Lang’s World: The Atlanta Braves are the Best Team in Baseball. Can You Believe It?

I don’t remember exactly where I was when the Atlanta Braves won the 1995 World Series. I *think* I was with my friends Mike and Chris, but I don’t recall with any detail how I reacted or what we did that moment when Marquis Grissom drifted into left field and caught the final out of Game 6 of the 1995 World Series, giving the Braves their first championship in history.

I thought about that a lot the last few days, as the Braves flirted with winning their first World Series since then. How could I not remember the details of one of my favorite teams winning the only sports championship of my lifetime? It was nearly incomprehensible.

The only conclusion I could come to was that it was just so long ago—26 years!—that it had all become hazy, like so many other memories stuffed somewhere deep in my memory bank. I’ve rooted for the Braves my whole life. I even wrote a book about what it’s like to root for the Braves. And the Braves in the ‘90s had so many big moments, that my experiences of watching them all started to run together, at least in my increasingly crowded brain.

For me, the very best aspect of sports is that it can provide a communal experience. There are so many emotions at stake, that we just can’t go through these seasons alone. Throughout this season, I had several group chats that would come alive whenever the Braves played, and there was one chat in particular with two of my Grizzlies co-workers, where we’d dissect the minutiae of the Braves games and roster moves. Why would Brian Snitker pinch hit for the starter when he’d only thrown 76 pitches? Why did the Braves call up that guy from AAA? Which players needed to be banished from our bullpen? Every baseball game is a series of dozens of decisions, and our job as fans is to analyze every one of those choices. I spent a lot of time this summer talking these other guys down, reminding them that baseball is a marathon, not a sprint.

Baseball requires a deeper emotional investment from its fans than any other sport. It’s a grueling 162-game season, with each game lasting close to three hours. It’s almost stultifying to follow, game after game after game after game, and for a team like this Braves team, it would have been easy to tune out a few months ago. Throughout this season, the Braves lost their best all-around player (Ronald Acuña), their best slugger (Marcell Ozuna) and their best young pitcher (Mike Soroka). Our best pitcher broke his leg at the start of Game One of the World Series (Charlie Morton). Heck, we even lost for good our greatest player in franchise history, Henry Aaron. As Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said, “We have had like 40-foot potholes that we’ve hit, like humongous speed bumps. Everything you could possibly see in a road, we hit it.” (Sounds as though Freddie’s been driving around Memphis.)

Through it all, somehow, the Braves overcame all of those challenges. This was a team that was literally average as recently as August. And I was along for that ride, never wavering, watching every game, even through the first half of the season, when the Braves just couldn’t turn the corner. And then everything went right, almost every night, right when it all mattered the most. Everything was trending the right way! It felt like maybe this was going to be our year!

But there was always that awful feeling that maybe it wouldn’t? After all, the Braves won it all in ’95, but they also lost in three other World Series during that run. When the Braves took a 4-0 lead in the first inning of Game 5 thanks to an Adam Duvall home run, I was there in Truist Park, thanks to a couple of tickets from my friend Tzvi Twersky. After everyone high-fived anyone within reach, and we all settled in to continue watching, I turned to the people next to me and reminded them that the Falcons had built a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl, and we all knew how that turned out. Weird things have always happened to Atlanta sports teams when it mattered most. Could this Braves group be the team to break that streak?

That was the fear hanging over Braves fans the last few weeks. It was scary to buy all the way in, because you figured somewhere along the line the Braves would come up with a new and inventive way to break your heart again.

But whenever it seemed like they were done, the Braves just kept winning. Big hits when it mattered. Strike outs to strand runners in scoring position. Four new outfielders at the trade deadline that totally changed the chemistry of this team. A bullpen that was shaky all season suddenly (and incredibly) transforming into one of this team’s biggest strengths. As I wrote last week, this season the Braves have had “it.”

I don’t know what “it” is, or how you develop “it,” but as the season rolled along it became more and more obvious that this Braves team had something different in its DNA. And eventually, we had no choice but to believe.

Atlanta Braves celebrating World Series victory

A little over a month ago, I had just sat down at my desk on a Monday morning, when my wife called to tell me our 8-year-old son had tested positive for COVID-19. On my way home, as I was trying to think about how we would deal with having a child with the Coronavirus, I wondered if perhaps I should just go ahead and get the virus, so I could take care of my son with no restrictions. I was fully vaccinated, after all, and medical experts have seemed confident that being fully vaccinated should help people avoid the most serious complications of the virus. Perhaps me being sick for a few days would be worth it to be able to spend two weeks with my son, comforting him and helping him through this beast.

At the same time, I knew this virus was terribly unpredictable. My brother Sekou Smith was taken from us by the virus not even a year ago. Odds were that I would be ok, but nobody really knows. So, I realized that I would try my best to take care of my son, but catching it on purpose would be dumb.

Two days later, I woke up with a stuffy nose, and a few hours later I tested positive. The decision was made for me. My son and I went through COVID together, quarantined in my bedroom, and despite being double vaxxed, I had much rougher symptoms than he did. But every night, once I got him settled and asleep, I would lay there in the bed, sweating through the sheets, watching the Atlanta Braves. They helped get me through. This year has been so tough for so many of us. For me, the Braves provided some semblance of normalcy, a healthy distraction that helped me through an anxiety-filled few weeks.

As a fan, winning a championship gives some vague sense of validation. All those years and decades of cheering for your team were not in vain. I made the effort 160-something times this season to watch the Braves play. In a life where things can get sideways pretty quickly, being able to believe in this Braves team the last few weeks was exhilarating.

I forgot what that feeling was like. I’d spent so many years giving myself to teams and never getting that ultimate payback, that I honestly forgot how amazing it feels to be crowned the champs. As the Braves got closer to winning it all, I started to feel incrementally more confident. Last night, when Jorge Soler stepped up and battled and battled and then hit a ball out of the freaking stadium, something inside me unwound a little bit. When we got to the bottom of the 5th inning with a 6-0 lead, I started counting the outs that were remaining. 15. 12. 9. 6. 5. 4. In came Will Smith. 3. 2. 1.

Last night, the three of us from my most active Braves group chat gathered with our families to watch Game 6. The plan was to watch a few innings, and then split up and go back to our homes so we could get our kids to bed—it was a school night, after all. But as the game inched along, we all realized we couldn’t break up the watch party, lest we somehow be responsible for messing with the Braves’ mojo.

When Will Smith got Yuli Gurriel to ground out to Dansby Swanson and the Braves sealed their first World Series win since 1995, we went a little crazy. I turned and lifted my son into the air and jumped around, and I hoped it was a moment he’ll remember forever. I can’t thank the Braves enough for giving me and my family and my friends this moment, this feeling, this gift.

Right now, I am exhausted. I’ve slept 16 hours over the last four days, which included a drive to Atlanta and then back to Memphis, so I could be at Game 5 in person. My voice is scratchy and I could probably use a shower, if we’re being honest. I feel like Ron Burgundy in the glass case of emotion. Eventually my attention will focus in on the Grizzlies and UGA football, but for right now, I just want to sit in this feeling for a while.

The Atlanta Braves really just won the World Series. The Atlanta Braves are the best baseball team in the world.

Can you believe it?

I can.

Lang’s World: The Atlanta Braves and the “It” Season.

One week after the Fourth of July, the Atlanta Braves’ season was effectively over.

The Braves were in Miami at the time, playing a series against the Marlins, who under manager Don Mattingly have repeatedly tried to injure Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña by throwing pitches directly at him. (Since 2018, the Marlins have hit Acuña with pitches seven times, not including a few near misses.) The Marlins trying to injure Acuña makes a certain perverse sense, because Acuña is the most dynamic player on the Braves, and at 23 years old, arguably the best young player in baseball.

In a game on July 2, the Marlins wasted no time getting to the point, throwing the very first pitch of the game into Acuña’s shoulder. But that wasn’t what did it. Nine days later, Marlins shortstop Jazz Chisholm lined a drive into right field, and after a leaping stab at the ball, Acuña landed awkwardly and crumpled to the ground. At the time, 82 games into his season, Acuña had slugged 24 home runs, driven in 52 runs, stolen 17 bases, and had just been named a starter in the All-Star Game after leading the fan vote.

Ronald Acuna carried off the field from injury

Acuña was, by all measures, the best player on a Braves team that was scuffling—they were 44-44 when Acuña went down. When Acuña got hurt, it definitely felt like the Braves were dunzo. We already had a few injuries to pitchers, outfielder Marcell Ozuna had been removed following a domestic violence arrest, and at that time, the Braves just didn’t have “it.”

Now, I can not tell you what “it” is. Either a team has “it,” or they don’t. What is “it?” If that was easy to answer, most baseball GM’s would be out of work. It’s momentum, it’s purpose, it’s a drive, it’s a central unifying theme, it’s something that everyone can believe in and rally around. For most of this season, the Braves seemed like they were just going through the motions. They didn’t have “it.”

And then at the trade deadline, the Braves used a bunch of lower level prospects to completely reboot their outfield, picking up Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosario, Adam Duvall and Jorge Soler. This was particularly baffling to me. We were a team that had been struggling to find quality pitching all season, particularly out of the bullpen. But now we were going all in on offense?

The crazy thing is, it worked. The Braves started hitting, and getting offense from all angles, and driving in runs. Suddenly the pitching wasn’t as critical. On August 7, the Braves were even at 56-56, almost three games out of first place in the NL East. Suddenly, everything changed. The Braves got hot at the right time and started winning, and the Braves finished the season by going 32-17. The Braves made the postseason, and basically skunked the Milwaukee Brewers, then outplayed the mighty Dodgers, and now find themselves in the dang World Series, starting this week.

Two other late-season developments warrant mentioning here. At some point, reserve outfielder Guillermo Heredia purchased two toy swords and began wielding them in the dugout after big hits. This became a thing, and now every Braves player who gets a hit mimics a sword swiping motion after getting on base. More recently, Pederson inexplicably began wearing a single strand of pearls while playing. When asked about it, according to Braves beat writer Dave O’Brien, Pederson said there was no real explanation, he was just a “bad b*tch.” And now, of course, everyone in the stands at Braves games wears pearls.

It’s hard to assign an identity to this Braves team. Those ‘90s Braves teams were defined by elite pitching and great defense. This year’s model is a bit more well-rounded, able to do a little bit of everything. They could probably be a bit better at playing station to station, relying a bit less on the long ball. And Will Smith still gives me heart palpitations every time he trots in for a save opportunity. But more often than not, this team finds ways to win. These Braves have “it.”

To win a title, the Braves will have to defeat the Houston Astros, who established their legacy as perhaps the most successful cheaters in sports history when they employed an elaborate sign-stealing scheme involving banging trash cans to help them win the 2017 World Series. When their scheme was revealed, Major League Baseball responded by not taking away their World Series win and also not punishing any of the players involved. This was an unpopular stance, both in and out of baseball.

The Astros may or may not have progressed from trash cans to using buzzers under their uniforms, as this video of Jose Altuve seems to suggest, as he begs his teammates to not tear off his jersey…

The Astros say this theory is preposterous. Of course they do. Cheating allegations have followed the team ever since, even into last week in the ALCS. To their credit, I suppose, the Astros players have leaned into the hate, embracing being the villains. This is probably a good thing, since pretty much every neutral fan doesn’t like them now. The Astros are a great team, one with a fatal flaw.

For me, more than anything, this has been an exceptionally fun ride. It’s been a while since I had a team in my life that made a championship run. I grew up in Atlanta, and the Braves were so good for so long—winning 15 division titles in a row and getting to the World Series five times—that everyone sort of became habituated to the idea of postseason baseball. But the last World Series the Braves played in was in 1999, and it feels like enough time has passed that fans no longer expect a postseason run year after year.

I know that I didn’t expect this. I knew the Braves were good, probably good enough to win the NL East. But after everything they went through, and all the great players lost along the way, I definitely did not expect the Braves to be one of the last two teams left in the chase for a World Championship.

I don’t know if the Braves are good enough to win the World Series, but this team has spent the entire season surpassing expectations. These Braves have “it.” Hopefully we have “it” for four more wins.

Can they win it all? I have no idea.

But man, has this been one helluva ride.

Infield Fly: Braves in the World Series – MLB Week 31

On today’s show: Rob, Lang and Murph preview the World Series matchup featuring the Houston Astros and Lang’s team the Atlanta Braves. The trio also discuss the love for Dusty Baker, fans accusing the Astros of cheating against the Red Sox, the repeat champion drought in the MLB, the Braves bats coming alive in the NLCS against the Dodgers, Dave Roberts managerial skills, the Mets hunt for a president of baseball operations and more from around the MLB.

Infield Fly: Championship Series and Lang the Cheater Police – MLB Week 30

On today’s show: Rob, Lang and Murph discuss the ALCS and NLCS, the Braves looking good against the Dodgers, the Cardinals firing Mike Shildt, folks cheering for Dusty Baker while hating the Astros, Freddie Freeman’s contract negotiations and more from around Major League Baseball.

Los Angeles Dodgers celebrates after the game-winning two-run home run by Chris Taylor

Infield Fly: The Start Of The Divisional Series – MLB Week 29

On today’s show: Rob Lang and Keith discuss the AL and NL Divisional Series taking place, the heartbreaking loss the Cardinals had against the Dodgers, the anxiety Will Smith gives Braves fans when he steps on the mound, the Astros postseason struggles, Tim Anderson’s post season brilliance so far, Brian Cashman’s job as GM for the Yankees and everything else from around the MLB.

mike trout

Infield Fly: Postseason Baseball Is Here – MLB Week 28

On today’s show: Rob, Lang and Murph discuss the start of the MLB postseason, the fairness of a one game playoff for the Dodgers, Yankees v. Red Sox match up in an AL Wildcard game, the Braves coming alive late, the Mets collapse, the NL MVP race, what the Angels should do with Mike Trout and more.