Can Braves bring relief to Atlanta sports fans?

October 18th, 2020

Nearly four years ago now, I sat in a press box far above the field at NRG Stadium in Houston, watching the Atlanta Falcons take a 28-3 lead on Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. It was the third quarter, the president had already left the stadium and it looked like the city of Atlanta was going to get its first championship in more than 20 years. I was sitting next to Terence Moore, the longtime columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a human being who has forgotten more about Atlanta sports than any of us will ever know.

I turned to Terence. “This sure is something, isn’t it?” I said.

He chuckled. “This is still Atlanta sports,” he said. “Just you wait.” Roughly 65 minutes later, the Patriots had their fifth Super Bowl ring as the Falcons players lay strewn across the field, staggered by what had just happened to them. This is still Atlanta sports.

Maybe you, the layperson, saw the Braves take a 3-1 series lead in the NLCS two days ago and thought, “Wow, the Braves are really going to do this.” Know, though, that is not what Braves fans thought. They thought, “Oh no: The score is 28-3.”

When people talk about tortured sports cities, they generally talk about Cleveland, or Buffalo, or Minnesota. They rarely talk about Atlanta. But they should really be talking about Atlanta. And if the Braves lose tonight, they may never stop talking about Atlanta.

Tonight, the Braves will face the Dodgers for the right to head to the World Series. It would be the Dodgers’ third World Series appearance in the last four years, but it would be the Braves’ first since 1999. That drought has happened despite 11 postseason appearances (including 2020) since 2001. The Atlanta Braves famously won 14 consecutive division titles from 1991-2005, an achievement that becomes a little bit more remarkable the farther away you get from it. And yet in that whole time, they won just one World Series; the Marlins have never won the NL East … and they have two World Series titles.

Unless you count Atlanta United’s 2018 MLS Cup championship -- and while I, an Atlanta United fan, very much think you should -- it’s fair to say the majority of Georgia sports fans disagree with me, and feel that 1995 World Series title is the one major professional sports league title the city of Atlanta has ever won.

But even that title comes with some pain. Not only was that title won the year after the canceled World Series of '94 and in a year in which many casual fans were slow to watch baseball, that World Series was won on the very same night that the University of Georgia football team (widely considered the state of Georgia’s truest sports love) hosted Florida at Sanford Stadium for the first time in 60 years. (The game is always held in Jacksonville, but wasn’t in ’94 and ’95 because the Jaguars’ stadium was under construction.) Steve Spurrier’s Gators dropped 52 points (“half a hundred,” as Spurrier famously put it), the most points an opponent had ever scored in Athens, and to many Georgia sports fans, it was the one thing that could put a damper on a Braves title. Even a glorious night had to be in some way spoiled.

Otherwise: It has been nothing but pain in Atlanta. The Georgia football team just missed a championship in 2017. The Falcons have made the Super Bowl twice and lost twice; the Brady game, and the infamous Eugene Robinson game back in 1999. Both losses were followed by the Falcons collapsing in subsequent years.

But it’s the Braves who have gone through this ringer the most often. Since that 1995 World Series championship, they’ve:

• Blown a 2-0 lead (both road wins) to the Yankees in the 1996 World Series.

• Been swept by the Yankees in the 1999 World Series.

• Lost to the eventual World Series champion in the playoffs four times.

• Suffered the infamous Infield Fly Rule call in the 2012 Wild Card Game (the first one ever), a game that ended up being the last game of Chipper Jones’ career.

• Got within one game of finally reaching the NLCS last year … and then gave up 10 runs in the first inning of Game 5 of the NL Division Series.

The hope was that this new generation of talent, led by Ronald Acuña, Jr., but also featuring Ozzie Albies, Max Fried, Dansby Swanson, Ian Anderson, Austin Riley, Christian Pache and Bryse Wilson -- not to mention veterans Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna -- would be able to leave all that past … well, in the past. What does Acuña know about blowing a 2-0 lead in the 1996 World Series? He wasn’t even born until December '97! But fans are the connective tissue between generations of players. They always know. They always remember.

And so now the Braves face the Dodgers in Game 7 of the NLCS, with one of those young stars, Anderson, on the mound. He also is someone who wasn’t born when that 1996 World Series happened, was 14 years old during the Infield Fly Rule game and has nothing to do with the Braves' history at all. He doesn’t have to pitch with all those years of pain weighing him down: He’s just facing a great lineup, which is plenty difficult enough. But Braves fans, and Atlanta sports fans, know he’s facing much more than that. Every near-miss, every almost-got-there, every should-have-been, they’re all present and ever vivid with every pitch. Braves fans have been trying to put their past behind them for decades.

But if the Braves don’t win Sunday night, not only will Atlanta fans not be able to forget the pile of gruesome losses that have compiled throughout their life: They’ll have one more to add to it.