To know joy, you must first know suffering. Some people learn this through the lifelong practice of Eastern philosophy. I learned it by rooting for the Atlanta Braves.
In the seventies and eighties, when I was growing up in South Georgia, the Braves were mostly miserable. Their highlight reel was shorter than a movie trailer. Henry Aaron (the greatest player of all time, fight me) broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. Phil Niekro threw a bunch of baffling knuckleballs. Later, Dale Murphy had a couple of MVP years. But in my memory, they always finished something like 67–95. Other fans watched their teams in the World Series. Braves fans raked pine needles.
Then, starting in 1991, we put down the rakes. All of a sudden, the Braves were the best team in baseball. For most of the nineties they put four Hall of Famers (now or future) on the field: third baseman Chipper Jones and pitchers Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Greg Maddux. They made the playoffs nearly every year. But here came the second phase of suffering. As great as they were, they won the World Series just once, in 1995. They lost the World Series four times. Some of those losses still trigger nightmares. If you’re around an older Braves fan, do not say the name Jack Morris.
The Braves last went to the World Series in 1999. After that came the third phase of suffering. The last twenty-some years have been an elongated tease—twelve trips to the playoffs, twelve ever-more-painful failures. Last year, they were up three games to one on the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series. One win away from the World Series. They lost three in a row.
This year the Braves found themselves in exactly the same place—up three games to one on the Dodgers. They lost game 5 in L.A., and in my mind I saw the giant from Twin Peaks saying, “IT IS HAPPENING AGAIN.”
The Braves mirror the South in so many ways. Civic leaders brought the team to Atlanta from Milwaukee at least in part to prove that the South could peacefully integrate. Aaron, who grew up in Alabama, didn’t want to play in Atlanta until Martin Luther King Jr. told him he would be a powerful symbol of black achievement. Aaron got thousands of hateful racist letters as he chased down Babe Ruth’s record. But when he hit number 715 in 1974, passing the Babe, the celebration was overwhelming.
The Braves still haven’t let go of all the troubles of their past. A lot of fans still do the tomahawk chop, which offends many Native Americans. The South is nothing if not a mess of contradictions. You could describe the Braves the same way—such great potential, squandered in so many ways.
I know, it’s crazy to load all that emotional weight into a ball game. I’m just telling you how it felt Saturday night when Eddie Rosario stepped to the plate in game 6 with the game tied 1–1 in the fourth.
At midseason, with the Braves hovering around .500, the team overhauled their outfield with four new players: Rosario, from Puerto Rico; Joc Pederson, from California; Adam Duvall, from Kentucky; and Jorge Soler, who defected from Cuba to play in the majors. The group of newcomers from everywhere turned the team around. Rosario had been the best of them all. The Dodgers hadn’t been able to get him out all series. Still, if I’m being honest, I did not believe. The history was too heavy.
And then Rosario hooked a three-run homer into the right-field seats.
The Braves still needed fifteen outs and two tense hours to finish it off. In the end they entrusted the game to a pitcher named Will Smith, who was born in Newnan, Georgia, in 1989 and grew up watching so many great and heartbreaking Braves teams.
Smith got the Dodgers one, two, three.
Now the Braves play Houston in the World Series, starting Tuesday night, and who knows—maybe they break our hearts again. If you’re a Braves fan, you come to expect the suffering. But right now, the only thing to do is appreciate the joy.