The 2021 Atlanta Braves sent me back in time.
It was 1995. Two outs in the ninth inning and Mark Wohlers threw a hard outside fastball that Carlos Baerga drove into center field. It seemed for a moment that it was struck well, and the game was going to go the way it seemed so many had gone before. The Atlanta baseball team seemed as though it would be struck down as it had been by Kirby Puckett, Joe Carter, Lenny Dykstra, and their cohorts over the five previous seasons. Only the ball wasn’t well struck. Marquis Grissom floated under the short fly ball for the final out of the 1995 World Series. The Atlanta Braves had won the World Series and anything was possible.
When that happened, I was standing in a doorway watching the first championship my team would ever win. At the same time, I was attending the first “real” party of my life, a Halloween costume party that I had been asked to by a girl. It seemed it would be the start of an epic era for both the team and me. While we both had our moments in the time since things never seem to go according to plan. But then, on the night of Tuesday, November 2nd, a full 26 years later, the Atlanta Braves finally won another title. The passage of time is marked by the sad and unrelenting realities of dreams unfulfilled, but perhaps we are all the better for it.
The memories linger, of course, that particular game in ‘95 would last forever. It had Glavine’s gem, Dave Justice’s home run, and Grissom’s catch. But others are perhaps higher. (Sid Bream’s slide) But that World Series championship would be the single time the team reached the highest height. The next year would see the Braves back in the World Series and up two games to none when Jim Leyritz’s home run led to disaster. The Yankees would become the true “team of the decade” as the Braves continued to win, but never to win enough. Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Chipper Jones would have future amazing moments, Cy Young and MVP awards abounding, but never another championship.
Losing the Hammer
2021 started far worse than any of that. The greatest Brave, Atlanta or otherwise, Hank Aaron, the man whose years as the home run king somehow have caused him to become underrated as an all-around player, died. Aaron was 86 years old and was obviously in faltering health, but he had remained as magnanimous as ever. From his chase of Babe Ruth’s record in the face of vitriolic racism, through decades of activism and public presence he had been the one person behind whom even the most cynical of fans could unite. Ever the quiet dignitary his last public act had been getting the COVID-19 vaccine. (Which, of course, also caused his death to be fodder for ridiculous conspiracy theorists.) With Aaron gone, it seemed that my last ties to the old team may be broken.
I’ve lived in New York City for nearly 20 years. I still root for the Georgia Bulldogs because I went to college in Athens and I would walk through a wall for any of the Ugas. But the Atlanta professional teams have had less of a hold on me. I can’t bring myself to root for the Falcons, even in the half seasons when they are good. (And they are currently very very bad, outscored 64-3 in two games, level bad.) The Hawks never had an identity and now the Trey Young version of the team is good but unlikeable. That made it easy to move on to other teams in those sports, but the Braves had held onto me. Until I had to deal with their responses to calls to change the team’s nickname.
In 2020, in the face of nearly overwhelming public pressure, the Washington football team changed their old nickname and became The Washington Football Team. Unsurprisingly, the public outcry around this spread quickly to all the other teams named with Native American ties and symbols. In 2021, even the Cleveland Indians announced they would change their name. The 2021 Atlanta Braves team’s response was the same one that teams have used for years to deflect criticism on the issue, bringing in “supportive” Native American groups, and claiming that the name isn’t a problem.
I used to be one of those people. I never would have argued in favor of the Washington Team’s old name, or the Indians, but the name “Braves” felt different. In some ways, it still does. It is a complicated and conflict initiating thing, though the “Tomahawk Chop” is horrible. The issue is that the team owners decided to double down against the backlash. The team pumps up the “Chop” during games and leans clearly into the native imagery. The whole thing made it feel weird to be a huge fan of the team. Especially with the loss of “Hammerin’ Hank” it could have been the perfect moment for the team to change its name to the “Atlanta Hammers,” but the management would have no part of that.
The 2021 Atlanta Braves Season Starts to Slip Away
Compounding the issues was the controversy around the 2021 MLB All-Star Game. The game was supposed to happen in Atlanta, but the Georgia state legislature decided to make some terrible decisions regarding voting rights and the protests started rolling in again. In response, MLB moved the game out of the city, which was both a justifiable choice and one that made it seem like the team was responsible, which it wasn’t until the ownership group again made a statement that made them seem terrible villains. All in all the franchise seemed to be ready to push away anyone who didn’t agree with their stances. But it turns out the players had other ideas.
At the start of the day on June 21st, the Braves were 33-37. They had a doubleheader scheduled vs the Mets in New York. For the first time since COVID hit, I was there. The Braves won the first game 1-0 on a Ronald Acuna Jr. Home Run. Then lost the short second game 4-2. The Mets remained in first place and the season seemed to be set up as a real mediocre slog, peppered only with Acuna’s MVP talent and the joyous reality of finally being able to see baseball in person again.
On July 10th, just days before he was set to go to the All-Star Game (now being played in Denver) Ronald Acuna Jr. tore his ACL. The future of the team was out for the rest of the season, the outfield was in disarray, and everything seemed truly dismal for the fans. The 2021 Atlanta Braves seemed destined to finish .500 if they were lucky. It seemed that Manager Brian Snitker, with the team for 40 years, would need to wait at least another to sniff a championship.
The 2021 Atlanta Braves Turnaround & Triumph
Then something amazing happened. The 2020 NL MVP, Freddie Freeman, who has been the face, and the heart, of the team for 10 years, started to get hot. At the trade deadline, instead of packing it in and trading for prospects, General Manager Alex Anthopolous and the front office traded for a new outfield. Those players seemed like trivial pickups at the time, but they would prove pivotal in the amazing run to come.
At the end of the season, the 2021 Atlanta Braves started to pick things up. Famously now, on August 6th, the Braves went above .500 for the first time all season. They wound up winning the notoriously terrible NL East and made the playoffs. The matchup against the NL Central Champion Milwaukee Brewers was supposed to be a ceremonial blip in their march to play the Dodgers for the pennant.
By the Division series though, things had changed for the Braves and the fans. In this season of loss and losses, what was there to lose. Joc Pederson, one of those three mid-season outfield pickups, proved to be the hero of the Division series. Joc hit two pinch-hit home runs effectively winning the Braves the series and living up to his “Joctober” nickname he earned in 2020 by helping the Dodgers win the World Series. By the end of the Braves’ game 4 victory, Joc’s signature pearl necklace had become a talisman for victory. And a sign of hope.
In the other Division Series the winningest team in baseball, the San Francisco Giants played their rivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers won 106 games only to come in second in the NL West and had to play in a Wild Card game against the Cardinals, but they knocked off the Giants and were ready and willing to meet the Braves in a 2020 NLCS rematch. In 2020 the Braves went ahead 3-1 only to come crashing back to earth as the Dodgers came from behind and marched on to the World Series. Another close series loss seemed to be the best-case scenario for the team.
But then Eddie Rosario got hot. Traded from Cleveland in that same late-summer binge, Rosario had not been playing up to his potential all season. In the NLCS though, Rosario was transcendent. Rosario ended the series with 14 hits, tying the all-time record for a series while compiling a batting average over .500, a slugging percentage over 1.000, and an OPS of over 1.500. The Braves took another 3-1 series lead and, while they would lose game 5, wound up taking the series in 6 games and advancing to the team’s first World Series of the 21st Century.
The World Series was of course insane, once again starting on bad omen, ace pitcher Charlie Morton got hit by a line drive in Game 1 and broke his leg. But the team rebounded, propelled by the young starting pitchers Ian Anderson and Max Fried and bolstered by an incredible run out of the Bullpen. Relievers Tyler Matzek, Luke Jackson, AJ Minter, and Will Smith all dominated games at some point in the series. (Despite the absolute fear in the hearts of fans every time the Closer, Smith, took the ball.) Jorge Soler, another of those mid-season acquisitions, wound up winning the World Series MVP award. The Braves pulled it off in six games. Another championship, 26 years later.
Where Do We Go From Here
For a short time, there was joy in Braves Country, the Battery at Truist Park was a place to behold during and after games (though a COVID nightmare). The 2021 Atlanta Braves were World Series Champions. We all got to see Freddie Freeman and Dansby Swanson celebrate. At the championship parade, Joc Pederson was throwing pearls as if it was Mardi Gras. But now, just a short time later, it is all a passing memory.
The issues are still there, the management continues to push the Tomahawk chop and deny any conversations about changing the team name. Rosario, Soler, Pederson, and others are all free agents. None of them were with the team when I saw them play in June and it seems likely none of them will be with the team when I see them again in April. Marcel Osuna, who was on administrative leave due to an incident related to domestic abuse for almost all of 2021, is likely to be back with the team, which is an atrocity. Freddie Freeman is a free agent too, and may not be re-signed due to his desire to have a 6th year on his contract. Without Freeman, this team, despite just winning the championship, would lose so much of what makes it appealing.
And so, that is how those of us who are fans of the Atlanta baseball team end 2021. It was a year of incredible heights and unprecedented lows. Now it seems that we are stuck in limbo, still the champions, but perhaps no longer winning.