Jason Isbell’s Atlanta Braves Obsession

Notes from a lifelong fan

Photo: Illustration by Tim Bower

When I was a kid in northern Alabama, I spent a great deal of time with my grandparents Carthel and Louise Isbell. They lived next door to the school I attended from kindergarten through senior year, and since my parents couldn’t really afford day care, I spent my time learning to play guitar from my granddad or helping him tend to the farm animals he kept out back. They had VHS tapes of old Westerns and we watched them at night, even though they’d seen them all at least a half dozen times. When I was seven, I started playing baseball for my local league (Dixie Youth, it was called). My grandparents made it to almost all my games. My grandfather would hand out two-dollar bills or ice cream sandwiches to my teammates and me afterward, while my grandmother would offer words of encouragement to the kids who hadn’t played so well, or the ones who were afraid of the ball.

Until I started playing baseball, my grandparents had very little experience with the game. But once they watched me play for a season or so, they had learned the rules and were hooked. They were very religious folks, didn’t curse or drink or watch R-rated movies, and other than old Westerns there was hardly anything on TV at night that we could all comfortably watch together. However, like pretty much everyone else in America in the eighties and nineties, we could watch Braves games on the Superstation.

I remember my grandmother’s excitement every time Rafael Belliard came on the screen. She liked him best because he always had a smile. My grandfather made up nicknames for almost all the Braves regulars. He called Bobby Cox “Wally Cox,” after the old TV comedian, and John Smoltz “Smokes” for obvious reasons.

We spent a lot of summer days and evenings watching those games. They were exciting for me even up into my angry teens, and my grandparents never had to worry about graphic violence or nudity or profanity or anything evil coming through the television into their peaceful little home. I was sixteen when Atlanta won the Series in ’95, and like a lot of sixteen-year-olds I needed something to bring me closer to the elders in my family. Baseball, specifically Braves baseball, worked like a charm. For that, I will always be a fan.