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.
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?