By Sam Barron
It’s only fitting that in a Braves season as strange and wonderful as this one, that I watched them win the National League pennant in a hotel room in West Texas.
Despite being a New York resident with two baseball teams to choose from, I have always rooted for the Atlanta Braves. I grew up watching wrestling and cartoons on TBS and I soon gravitated toward the baseball team that aired after WCW Saturday Night. You had guys like Fred McGriff hitting home runs, Mark Lemke manning second and Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz mowing down hitters every week.
Yet being a Braves fan growing up in Westchester presented its fair share of obstacles, especially once they moved into the same division as the Mets and a rivalry began. Suddenly my daily wardrobe of Braves shirt and the foam Tomahawk Chop made me a pariah. And the Braves never made it easy.
The first Braves game I went to was at Shea Stadium with my grandfather. In the 5th inning, Smoltz intentionally walked David Segui to load the bases for light hitting Ryan Thompson. Thompson promptly hit a grand slam. Smoltz then plunked John Cangelosi, setting off a brawl, as my grandfather looked on in horror.
When I was 10, on Oct. 28, the Braves won the World Series, the happiest day of my life. I expected Pleasantville Middle School to roll out the red carpet in celebration. I was wrong. For Halloween, we were allowed to wear hats as part of our costume, so I decided to go as an Atlanta Braves fan, complete with a Braves jersey and hat. But Ms. Pregiato ordered me to take my hat off, claiming “Braves fan” is not a costume. I argued my costume was just as valid as anyone else’s and a Mexican standoff ensued. She backed down.
Thankfully, I was in a different state during the 1996 World Series. But in 1999, I was back in Westchester and things had reached its zenith. The Braves and Mets spent all year battling it out for the NL East, which meant I spent all year going back and forth with my classmates. It culminated in the LCS. The Braves went up 3-0 and I was at Shea Stadium ready to see the Braves pull off the sweep. The atmosphere was electric. The Braves were four outs away from winning while my mom was making contingency plans to get me out of Shea Stadium alive. John Rocker, the most hated man in New York, came in with runners on 2nd and 3rd and got booed out of the stadium, with me learning about how flexible his mother purportedly was.
Unfortunately, Rocker served up a two-run single to Olerud and I stormed out of Shea. Angrily storming out of Shea/Citi Field has become my trademark over the years.
The next day, a Sunday, the Braves had a chance to close out the Mets again. The game lasted 15 innings. The Braves took the lead in the top of the 15th inning only to lose the lead in the bottom of the 15th and then lose the game thanks to Robin Ventura’s famous Grand Slam Single. Monday and Tuesday were rough days at school as I took all kinds of abuse. Luckily, I got the last laugh. Game 6 was an insane back and forth game that also went into extra innings and very much tested the limits of blood pressure. But Andruw Jones drove in the winning run on a bases loaded walk and we were going to the World Series. I delighted in sneaking up on Mets fans and saying “Here’s the pitch by Rogers! And he walks in the winning run! Braves win!
Only this meant the Braves were playing the Yankees. So now I was facing off with the other half of school. This one did not go well. The Braves were swept in humiliating fashion and I became the laughingstock of the school and Mets fans also got to enjoy schadenfreude. In the 1990s, the Braves won eight division titles and made five World Series, yet only won one, a fact I was reminded of over and over.
Even though I graduated high school, being a Braves fan remained frustrating. They lost a series to the Houston Astros on an 18th inning walk off home run. Who did the Cubs beat for their first series win in 95 years? You know who. They collapsed in 2011.
They lost a play-in game in 2012 due to the nuances of the infield fly rule. They decided to tear it down and rebuild, only for the architect of their rebuild getting banned for life from baseball. They gave up 10 runs in the first inning of Game 5. They went 19 years without winning a series, losing 10 in a row.
Last year, they blew a 3-1 lead to the Dodgers over three agonizing days. I tried to take solace in the fact I got to see them win once but 1995 was becoming a distant memory with each frustrating October.
2021 was shaping to be another frustrating Braves season. They could never get above .500. The ace of their staff pitched zero games. Their best player went down with a torn ACL. But something happened in August. They acquired players at the deadline, their bullpen stabilized and they went on a tear, winning another division title. It was time for another postseason of disappointment!
The Milwaukee Brewers came in with a pitching staff that reminded me of the Braves in the 1990s. It didn’t matter. The Braves pitchers met them pitch for pitch and they were dispatched in four games.
I had booked a trip to West Texas over the summer for the end of October. Rooting for the Braves the last 20 years meant it was totally okay to travel and that’s how I find myself in a Baymont Windham nervously watching them try to beat the Dodgers, the defending champs. They took a 2-0 lead on two crazy walkoff wins but they were up 2-0 a year ago. They went up 3-1, but again, same thing a year ago. They got rocked in Game 5 and I let out a deep sigh, ready for history to repeat itself.
But these Braves were different. They went up 4-1 but in the top of the 7th inning, the Dodgers cut it to 4-2 and had runners on 2nd and 3rd with 0 outs and Albert Pujols coming up. Yikes. The Braves sent out Tyler Matzek who had been on the fringes of baseball just a few years ago. He struck out the side. When they won, I celebrated by running around a hotel room trying not to wake everyone up.
For the first time in 22 years, I got to see my team in the World Series against the Astros. And this time it went a lot better than in 1999. They led off Game 1 with a home run and just like against the Dodgers, they built a 3-1 lead. In Game 5, they hit a first inning grand slam. But this is the Braves. Nothing comes easy and inexplicably (But totally explicably) they blew that game. I spent two days dreading the Braves were going to blow this, another thing to add to the list.
On Tuesday, they flipped the script. They killed the narrative. They clubbed a bunch of home runs and found themselves up 7-0. This time, they weren’t blowing it. I stood in front of my TV for the final out and was soon in a delirious frenzy, pumping my fist and yelling. I then went to MLBShop and spent $1341 in merchandise.
Being a Braves fan had put me through the ringer but in the end, it was totally worth it. I don’t know what it was that caused me to keep it on TBS after wrestling ended, but I’m once again glad I did.
Now let’s hope next spring, I get to write another column about being a Maple Leafs fan.