So here’s the thing: there are nights when the game is the most important thing that happened, and then there are nights when something else around the game asserts itself and demands our attention. Sometimes those things are bad (injuries, arrests, revealing you had a kid out of wedlock with a Hooters waitress) – honestly, it seems like most of the time they’re bad.
But every once in a while, they’re good. And even more rarely, they’re good in a way that takes you by surprise and slaps a silly grin on your face, and, frankly, it wouldn’t really matter if your team lost the game, because, in the grand scheme of things, one game is just one game.
But nice guys finishing first?
That’s a memory.
Officially it was Dale Murphy night at the Ted; #3 bobbleheads were handed out at the gates and many fans showed up in powder blue v-neck t-shirts in the style of the Braves’ early ‘80s uniforms, with Murph’s name and number on the back. Murph even threw out the first pitch. That was cool. In fact, on most days that would have easily been the coolest thing that happened in Braves Country.
But not today. Today, the implausible happened – and not by the skin of its teeth, either, but decisively, with the kind of heavy door slam that left no doubt.
Today, Fab 5 Freddie Freeman became the last man voted by the fans to the National League All-Star team.
Big deal, right? Except, actually, it kind of was.
From the moment the initial All-Star rosters were announced, two phenomena notable to Braves fans arose. The first was that, the flagging Justin Upton having fallen at the last moment out of the top-three vote-getters among outfielders, the team with the largest division lead in the Major Leagues, your Atlanta Braves, had exactly one man named to the squad. (That would be the Kobra, Craig Kimbrel. Bruce Bochy may play favorites, but he knows the value of having a lockdown closer on his staff.) That fact stuck in the craw for some of us, although the Oakland A’s have almost equal grounds for complaint, and it has been suggested in these parts that no other Brave has earned the honor thus far in the 2013 campaign. (As I’ve said before, if I’m Bochy I want Andrelton Simmons at shortstop with a late-inning lead, but Boche has won a lot more World Series than I, so I’ll shut up.)
The second phenomenon was revealed by the gimmicky “Last Man” vote roster, which included The Steadiest Brave of All, Freeman, and The Kid Everyone’s Been Talking About For Two Months (not coincidentally, the length of his ML service time), Yasiel Puig of the hated Los Angeles Dodgers. No sooner had this fact been revealed than every sports media outlet in America not directly related by corporate marriage to the Atlanta Braves National League Baseball Club crowed to high heaven with pleasure. (Especially everyone employed by ESPN, whose lack of bias regarding such stories as Tim Tebow or the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is well-known and even more well respected.)
Puig was so obviously a historically gifted player, albeit one only eight weeks into a sure ride to Coopers
ville (or Cooperstown, depending on which level you expect him to spend the most time at), that if there was one thing we could all, as Americans, agree upon, it was that that plucky little Cuban firecracker not only deserved that last spot on the All-Star team, but that he was absolutely, positively gonna get it. Of that, there was no doubt. Even Freddie Freeman, interviewed moments after the list was made public, clearly recognized he was going to have to give a lot of “it’s an honor just to be nominated” sound bytes. The national sports media’s love for Puig was in full and fragrant bloom, and it was just a matter of time until the inevitable became fact.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Citi Field. First, Freeman’s own teammates, no less aware of the futility of the exercise, made cardboard signs with Sharpies saying “Hey ‘Merica! Vote Freddie 4 ASG!” and held them up to the TV cameras during dugout shots. Their tone was playful, because they knew it wasn’t going to happen, but they wanted to let the world know just who they thought the MVP of this team with the biggest division lead was.
But it didn’t take long – less than twenty-four hours – for the relentless ESPN cheerleading for Puig to start pissing them off. And I don’t just mean Braves players – although some did begin to express their sincere disapproval of such glaring media bias. No, players on other teams started saying some of the same things. Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon, for one, received a lot of airtime for saying what many of his colleagues were muttering in their clubhouses: a Major League career shorter than a summer vacation does not an All-Star make.
(None of this was to take anything away from Puig, who is indeed an exciting player off to a historically great start. But the road to a job as a Wal-Mart greeter is littered with the burnt-out walking dead corpses of players who started fast, then couldn’t adjust when the league adjusted to them. Puig may yet be an All-Star, and perhaps even more. The point is, there just hasn’t been time to know yet.)
On Tuesday, Major League Baseball released the first results in the fan voting. While they didn’t give out vote totals, it’s fair to say that everyone in the baseball world, very much including Freddie Freeman, was stunned to find that the Braves’ huggiest slugger was on top, with Puig second. The media screamed, and when they stopped screaming, they rationalized. First it was “early.” Then the Braves’ fans were “stuffing the ballot box.” (What exactly that meant in the context of an electronic tally in which you could vote as many times as you wanted as long as you could prove you weren’t a bot was never quite clear.)
By Thursday morning, with Freeman’s undisclosed lead having held up through the week, the pre-emptive grousing among the ESPNites had begun. They still wanted to believe Puig was going to pull it out, but they knew now that there was a chance he might not. And, dammit, they were going to let it be known just how unfair they thought that was. By this evening, once the tally was final and our very own SoCal Huggie Bear had won that last spot, there were not one but two consecutive posts by David Schoenfield on the SweetSpot blog making the point that, and I’m not making this up, Braves fans had robbed America of what it wanted.
Let’s take a moment to unpack that basket of sour grapes, shall we? Freeman received almost 20 million votes, far more than any other player has ever received at any stage in the All-Star voting process. A clearer-cut case of the vox populi making its will known you will not find in the annals of sport.
In any case: Bygones. Because who wants to sit around bitching about Bristol fashion when we can bask in the joyous fact that one of the sweetest guys in the sport just achieved something that, by his own admission, he never even dared to dream about – all because we, meaning both Braves fans and fans of other teams who believe All-Stars should have to have built at least a couple of lines of resume, didn’t like that the national baseball media tried to shove their preferred narrative down our throats. We had one we like better, and, anyway, they don’t get to decide. We do. And we did.
The joy was plenty sufficient to power the home side to a victory on this night. After a wobbly Top 1 from Tim Hudson, who threw 30 pitches while giving up enough seeing-eye hits to lend the Cincinnatus a 2-0 lead, Mat Latos took the mound in the bottom half and looked no better. Simba started us off with a nice single up the middle, Jason Heyward executed a nifty grounder between first and second to move Simba over, and Justin Upton continued his resurgence by singling his own self. And then Fab Five Huggy Bear strode bashfully to the plate. The crowd began to chant his name: Freddie! Freddie! Freddie!
And the Last Man named to the National League All-Star team doubled on the first pitch to knock them both in and tie the game.
The Schottzies went ahead again by a run in the 3rd, but the Braves knocked them back again in the bottom of the 4th on a walk by Simba and a triple by ReEd Johnson (after what seemed like the longest, most boring at-bat in the history of boring stuff). The infield came in for JUp, who (like Freddie) doubled on the first pitch and scored RJ. (Again, Justin seems possibly to be coming out of his funk. We shall see.) And then it was Freddie time again, as the man of the hour singled to center for his third hit of the night and a 6-3 lead.
There wasn’t much suspense after that; the Reds managed a single run off Hudson in the 5th and off Jordan Walden in the 8th, but you just had the feeling it wasn’t going to be enough on this night to overcome the good feelings suffusing the Ted, and you would be right. The only real negative was J-Hey straining his right hamstring sliding into third during that 2nd inning rally; ReEd Johnson replaced him at third and, as previously mentioned, came in to score for him. Heyward’s hammy will be re-examined on the morrow, but he told reporters tonight he hadn’t felt any alarming pops and expected it to be a relatively mild injury. We shall see. (If he’s wrong, I’m gonna start calling him Mr. Glass. Yeah, that’s right, Shyamalan. Sue me.)
Anyway, it was a glorious night to be a Brave, a Braves fan, or just a fan of plain old good kids. Decent kids. Kids who wear long sleeves in every game, even the night games, because their moms were taken from them far too soon by skin cancer. Kids who, as a result, know the value of every small victory, the damage of every loss. Kids who learn sooner than they should ever have to how to gain perspective, how to know what matters in life and what doesn’t. Kids who hug their teammates instead of just giving them high-fives, just because they really, truly mean it. Kids who play the game with joy and love and humility and appreciation for the family and friends and teammates and fans who give it all back to them tenfold.
Congratulations, Freddie. You earned it.