Column: Atlanta tries to transform itself into Winnersville

·6 min read

Stephen King could've written “Misery” about an Atlanta sports fan.

That would've been a truly horrifying tale.

From Jim Leyritz to 28-3, from DeVonta Smith to losing not one, but two NHL teams to western Canada, Georgia's sports history is filled with knee-buckling heartache, epic meltdowns and, yes, plenty of misery.

But now, as the World Series comes to Atlanta for the first time since 1999, there is hope that this city — once immortalized in print as “Loserville USA” — and this state could be taking a turn toward some long-overdue parades.

The young, hungry Hawks are just a few months removed from a surprising run to the NBA's Eastern Conference final. The fearsome Georgia Bulldogs are the No. 1 college football team in all the land. And the Braves just ended their 22-year Series drought by knocking off the 106-win Dodgers.

Heck, even the woebegone Falcons — who haven't had a winning NFL season since 2017 — are at .500 and hopeful of joining the party.

“I'm so happy for all those guys with the Braves,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “Talk about a team that grinded through a year. I don’t think they were above .500 until the middle of August and find themselves in the World Series. So maybe we can draw a little inspiration from that.”

The Braves remain the city's lone professional champion in the four major sports — baseball, football, basketball and hockey. (Side note: Atlanta United did win the MLS Cup title in 2018, but soccer remains a notch below the Big Four in this country.)

Even that solitary Atlanta title in 1995 would eventually be overshadowed by all the close-but-no-cigar calls the Braves had in a single decade of nearly annual World Series appearances.

1991. 1992. 1996. 1999.

Losses, all of them.

None was more painful than '96, when the Braves won the first two games at Yankee Stadium by a combined score of 16-1, only to lose three straight at home and eventually the series when it returned to New York.

The decisive blow still lingers in the city's collective psyche, a persistent reminder that all glory is fleeting in the A-T-L. The Braves led 6-0 in Game 4, seemingly cruising toward a commanding lead in the series, but Leyritz hit a three-run homer off a hanging slider from closer Mark Wohlers that carried the Yankees to an improbable 7-6 victory. Any hopes of a second straight title were effectively snuffed out that very night.

To this day, the franchise remains scarred by not only that game, but its extensive history of postseason flops. Starting with that magical worst-to-first season in 1991, the Braves have captured 19 division titles — 14 of them in a row, a streak that may never be matched — and made 21 playoff appearances overall.

With the results of 2021 still be determined — the Series against the Houston Astros is tied at one win apiece — the Braves are 1-for-20 over the past three decades when it comes to winning it all.

During the NL Championship Series, Braves star Freddie Freeman talked about a quest to “kill that narrative” — meaning, the repetitive, unending queries about Atlanta's glaring dearth of championships.

Freeman is a native Californian who has lived full-time in Atlanta for about a decade. That's more than enough time to get a good feel for what long-time fans have been experiencing since Major League Baseball and the NFL arrived simultaneously in 1966, followed two years later by the NBA Hawks and in 1972 by the NHL Flames.

Just during Freeman's time in Atlanta, the Falcons infamously squandered a 28-3 lead to the New England Patriots and lost the only overtime game in Super Bowl history, the Bulldogs blew a 13-point lead in the national championship game and fell to Alabama on Smith's 41-yard touchdown catch in overtime, the Hawks came up short in two trips to the Eastern Conference final, and the Braves surrendered a 3-1 lead to the Dodgers in last year's NLCS.

Freeman even remembers the Thrashers, the city's second NHL team. Beset by poor attendance and indifferent ownership, they moved to Winnipeg in 2011 — making Atlanta the only city in hockey's modern era to lose two NHL franchises.

The Flames, for those who have forgotten, lasted eight years before moving to Calgary in 1980. Neither of Atlanta's NHL teams ever won a Stanley Cup playoff series, combining for a 2-19 mark in postseason games.

Probably a good thing they both moved on.

Freeman, meanwhile, has put down roots.

“You start spending six, seven, eight months in the city, you start getting connected,” Freeman said. “Next thing you know, you have a son born in Atlanta, and you just become part of the city. I’ve been here a long time, and you start caring about other teams, other sports, and the people in that city and that state of Georgia.

“I care a lot,” he went on. “I did watch the Super Bowl. I watched all that kind of stuff. It would only be right to be brought up when we had what we had to deal with last year (in losing to the Dodgers in the NLCS). So I’m glad we were able to get past that point. This city means a lot. Hopefully, we can bring a championship home to them.”

The most promising sign that things are truly changing in Atlanta is all the dynamic young stars who now call the city home.

Ronald Acuña Jr. of the Braves (though, sadly, he can only watch this Series as he recovers from a season-ending knee injury). Trae Young of the Hawks. Kyle Pitts of the Falcons.

Acuña is 23, a few months older than Young. Pitts just turned 21.

Young, more than anyone, seems to sense he is part of something bigger — a chance to alter, once and for all, the way folks perceive his adopted city.

“We’ve got everything," said Young, who grew up in Oklahoma but has taken to wearing an “Atlanta Georgia Changed My Life” shirt. "We’ve got a lot of really good guys and really good sports teams in this city, and we all want to make the city proud.”

Another of the Hawks' young stars, John Collins, can foresee a time when parades down Peachtree Street are a regular thing.

“Atlanta’s an amazing city to be in,” he said. "When it’s playoff time, you can see the rush from the fans and the excitement from the true Atlanta fans, ready to support their team, ready to see us win.

“I always envision us going down Peachtree with the Larry O’Brien," he added, referring to the trophy that is awarded to the NBA champion. “I’m hoping the Braves can do the same.”

Maybe it's time to write a new story.

How does "Winnersville" sound?

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Paul Newberry is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press who grew up in suburban Atlanta and has covered sports in Georgia since January 1996 — a few months after the Braves' last World Series title. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963 and check out his work at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry

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AP Sports Writers George Henry and Charles Odum contributed to this report.

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More AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Paul Newberry, The Associated Press

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