The Braves, the World Series and me
Just after midnight, and it just hit me. The Atlanta Braves played a World Series game without me … for the first time ... ever. True fact. It was their 30th game of all time in the Fall Classic on Tuesday night. I witnessed and chronicled the first 29 for The Birmingham News. You could look it up in the boxes in my basement.
The Braves went 11-18 in those World Series games I covered, losing the last eight in a row. Two decades and two years later, with me a safe distance away, they beat down the Houston Astros in Game 1.
Not sure what that means, but it means something to me.
Baseball will do that to you. It'll make everything personal even when you have no dog in the hunt. I never was a Braves fan of the chanting and chopping kind, not after growing up 90 miles from Larry Bowa, Mike Schmidt and the Phillies, but true confession. Back in the '90s, when the Braves won, I won. When they went to Minnesota in 1991, Toronto in '92, Cleveland in '95, New York in '96 and back to New York in '99, I earned some serious frequent flier miles and memories that will never expire.
The dagger home runs still stand out. The one that went right - David Justice in the sixth inning of Game 6 in 1995 for the run that won the ring - and the ones that went wrong. The immortal Kirby Puckett in the 11th inning of Game 6 in 1991. (That was the greatest World Series of all. Fight me.) Ed Sprague (?)(?)(!) in the ninth inning of Game 2 in 1992. Jim Freaking Leyritz in the eighth inning of Game 4 in 1996. The franchise never quite recovered from that one, at least until Tuesday night.
All that superior pitching undone by unimaginable home runs.
Other moments have survived the push and pull of the years. Sitting through the coldest night of my life during Game 3 in 1995 in Cleveland, with a 25-mph wind blowing in off Lake Erie dropping the wind chill to 29 degrees, shrinking into my ski cap and parka in the right-field auxiliary press section, which was so lonely - most of my thin-blooded comrades having retreated to the warmth of the press room - MLB got questioned about all those empty seats.
Fearing for my life after the Yankees clinched in Game 6 in 1996 and Wade Boggs did a victory lap on horseback, bumping into a giddy George Steinbrenner on my way out of the stadium, sensing an imminent demise as fans scaled and rocked the media bus when we hit a red light in Manhattan, marveling as the bus driver punched the pedal, dispatching the revelers to the pavement and the fumes.
None of those memories burns as bright as the night Francisco Cabrera swung and Sid Bream slid to clinch the 1992 NLCS. It's unrivaled as the most emotion I've ever felt in a stadium outside of an Iron Bowl or a game involving my sons. I still see the ghost of Pirates manager Jim Leyland in the aftershock, a haunted apparition walking through the tunnel in Fulton County Stadium in his socks.
And to think my personal postseason baseball odyssey began in a football press box. On Oct. 5, 1991, Auburn had just lost to Southern Miss 10-9. When I called the office to make sure they'd gotten my column - land lines only at the time - the sports editor said, come Monday, you're going to Pittsburgh.
My brilliant response: Pittsburgh? What's happening in Pittsburgh? The Braves were happening, blockhead, headed to the postseason for the first time in nine years, having climbed from worst to first, and I was going along for the ride - which lasted nine years through 98 postseason games, or every postseason game the Braves played from 1991 through 2000. That's a lot of columns and game stories, notes and quotes, hot dogs and popcorn, not to mention wit and wisdom from the human rocking chair, pitching guru Leo Mazzone.
After the Braves got swept by the Cardinals in the 2000 Division Series, their playoff streak continued without me but with no more World Series games. Until Tuesday. Yeah. How can you not be romantic about baseball?
Critics have hounded the Braves for winning only one of those five World Series in the '90s. I don't see it that way, especially through the telescope of time. I'm forever grateful to them - and the decision-makers at The News - because I got to see and feel and share 29 World Series games and the 69 playoff games that surrounded them. So chop on, Atlanta. I'll be watching from a safe distance and, in between innings, reminiscing, hoping that maybe this time, the ghost of Lonnie Smith keeps on running.