Tuesday, April 15, 2008

It Was 20 Years Ago Today

My non-baseball writing project has me feeling a bit nostalgic lately. This, combined with some greenhorn's thoughts about whether it's OK to be a Braves "die hard" considering all of the success they've had since 1990, has me thinking about my experience as a Braves fan. Specifically, it has me thinking about how on April 15, 1988 -- exactly 20 years ago today -- my relationship with the Braves, while long simmering by then, was truly cemented.

As I've mentioned in this space before, I was born into a Tigers-loving family in Flint, Michigan, and grew up on the Houk-Anderson teams of the late 70s and early 80s. We moved away in January 1985, however, and I soon started to lose touch with them. I began to stray.

It started innocently enough. Random channel surfing that summer caused me to stumble upon my first WTBS broadcast, and I was curious. I was initially attracted by the NWA wrestling -- the Koloffs and the Rock and Roll Express were engaged in quite a feud, if I recall -- but the Braves games sucked me in, with random little things holding my interest each time as I tried in vain to maintain my fidelity to the Tigers. "Is that Rick Cerone? I wondered what happened to him." "Len Barker? I thought he was supposed to be good. Maybe I'll just watch a little more of this start." Two hours later I would realize that I had watched every last Rafael Ramirez at bat, every Pascual Perez victory

I wasn't hooked yet -- hell, Pascual Perez went 1-13 in 1985, so seeing all of his wins wasn't much a trick -- but by 1986 I was past the point of no return. I was a Braves fan, even if it took me a year or so to admit it to myself. Desperately, like a man trying to save a dying marriage with purchases of jewelry, I continued to follow the Tigers via The Sporting News. But without Ernie Harwell around, it wasn't the same. I hung around as late as the last great team of 1987 -- that season-ending weekend series against the Jays was like that last ditch B&B weekend in which you fool yourself into thinking you and her still have a future together -- but as soon as it was over I knew that my rooting was more about inertia than anything else.

But despite all of that -- and despite the fact that I had been messing around with Atlanta for over two years by this point -- I was still in Braves denial. When asked, I would say I was a Tigers fan. When pressed, I would say that I was just watching the Braves because they were on, not because I was into them or anything. This led to some embarrassing moments, of course, most notably the time in August 1987 when I stayed in our hotel room during a family trip to Myrtle Beach to watch Tom Glavine's major league debut -- shelled by the Astros, unfortunately -- rather than head out to the beach. Did I say I wasn't feeling well? Did I try to even hide it by then? I can't recall exactly, but I know now that everybody probably knew already.

So if I was in denial, when did it end? I'll tell you exactly: in the bottom of the third inning during the Braves-Dodgers game on the evening of Friday April 15, 1988.

Six days before that game I had been in a nasty car accident. I wasn't hurt -- not even a scratch -- but given that I was in the back seat of a Chevy Chevette that had just flipped over three times and ended up on its roof, well, that was something of a miracle. The other five teenagers in the car weren't quite as lucky, but no one died, and by the time of the Braves-Dodgers game, we knew that everyone would be OK.

The crash had put an abrupt end to my going away party. You see, for the second time in three years, my family was moving to another town, this time 120 miles south to Beckley, West Virginia, and my friends wanted to send me off in style, which for this crowd meant lots of underage drinking and an epic automobile accident. My parents, who thought I was at a sleepover at the time of the crash, had no idea how to punish me for a transgression so major. At times like these people tend to default to what they know, however, so they grounded me for something like three months.

Of course the grounding was kind of pointless considering that, in six days, I would be moving to a town in which I didn't know anyone. It was especially pointless considering that, due to a screw up with the realtor and the sellers of our new house, we were going to be living indefinitely in the Beckley Ramada Inn at the expense of the United States Department of Commerce's employee relocation division. Ground me? Where the hell was I even going to go? I was already in my own private Guantanamo.

We left Parkersburg for good on the afternoon of the 15th. Two hours later we pulled into the Ramada. After a joyless dinner at the Western Steer Steakhouse, my brother and I retired to the double room we would share for the next two months. I clicked on the TV. The Braves-Dodgers game started at around 10:30pm. Given the significance of the day in my life and in my baseball fandom, I remember the game more clearly than I remember the Indians-Red Sox game I watched last night, and what I don't remember I've gotten from Sean Foreman (who does God's work on Earth, in case you were unaware).

The Braves had dropped their first eight games of the season, all of them at home, most of them in front of pitifully small crowds. It was getting good and ugly by the 15th, and you could tell that Atlanta was tight. Tom Glavine was on the hill that night, but he wasn't Tom Glavine yet. After an inauspicious rookie year, he had dropped his first start of 1988 on the night of my car wreck and took the mound against the Dodgers looking nervous and overmatched. The rest of the Braves looked the same, save Dale Murphy, who simply looked like he wanted to get the hell away from this crew of losers and misfits before any of what they were carrying infected him (it eventually would, however, as he went .226/.313/.421 that year).

It was tied 0-0 in the bottom of the third when Rick Dempsey reached on an infield single. Well, it was scored an infield single anyway, but that was some hometown-scorer generosity, because I distinctly remember Andres Thomas booting the sucker when he failed to charge it, failed to get his glove down, and failed to look, think, or react like a major league ballplayer. Wasn't his fault, though, because he wasn't really a major league ballplayer anyway. The next batter was Orel Hershiser, who squared to bunt. Gerald Perry took the ball himself at first, and ran over to the bag to force Hershiser out.

This was what led to the watershed moment. I'm not entirely sure what the argument was about, but Ozzie Virgil made a point to stand on the mound after Hershiser's bunt and yell at everyone. Skip Caray seemed to think that the focus of his ire was second baseman Damaso Garcia, who perhaps didn't rotate to first when Hershiser squared to bunt. Maybe Virgil thought they could have gotten two on the play if Garcia had fielded his position properly. Maybe he just missed Glenn Hubbard who had signed with the A's that offseason. Whatever the case, he was hot, and he was yelling at everyone with the possible exception of Glavine. He was also humiliating himself and his teammates on national television, which Skip pointed out as well. If memory serves, Braves manager Chuck Tanner -- a guy whose previous stint in a Braves uniform ended when he was waived during their last championship season -- sat passively on the bench during this exchange, no doubt lost in reminiscence of the 1979 Pirates or something. The game ended up being a fairly close one, but the Braves eventually lost.

I watched all of this that night, and rather than upset me, it made me pretty damn happy. Why? Because here I was, virtually homeless, stuck in a shitty hotel room, cut off from friends in a new town, with the fact of my mortality just beginning to dawn on me after a week's worth of post-accident denial and bravado. I was lonely, I was sad, and I was afraid of both the near and long-term future. In short, I was at a miserable low point, but the fact that my baseball team was too softened the blow.

And you know what? Despite their unprecedented run of success between 1991 and 2005 -- despite the World Series championship and the five pennants and the scads of division crowns in recent years -- that 1988 team still stands as my favorite Braves team of all time. Why? Because we suffered together that summer. Because, like no other summer before or since, I lived with, breathed with, laughed with, and cried with a baseball team day-in-day-out.

To this day I remember young guys like Andres Thomas and Dion James pretending to have a clue as to what they were supposed to be doing on a baseball diamond. I remember old guys like Ken Griffey and Ted Simmons and Gary Roenicke wondering how in the hell they ended up in Atlanta. I remember developmental false starts like German Jimenez and Kevin Coffman providing a bleak view of Atlanta's future. I remember diamonds in the rough like Glavine, John Smoltz, Ron Gant, Mark Lemke, and Jeff Blauser who one day, I thought, if everything broke just right, might form the basis of a team that could play .500 baseball (not that I dared say such a thing out loud).

The 1988 season lasted forever, but it ended far too soon. I cheered in 1991, I roared in 1995, and I'll always hang with them no matter how spoiled, impatient, or pessimistic I get with them these days. But I'll never love a team like I loved the 1988 Braves, and it was a love that began in earnest 20 years ago today.

4 comments:

Jason said...

Awesome. one word to describe an army of them, put in the proper order.

Well done, CC

Marc In Tallahassee said...

I've been a Braves fan my whole life, but I think I'm a few years younger than you. The main things I remember from the late '80s is that once Kent Oberkfell broke up a Mike Scott no-hitter in the 9th, and that Dion James stood really far from the plate. I remember a kid as school the next day claimed he predicted Oberkfell would break up the no no. I could never forget Garber. And I remember my 12-year-old mind for some reason thinking Gerald Perry was a good player.

Marty Winn said...

Ken, not Kent. I grew up a Braves fan in Florida. I remember sneaking out of bed, tuning an AM radio down low (to avoid parental detection) to get the signal from 500 miles away at night and hearing Jeff Burroughs hit homeruns. I suspect this was 77 or 78. Before that I remember Larvell "Sugar Bear" Blanks baseball cards that Grandma bought me. I went to college at Georgia Tech so I got to root on the Braves from in town. I remember attending a bonfire on GT campus right after Sid Bream slid in safely. The just piled up couches and anything that would burn in the middle of an intersection and melted the traffic light above. Same thing happen when GT beat UVA in football 41-38 in Virginia. I'm in Roanoke, VA now and I miss getting to go to MLB games. Soon Greg Maddux will retire and then I'll really be sad.

Ethan said...

Great piece, Craig. Really great. This, um, writing thing? You're getting there.