Note from Alex: on the strength of their poetical contributions, I asked hotspur and blazon to help us out on Thursdays and Friday’s. Here’s Hotspur’s first.
Hi, everyone. My name is Tom Abernathy, a.k.a. Hotspur, and Iâ€™ve been asked, apparently on the strength of the deceptively lazy Waiting for Godot parody I posted a few days ago, to take on the Kal-Ellian task of doing game write-ups for Thursday games here at Braves Journal. Knowing as I do that Thursday is the weekday during which a team is most likely to sit fallow â€“ as indeed it does today â€“ I snickered and cheerfully accepted the offer. (Yoink! Maroons.)
A little about me: Iâ€™m a writer (film and video games) living in Seattle for the past five years after a fourteen-year stint in Los Angeles, but I was born and raised in Atlanta. In fact, both sides of my family have been in-or-around Atlanta as far back as anyone knows, although my motherâ€™s side, the Lees, are descended from a brother of the Civil War general and so I assume they were in Virginia at some point in the distant past. I am, as I told my fellow inductee, â€œblazon,â€ the other day, your average, garden-variety Southern Scots-English-Irish-French mutt. (I married a black and Puerto Rican Californian whose parents are from Harlem and Brooklyn. Itâ€™s possible Iâ€™m overcompensating.) Also, for those of you who may frequent Sandy Springs, Abernathy Road at one time led to the small farm in my fatherâ€™s family; the legend is that his great-grandfather lost it in drunken card-playing adventures, but thatâ€™s entirely hearsay and I cannot corroborate it. (Print the legend.)
Point being, I was born to be a Braves fan.
Problem was, when I was a kid (the Seventies and early Eighties), the Braves were pretty wretched. Sure, there was 1982, which saw the hometown nine muster a 13-0 start that set a new MLB record for wins to start the season. (Won the division; swept in the NLCS by Ozzie Smith and the Cardinals.) But for the most part during those decades in Atlanta, the unlikeliness of any given potential occurrence was oft summed up with a phrase along the lines of, â€œYeah, thatâ€™ll happen when the Braves win the World Series.â€ Such an eventuality was universally considered to be slightly less likely than that of a chimp taking home the Tony for Best Shakespeare Adaptation or the prospect of unpowered porcine aviation.
Luckily, Our Mister Turnerâ€™s need for cheap programming for his fledgling cable network meant that, wretched or not, Braves games were being piped all over the nation as an alternative to pirated late-night Cinemax soft-core. Many of you, like Sir Reginald Dwight, may have come to your Braves fanaticism via this outlet. As for me, I flew my Braves beach towel (a game giveaway) in my Ohio college dorm room as a banner of fealty to my hometown and occasionally caught games when I was back visiting my family, but going to a Braves game back then was what I assume going to a Cubs game is like now: something you did because it was part of the cityâ€™s cultural landscape, not because you expected to see good baseball. And certainly not because you expected the Braves to win.
And then 1991 happened.
I was living in Philadelphia, sleeping on a friendâ€™s motherâ€™s apartment floor and working odd jobs. (Spent a year-and-a-half there, and managed never to go to a Phillies game, a fact of which I remain absurdly proud.) I remember coming in, late one September weekend afternoon, from my waitron job at the Main Line T.G.I. Fridays, grabbing a beer, and flipping through the channels on the ginormous seventeen-inch Zenith. I pop the top on the beer, prop my barking dogs up on the coffee table, close my eyes, and just flip the channels on the cable box, listening for something worth pausing for.
And then I hear it:
What the hell?
Not one voice. Not five voices. A multitude. Echoing across a vast expanse.
My brow furrows.
I open one eye at the screenâ€¦ and see something I have never, ever seen before: Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium filled to the rafters. Fifty thousand people, all wailing this eerie, haunting sound and moving their forearms in an arcane motion fraught with intense, portentous energy.
And then Ernie Johnsonâ€™s voice, introducing the TBS audience to this eveningâ€™s game between the hometown Atlanta Braves and the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team theyâ€™re currently two games behind for the division lead.
If I had ever given credence to the reports of my eyes and ears, my faith in them was now shattered. This could not be. And Iâ€™m not just talking about the team being in the race â€“ although, to be sure, that was farfetched, if not utterly without precedent. Iâ€™m talking about the stadium filled with fans, chanting, chopping, cheering, as one Hydra-headed behemoth of passion and hope. I had heard the word â€œspiritâ€ used before in a sports context, but until now I had never experienced it. If that flying saucer of a stadium could have risen on the sheer emotional power of the people in its seats and levitated off to Saturn, I believe it would have done so on national basic cable television before my very eyes.
I was a Braves fan before that moment. But that was the moment I fell in love.
I will not here recount the events of that postseason, nor document for you who remember it well the outrageous highs and lows of that greatest, Scream-Machiniest World Series ever played. Neither will I tell the tale of how, a year later, squatting on yet another friendâ€™s apartment floor in Jenkintown, I sat alone and watched Game 7 of the NLCS against the Pirates in glum and mounting resignation, until that incomparable moment at the end of all things when suddenly, incredibly, the entire universe phase-shifted in that way that it can only in baseball. (Skip Caray: â€œHe isâ€¦SAFE! BRAVES WIN! BRAVES WIN! BRAVES WIN! BRAVES WIN!…â€ and finally, exhausted, â€œâ€¦Braves winâ€¦!â€)
I will not tell you the myriad ways in which these memories are precious to me as breath, for you have your own, and you know.
I cannot join, even if I wanted to, in the merry round-robin from a few days ago when everyone was recounting the first time they went to see the Braves play in person. The truth is, I donâ€™t remember my first time. I know it was during the Seventies â€“ possibly 1976, since for a long time I kept the pillbox hat they gave out at the gate during a day game I saw in that bicentennial year. Eight years old, I was. First time? Iâ€™m just not sure.
But I can tell you about the game I saw in person that meant the most to me.
One of the things Iâ€™ve come to love about baseball is the way that, when I squint, I feel like I can see the connections, what Lincoln called in a bit of poetic appropriation the â€œmystic chords of memory,â€ between the players I see on the field and those who played the game 150 years ago or more. I feel as if I can almost make out their world lines, the ways in which the game exists across time and space and history. I see Brooklyn Excelsiors and Boston Bees and Homestead Grays and Atlanta Black Crackers out there, like those cinematic scenes in the Iowa cornfields where Shoeless Joe and Moonlight Graham return to take BP and shag some flies. (Never use that phrase in the UK, by the way. Means something TOTALLY different.)
Anyway, the end of that movie has always had a strange effect on me, because my dad was rarely around when I was a kid, and even when he was, baseball wasnâ€™t part of our relationship. He was, from high school athletics onward, a football guy. So I never had that â€œYou wanna have a catch?â€ feeling.
Instead, the main person I shared my Braves fandom with was my grandfather, my momâ€™s dad, Joseph Samuel Lee. It was he who took me to that summer-of-â€™76 game with the pillbox caps. As I got older I predictably rebelled against many of what I saw as his staid, old-fashioned ways and ideas, and often our time together degenerated into squabbling, mostly good-natured, over politics and the like. But the one thing we could always talk about in harmony was the Atlanta Braves.
On Wednesday, September 15, 1993, my grandfather and I took MARTA to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium with a bag full of Chick-fil-A sandwiches. (Do they still let you do that, bring food in from outside?) As those of you old enough will surely remember, the Braves were locked in a mortal struggle with the San Francisco Giants in what was even then being called â€œthe Last Great Pennant Race,â€ with realignment on the horizon for the next season. No longer a perennial hometown joke, the Braves were fighting for their third divisional crown in three years; by now, greatness was expected of them. But Matt Williams and his ilk were toe-to-toe with our Bravos at every step.
We now know that the Braves would take the West with 103 wins to SFâ€™s 102, culminating with the giddy sight of Tommy Lasorda dancing in the dugout as his boys in blue kept their hated rivals from the postseason. But on this September night that outcome was entirely in doubt; there seemed every chance that the Bravesâ€™ desperate push to actually WIN a World Series might die before October could arrive, despite our four-game lead on Los Gigantes. (Nobody called them that then.) For those who donâ€™t recall it, the euphoria of almost winning rings in â€™91 and â€™92 had given way in â€™93 to the nagging fear that the old Braves curse was still around, just ratcheted up to an exquisitely painful irony: What if this is all there is? What if weâ€™re fated always only to come close, but never to win it all? What if, deep down, we really are the losers we seemed for so long to be?
And so my 81-year-old grandfather and I climbed the ramps of that ridiculous, beloved old saucer stadium and took our seats high in the upper deck behind home plate. The Giants had already done us the service of losing to the Cubs in a getaway-day afternoon tilt at Candlestick Park, so the air was full of expectation; a win would pad our slim division lead.
But that air of expectation soon soured. With Jose Rijo on the mound, the Reds took leads first of 1-0 and then 3-1. Kent Mercker pitched five-and-a-third and did a respectable job, but by the middle of the ninth the Cincinnatus had added three more runs off a pre-closer Mark Wohlers, and, given the offensive lethargy of the team this night, the 6-2 deficit going into the final half-inning felt insurmountable. (This was before steroids and HGH, youngâ€™uns; a four-run deficit meant you could all but put it in the book.)
Reds reliever Johnny Ruffin, who had gotten the last out for Rijo in the bottom of the 8th, came out again to try and close it out. Atlanta backstop Damon Berryhill had other ideas, however, and smacked a 1-2 pitch to left for a double. Interesting, yes, but not a game-changer. Atlanta manager Joe Torre (oh, right!) sent Bill Pecota in to run for him, in a move Fredi Gonzalez might want to study a little. Young September call-up Chipper Jones, then little more than a glimmer of hope in Bobby Coxâ€™s eye, was sent up to pinch-hit for RP Pete Smith, but struck out swinging. Ryan Klesko, he of the prodigious power but questionable on-base skills, was up.
And, after spitting on two balls, launched a moon shot over the right field fence.
The crowd perked up; we were still going to lose, of course, but at least now we could feel a little better about it. Gave â€˜em a fight there at the end, didnâ€™t we?
Ex-Brave Jeff Reardon (traitor!) took over for Ruffin on the mound to face the even-then drug-bedeviled Otis Nixon. Otis saw the count even at 2-2, decided he was bored, and promptly legged out a double to right-center. Perpetual weak link Jeff Blauser followed with a (0-2!) single that sent Nixon to 3rd.
By now, the joint is rockinâ€™. And by â€œthe joint,â€ I mean all 48,825 people stuffed into the Launching Pad. After two-plus hours of growing melancholy, this thing has started to feel almostâ€¦wellâ€¦possible. I mean, you know, not really. Things like coming back from a four-run deficit donâ€™t happen in 1993, and even if occasionally they do, they certainly donâ€™t happen to the Atlanta Braves, whose entry in the Oxford English Dictionary is accompanied by a picture of Charlie Brown lying flat on his back while Lucy laughs her snotty little head off.
But everybody is standing up, just the same, because weâ€™re starting to forget that weâ€™re probably cursed; weâ€™re starting to believe, just a little, that maybe everything ISNâ€™T written; that maybe our best days are still ahead, not behind; that maybe this nice little two-plus-year run of almost-bestness might not be about to end in ignominy after all. Thus buoyed, everybody in the place is on their feet â€“ everybody, that is, except Sam Lee, my 81-year-old grandfather, whose knees and legs just canâ€™t take that at this point. So he stays seated and I tell him, over the mounting noise and vibration, that Jeff Reardon is coming out and coming in is the closer I hate above all closers to this very day:
I have no words to express my hatred for Rob Dibble, nor explanation for my extreme antipathy beyond the twin facts that he is both an incredible closer and an incredible jerk. I look at him and I want to punch his giant square jaw. He is Death and heâ€™s unbeatable.
Warm-up tosses over, Dibble climbs the hill to scowl across sixty feet and six inches of grass at the last, best hope for Los Bravos, left-fielder Ron Gant. And throws.
And Ron Gant smacks that first pitch down the left-field line, straight as a laser and not high enough, not high enough, not high enough, now it gently starts to arc down â€“
It hits the yellow line on the top of the wall and skips, like a stone on a lake, out of the ballpark and into the visitorsâ€™ bullpen.
The stadium erupts in a release of pent-up hope and fear. Gant jumps up and down all the way around the bases, and 48,824 people in the stands jump up and down with himâ€¦ everyone except my grandfather, who just looks at me, waiting for me to tell him whatâ€™s happened.
I mouth to him, because I could never hope to be heard above the din: â€HOME RUN!â€
A beat, as he makes sense of what Iâ€™ve mouthedâ€¦ and then a big grin spreads over his face, and he starts banging the arms of his seat as hard as he can, which isnâ€™t very hard because did I mention heâ€™s 81 years old, but still itâ€™s like heâ€™s jumping up and down and screaming his head off in the only way he can.
I look down at him, at this old man who helped raise me in the absence of my father, a huge smile on my face, and it hits 25-year-old me in the way that occasionally such things do as you get older and stop being such a self-involved ass: I love him. He loves me. This moment is perfect. I will always remember this moment.
And I always have. I can see that grin, spreading across his face as the fans around us whoop and leap for joy, right now as I write this.
The following August, on the night of the 12th, my grandfather and I talked on the phone. We argued, as we often did, about the labor situation in baseball, cued now by the strike that had begun the previous day. As usual, I argued the viewpoint of labor and he took the side of the owners. It was still good-natured, though, and at the end of the conversation, before I hung up, I told him I loved him and would come over in the next couple of days to see him and my grandmother.
That didnâ€™t happen. Early the next morning, Sam Lee had a heart attack while brushing his teeth and died before the EMTs could arrive. It was sudden, but, given his age, not shocking. Of course, I had a lot of time in the ensuing days to think about his life, and about his presence in my life. He was complex and imperfect, but he loved me and my mother and sister more than anything, and he unquestionably helped to form the man I am, even if sometimes mainly by giving me a wall to bounce off as I figured out who I wanted to be.
And to have that brilliant moment with him, to leave behind for an evening the things that separated us and instead embrace, in that instant of improbable victory, this thing that bound us togetherâ€¦ itâ€™s impossible to express what it meant to me as it happened, and what it means to me now. Put simply, itâ€™s everything that mattersâ€¦ a fact of which Iâ€™m reminded, these days, when my own seven-year-old daughter sits down with me and asks me to explain the game on the screen to her, to tell her about the people on the field, to tell her their stories. Because when I do so, of course, I am telling her my own.
Thatâ€™s who I am, and thatâ€™s why I love the Atlanta Braves. And Iâ€™m humbled to be asked to contribute to this community Mac built. I hope to honor his memory, and your goodwill, in the process.