If I've learned anything from these past five years living in Georgia, it's that after years of coming just short on the grandest stages, the sports fans here are a fascinating mix of the irrationally exuberant and darkly fatalistic.Fans are fiercely loyal to their teams, but only up to a
If I've learned anything from these past five years living in Georgia, it's that after years of coming just short on the grandest stages, the sports fans here are a fascinating mix of the irrationally exuberant and darkly fatalistic.
Fans are fiercely loyal to their teams, but only up to a point: They are insistent their teams are better than yours, until it starts to matter, and then it will be nothing but heartbreak. Fans down here treat their teams like a wayward nephew who had all the talented in the world but never quite put it together, and surely never will. He still breaks their hearts ... but you better never say a bad word about him.
This is a state that watched the Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz teams win 14 straight division titles but only one World Series, that melted as Tua Tagovailoa destroyed the hearts of the Georgia Bulldog nation last January, that will never forget the numbers 28-3. So when there is something, someone new here, someone who can make all that suffering worth it -- whether it's Kirby Smart, Jason Heyward or Michael Vick -- it becomes the cause here. They want something new, so they can forget all that is old. They want to believe.
That's to say: You sure do see a ton of Braves hats outside these days.
The Braves, or the Baby Braves as they're already being called, have become one of the best stories in baseball, and in the wake of Tuesday's 3-2 win over the Mets, they're just a half-game out of first place in the National League East and on a three-game win streak. They've done this in the way that will most maximize external hype -- by having the three youngest players in baseball: Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Mike Soroka, the latter of whom made his MLB debut on Tuesday, and gave up just one run in six innings. (At the age of 20 and against Noah Syndergaard in New York no less).
We are obsessed with youth, and the Braves currently have all the youth. The NL was thought to have three obvious division winners and a few stragglers battling for the Wild Card spots, but it has turned out to be wildly unpredictable in the season's first month. Atlanta is at the forefront of bumrushing that stage.
The youngsters have been the headliners, and for good reason. Albies and Acuna are already batting first and second in the order, and they've been fantastic. Albies has shown rather shocking power (nine homers already, despite hitting only seven total his first three years in the Minors) and is merely leading the NL in runs, hits and doubles. Acuna is hitting .417 in his first six games.
But the talent is all over the Braves' lineup, from established stars like Freddie Freeman to surging youngsters like Dansby Swanson and Johan Camargo. Atlanta's offensive magic is contagious apparently, with late-career veterans like Nick Markakis, Ryan Flaherty and Kurt Suzuki off to some of the best starts of their careers. The Braves lead the NL in runs, hits, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. They are a blast to watch. Scoring is fun!
This is perfectly timed for the Braves, who had a somewhat rocky opening to their new stadium in the suburbs, with traffic issues, parking headaches and a small, but not overwhelming, attendance uptick. SunTrust Park is a lovely ballpark, but Atlanta fans can be fickle, and an opening push of an exciting young ballclub, particularly with the Atlanta United MLS team setting attendance records in its downtown setting, is precisely what the Braves were hoping for. The Braves aren't just good right now, they're electric. They're the sort of young team you have to get out to the ballpark to check out. And Jose Bautista -- who is magnetic even when he's not hitting at all -- hasn't even gotten here yet. Bautista did homer for Triple-A Gwinnett on Tuesday, and I'm sure you missed that guy.
Plus, when you're there, you can see the other team score a bunch of runs too. The Braves' pitching hasn't quite matched their hitting, though Mike Foltynewicz has taken a big step forward at the age of 26. That the Braves are winning with their bats is ironic considering the club began its rebuild with the idea that the foundation would be built on young pitching. Those guys -- Kyle Wright, Luiz Gohara, Ian Anderson, Kolby Allard -- are all coming, though, and if Atlanta keeps winning like this, probably soon.
When you look at the Braves moving forward, well, they don't look like they're going to win 14 consecutive division championships ... but would you be all that surprised if they won, say, half that many? The Nationals are about to face some massive upheaval, the Marlins are an ongoing process, the Mets are sneakily older than you think and the Phillies ... well, yes, the Phils have the sort of young talent that has their fans dreaming about the future as well (and, historically, more payroll might than the Braves.) Atlanta and Philadelphia look poised to own the NL East for the next decade. The surprising part isn't that it's happening -- it's that it's happening so soon. That it's happening right now.
It has been a rough few years for the Braves and their fans. We're not even six months removed from former general manager John Coppolella being banned by MLB for life for violating international signing rules, with the team losing a stunning 13 prospects in the scandal. Atlanta hasn't reached the playoffs since 2013, its last winning season, and has in fact lost a stunning eight postseason series in a row. (The Braves' last playoff victory was started by Glavine and finished by Smoltz, and the lineup featured Julio Franco, B.J. Surhoff and Brian Jordan.)
• Freeman: "It's time to get excited."
But this Braves team, outside of Freeman and Julio Teheran, has little connection to grim recent history. These are a bunch of kids storming the beach, wildly talented and eager to take over, and there's even more talent coming. If the Braves beat the Mets on Wednesday at Citi Field, they'll be in first place all by themselves, with nine games coming up against teams with losing records. The future is going to be wonderful in Atlanta. But the future might be right now.
Georgia fans are falling in love with this team. Deep down, they know, like all their teams, the Braves will probably end up breaking their hearts at some point. But for now, hop on board and enjoy the ride.
Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.