventh overall pick in 2003 by the Orioles. Markakis asked his former coach how close he was to reaching the financial goal to make the batting cage a reality. “I told him we were about $9,500 short of that,” Krug recalled. “My mom will bring a check up tomorrow to finish it up,” Markakis replied.

8. Center field: Murph and the cancer patient

Elizabeth Smith lost both of her arms and her left leg was amputated at the knee after she tripped on a 20,000-volt power line in the spring of 1983. During her recovery at Scottish Rite Children’s Hospital, she received a visitor: Braves superstar Dale Murphy. On June 12, they met again at a game at Fulton County Stadium and Elizabeth’s nurse suggested something Murphy could do for the young girl: hit a home run. “If I hit one, it will be for you,” Murphy told Elizabeth. Murphy, who had hit four in his previous 115 plate appearances, had his Babe Ruth moment not once, but twice. He hit a two-run homer, then a solo shot. “It was pretty quick thinking on my part,” Murphy recalled, laughing.

9. Right field: Hank Aaron and the sportscaster

Years after Hank Aaron rounded the bases on April 8, 1974 for his 715th home run, we’d realize the footage of that moment in baseball history included another omnipresent figure in sports: Craig Sager. Later a fixture on TNT’s NBA telecasts, he can be seen in the above video as the floppy-haired kid in a trench coat clutching a microphone and recorder, who was working at an AM station in Sarasota, Fla. Sager was there when Aaron crossed home plate as he celebrated with teammates and he was the only one to record Aaron and his mother, Estella, talking as they embraced. At that year’s All-Star Game in Pittsburgh, Sager approached Aaron, who told him he had something from that historic night that the new Home Run King would want to listen to. “That’s OK, Aaron told him. “I’ve seen it all.” Sager played the tape and Aaron immediately remembered the kid in the trench coat. “That was kind of a bond right away, because he realized I hadn’t given it to someone, I hadn’t sold out on him, and I was just giving it to him,” Sager would tell me in 2015, a year before he lost his battle with cancer. Aaron and Sager stayed close, including in 1996 when Ted Turner had two two take a secret trip to Cuba via the Bahamas to travel to a number of small towns to put on youth baseball clinics.