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ATLANTA — The Houston Astros were down to their final strike. The Atlanta Braves were leading Game 6 of the World Series by seven runs, one pitch away from clinching a world championship. Atlanta’s win. The Braves’ win probability was pegged at 99.99 percent.
And still, Atlanta fans were nervous.
On the screen, Joe Buck was already speaking of the Astros in the past tense, trotting out the old reliable “the last time the Braves won the World Series” package (gas was 70 cents a gallon, “Forrest Gump” won Best Picture). At Minute Maid Park, champagne that had been left on pallets in the bowels of Truist Park in Atlanta two nights earlier was getting unboxed in Houston.
And still, Atlanta fans couldn’t help but project forward into nightmare territory. If Gurriel gets a hit here, and the Astros bat around, this would be the greatest collapse in sports history. Oh God, we wanted someone to implode worse than the Falcons in the Super Bowl, but not like this …
Then Yuli Gurriel grounded to Dansby Swanson, who grew up playing baseball 10 miles from the Braves’ current stadium. Swanson threw to Freddie Freeman, the only link to the Braves’ golden era of the 1990s, and that was that. Batter out, inning over, game over, Series over.
Atlanta Braves, World Series champions. How about that?
I grew up an Atlanta Braves fan. I remember going to games at long-gone Fulton County Stadium, where attendance was so sparse that balls fouled into the seats might sit for an inning or two before someone ambled over to pick them up. I remember the sheer euphoria of 1991, where it seemed like the entire city piled onto the bandwagon all at once. (At a sporting goods store during that unlikely run, I remember seeing a man holding up a ballcap to his companion and saying, “This is an Atlanta cap, right?” It wasn’t. It was an Angels hat.)
I remember the just-thrilled-to-be-here joy of the 1991 World Series, a seven-game loss to Minnesota. I remember the exultation of the 1995 win over Cleveland, a relief but also an expectation that this was only the first of many World Series titles.
Spoiler: It wasn’t.
I remember in 1996 watching Mark Wohlers hang a curve to the Yankees’ Jim Leyritz, who hit a homer that echoed all the way to 2021. The Braves didn’t win a single World Series game in the 25 years between then and last week. And I remember suffering through exit after early postseason exit. When, at long last, the Braves’ run of division championships — a record as hollow as an empty tunnel — came to an end, I remember trying to rationalize my way through the idea that just getting to the playoffs all those times had been good, too, right? Right … ?
Sports teams reflect their cities, and for Atlanta, baseball has served as the city’s heartbeat for 30 years now. Braves fans from all over the South can gather at Tuxedo Drive cocktail parties or Peachtree Street condo balconies or East Atlanta breweries or Gulf Coast docks or Waffle House booths and talk about Chipper and Smoltzie and Freddie. It’s the shared language of heartbreak, yes, but it’s a shared language all the same.
The Braves reflect Atlanta in less unifying ways, too. The team’s move out of downtown to an upscale multi-use district in Cobb County seemed a signal to many longtime fans that the Braves cared more about the dollars in the wealthy suburbs north of the city than the cheers of the fans closer to Atlanta’s center. It’s part of the ongoing city-suburb, Black-white divide that’s defined Atlanta since long before the Braves even arrived in town.
Voting rights, vaccine mandates, President Trump, the tomahawk chop … in 2021, the Braves as an organization either snared themselves or got caught up in cultural and Twitter debates about them all, and absolutely none of them had anything to do with what happened on the field.
Which, really, is a shame, because what happened on the field this season for Atlanta is one of the more remarkable sports stories of recent years. Predicted to finish in the middle of the National League pack, well behind warhorses like the Dodgers and Brewers, the Braves floundered in the first half of the season. The team lost ace Mike Soroka and brilliant star Ronald Acuña Jr. to injury and placed Marcell Ozuna on administrative leave following a domestic violence arrest. The consensus around baseball was that the Braves would be sellers at the trade deadline and retool for 2022.
That didn’t happen. The Braves leaned in when everyone expected them to tap out. General manager Alex Anthopoulos dealt for replacements up and down the lineup, plucking Jorge Soler from Kansas City, Eddie Rosario from Cleveland and Joc Pederson from the Cubs. Still, none of them had been impressing anybody in their prior stops, and there was little expectation that this was anything more than rotating in new faces for a few weeks of spot duty.
But then the weirdest thing happened. Somewhere along the line, everything started breaking Atlanta’s way … and kept on breaking that way week after week, series after series.
The Phillies and Mets hadn’t put enough distance between themselves and the Braves back when they had the chance, and then the Atlanta locomotive began gathering speed. After an astounding 18-game stretch in July where the Braves alternated wins and losses literally every day, they finally topped .500 for the year on Aug. 6, then took over first place in the midst of a nine-game winning streak on Aug. 15. The team never lost two games in a row after Sept. 18.
They rolled into the playoffs with 88 wins, the least of any of the 12 teams in the postseason … and they rolled out winning the final game of the season.
Imagine running along a winding cliff in the dark, and you have an idea of how improbable this World Series win was for Atlanta. Now imagine running with a hungry tiger chasing you, and you have an idea of what it’s like for an Atlanta sports team to bring home a championship.
The list of Atlanta sports collapses is long and, frankly, depressing as hell. Atlanta fans live with the haunting memories of 28-3, 2nd-and-26, the infield fly and so many more … so much so that when the Braves went up 3-1 on Houston over the weekend, the prevailing feeling wasn’t we got this, but how are we going to blow this?
But somehow, the collapse didn’t happen. The Braves didn’t blow it. They didn’t even give Houston a chance to make things interesting in Game 6, thundering homer after homer over the Minute Maid Park walls. Were it not for the city’s name on their jerseys, you’d have a hard time believing this was a team from Atlanta.
I’ve always had a grim little tradition in October. Whenever the Braves lost their final game of their final series of the year, I’d go take a walk around the neighborhood with my dog. (This was a far more productive way to decompress after a loss than my earlier days, like when I punched a brick wall in 1992 and smashed the keyboard shelf on an Ikea desk in 1996.)
Back in those early days, I might walk for a couple hours, cursing every member of the lineup and wondering why it was that I let the success or failure of a baseball team work me over so badly. (We used to joke that the dog would start hiding around the seventh inning of the final game, not wanting to get dragged along for my psychological self-flagellation.) Years later, I started covering the team professionally, and as the postseason flameouts piled up, I found it easier and easier to look at the team with unbiased — even overly critical — eyes.
Why do we let our favorite teams get so deep into our skulls? Why do the exploits of a few ballplayers hundreds of miles away have the ability to realign our outlook on life? There’s a part of us that identifies with them because they happen to share the same area code as us, sure, but it’s more than that. We consider their success our success, but that means that their failures are somehow our failures too, no matter how much we try not to admit it. You embrace a team, you take on both the transcendent highs of victory and the soul-crushing lows of defeat.
If that defeat goes on long enough, if the losses are humiliating enough, if you become a national joke and a punch line, you start to wonder about the point of it all. End-of-the-season walks go from hours to minutes. You bury whatever it is that attracted you to that team in the first place, and you tell yourself it’s just a game, it doesn’t really matter, and win or lose, it will make no meaningful difference in your life.
And then something like Tuesday night happens. Then everything comes together in the most magical way possible, every moment bends in your favor in a way you might only experience once in your life … but that once is enough. At least for one offseason, all is right in Atlanta.
The Atlanta Braves are world champions. I’m still not yet sure it’s real … but I’m ready to believe it might be.
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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.