The Prodigal Team

Mark Wohlers threw it. Marquis Grissom caught it. The Atlanta Braves won it. The year, 1995.

It took the Braves six games to defeat the Cleveland Indians in the 1995 World Series. The demons — a pair of losses to the Twins in 1991 and the Blue Jays in 1992 — were squashed and tossed in the corners of the champagne stained locker room, the moment Fred McGriff commenced the dog pile on Javy Lopez. The Atlanta Braves were World Champions.

I’d like to think I kicked in my mother’s stomach that night.

While she watched from a two-bedroom home in Shelby, North Carolina, my dad was just down the road, broadcasting a high school football game on the radio. In between breaths, he leaned over trying to catch a peek of his Braves on the television strategically placed in the booth.

When the baseball landed in Grissom’s glove and Fulton County Stadium went delirious in uproar, my dad couldn’t help but let out a yelp on air — I’d like to think he wished I was with him that night.

***

I was born in March of 1996, just five months after that October celebration. As I was being passed around from one relative to the next, the Braves were at Spring Training and had been dubbed “the team of the 90s.”

It couldn’t be a better time to be born into Braves fandom. In that decade Atlanta went to five World Series’, boasted three hall of fame pitchers and drafted a franchise player in Chipper Jones.

So as soon as I could walk, I was reaching for a baseball and dragging a glove everywhere. My dad would back the car out of the garage, and I would throw the ball against the wall for hours.

I was playing for the Braves, you see. I was the star pitcher, the clutch hitter and the revered manager. I was the Most Valuable Player. I was the baseball card every kid dreamed of unwrapping from the pack.

My parents had to haul me in from outside every night. They would bathe me in my Braves colored bathroom, tuck me in under my Braves bedspread, and help me say my prayers, all under a Chipper Jones poster.

My first pilgrimage to Atlanta came in the summer of 2002 with my dad and granddad. It was an out-of-body experience. Chipper was feet away from me. Marcus Giles signed my book “Best Wishes, David!” Atlanta’s stadium, Turner Field, was so much bigger than my garage.

I still have the ticket stub. First base line. Row 7. Seat 5. Section 119. God, is this what Heaven is like?

IMG_1273.jpg

***

This isn’t a story solely about games and numbers, but they have to be included. The arc doesn’t make sense — the narrative is incomplete — without understanding the agony.

The Braves weren’t a bad team. And that’s the thing. They were great. They were promising. They were fun to watch. They won at least 88 games for 11 years in a row. They have been to two World Series since I’ve been alive. But they just couldn’t win them. And that — that is worse than anything else.

The first playoff game I ever went to was on October 7, 2002, for the final meeting of the Braves-Giants Divisional Series. Dad and I piled in his 1996 Honda Accord and drove 211 miles in brutal interstate traffic to Turner Field. My excitement was unparalleled. Christmas morning joy couldn’t even be mentioned in the same breath.

At least that’s what it felt like when I took my seat for the first pitch. Because after the Giants won 3-1 behind a Barry Bonds home run to win the series, it was like Christmas morning with lumps of coal under the tree.

But the nightmares didn’t end there.

There was 2004, when the Braves blew a 2-1 divisional series lead at home to the Astros. There was 2005, when the Braves played the Astros again in the divisional series and took the final game to 18 innings, but lost on a walk off home run. There was 2010 when Atlanta second baseman Brooks Conrad made two errors in the bottom of the ninth in what felt like a sealed game against the Giants. The horror stories continued to pile. There were playoff losses to the Dodgers and Cardinals in heartbreaking fashion, too. There were trades, free agent signings, management changes, and everything in between. It was simple: the Braves couldn’t finish. But dad and I couldn’t seem to stop caring.

***

For me, life as a Braves fan revolved around three things: My dad, Chipper Jones and losing when it counted.

I was only a Braves fan because of my dad. I didn’t choose the Braves, I was born, bred and baptized as a Braves fan. It was dad who drove while I slept on the way to Atlanta. It was dad who threw ball with me in the backyard every night. It was dad who taught me to appreciate the sport, the team and even the misery.

 

IMG_1272.jpg

If dad made me a Braves fan, Chipper Jones kept me a Braves fan. I played third base not because I wanted to, but because Chipper did. I put a wad of sunflower seeds in my mouth when I stepped to the plate because Chipper did. I tried to be a switch hitter because Chipper was.

And as for the losing, that was just part of the game. It was always just a series of tumultuous events that left me in tears every season, but it was nothing that would stop me from finding a new team. That wasn’t an option.

So in 2012 when Chipper decided he was going to retire, my dad, brother and a few of my friends made the trip to Atlanta to see our hero play in person, once more.

After $20 worth of hot dogs and sodas that September evening, the Braves found themselves down four runs going into the bottom of the ninth. Again, it felt as if the four-hour drive to Atlanta was for naught. But a rally emerged.

I remember it like it was yesterday. There was a Reed Johnson base hit. Then a pair of walks to Paul Janish and Michael Bourn. Yes, then a lucky error by the Philadelphia defense. And all of a sudden two runs scored and Chipper had a chance to win the game with one swing of the bat.

Of course, you know the story. I wouldn’t be telling the story if he struck out. Chipper hit the ball a mile into the right field bleachers. I don’t know if it ever landed, to be honest. It may still be in orbit.

Dad was on the ground in a matter of seconds. He was rolling down the steps, losing his glasses and his sanity. I did the opposite, collapsing into my seat, praying to God I wasn’t dreaming. And after collecting ourselves, we hugged. We hugged for what felt like an eternity. I cried, because we won. And Chipper hit it. CHIPPER HIT IT. We won. Really, WE WON.

The Braves could have lost every game for 16 years, and in that moment it wouldn’t have mattered. Nothing mattered. It was just a normal, unimportant, regular season game. Just one of 162 they played that season. But to us, it was the game. It was the game I would tell my children about one day to remind them there is hope as a Braves fan.

High school graduation could come knocking. College could come knocking. The real world could come knocking. And eventually I would have to answer. Eventually, the little boy snoring in the sleeping bag, sprawled out in the back of the car on the way to Atlanta would have to sprout from his Braves colored room for something bigger. And we both knew that.

So we hugged, cried, and never wanted to leave Turner Field.

The Braves won. And not another damned thing mattered.

Because tonight, we were together.

David Ray Allen Jr.

 

IMG_1271.jpg

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s