Sports Nut

When the Chop Stops

Braves fans hold out for another World Series.

Even Smoltz vs. Clemens can't draw Braves fans. Click image to expand.
Even Smoltz vs. Clemens can’t draw Braves fans

On the way to Thursday night’s Game 2 between the Astros and Braves, I paged through a copy of Premiere’s “Women in Hollywood” issue. (I brought it as a writing surface for my scorecard, I swear!) I happened upon a quote, one that Charlize Theron attributed to Johnny Depp, that sums up the Braves’ relationship with the city of Atlanta: “When you serve roast beef constantly, you get bored.”

In this case, the roast beef is division championships. The Braves have won their division every year since 1991 (if we ignore the strike-shortened 1994 season). They’ve won only one World Series during that 14-year run, though, leaving fans in Hotlanta mostly lukewarm about their team. To wit: Last night, I walked right up to the ticket window and procured a seat in my usual spot (upper deck, behind the plate) without waiting in line. The steady drizzle might have kept away some fans, but I’ve been to enough Braves playoff games to know that the bigger factor is plain ol’ ennui.

The accusation that Atlanta is a “bad sports town” is usually hurled by sportswriters who demand blind loyalty while never having to pay for tickets, parking, and concessions. As you might imagine, baseball lags far behind pro, high school, and college football in the hearts of fans down here. Throw in a poor mass transit system, a small and unpopular downtown, and a population shift to exurbia, and it’s a wonder anyone goes to the games.

One of baseball’s more enduring myths—and one of the first shibboleths shattered by Bill James—is that big-name pitchers bring more fans to the ballpark. After a thudding loss to the Astros in Game 1 of the Division Series, Braves fans don’t seem particularly energized by the matchup between aging future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens and balding Atlanta legend John Smoltz. When Smoltz lets the Astros score and load the bases in the top of the first, the crowd groans. But Smoltz, battling a bum shoulder, musters a wicked slider that fans Adam Everett and avoids further damage.

From there, he ditches the breaking stuff that overstrains his wing and starts powering in fastballs. Chipper Jones, not renowned for his D, turns in a couple of sterling plays at third. The Astros play right into Smoltz’s hands, swinging at everything. Smoltz throws 25 pitches in the first, 15 each in the second and third, and then goes 9-9-10-10 while cruising through the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh. Meanwhile, the Braves’ squadron of rookies makes the Rocket look like the old man he’s become. With one on and one out in the second, instant legend and Georgia native Jeff Francoeur works a walk. One out later, Brian McCann, a rookie from suburban Duluth, crushes one to right-center for a 3-1 lead. The Braves never look back, winning 7-1 to even the series.

The game is fairly devoid of drama, and a lot of people in my section spend the time between pitches calling buddies for updates on the Georgia Tech game. The biggest adrenaline rush comes when a couple of guys next to me get into a heated argument over the relative merits of Auburn, Alabama, and Georgia. The loudest cheers start when the hammer tips the saw and the power drill to win the Home Depot scoreboard race. 

The seat next to mine is occupied by Chad from Birmingham, who says he’s more than willing to drive back to the park—so long as the Braves can get out of the NLDS. For the non die-hards to start caring again after so many disappointments, the Braves need to win the World Series. Failing that, the best way to keep folks interested is to maintain their strategy of drafting every local schoolboy who passes muster.

While Chipper and Andruw Jones are the franchise mainstays, the hometown boys are all anyone around here talks about. “Francoeur’s Franks” turn up to every game dressed as hot dogs, and his plate appearances draw the loudest cheers. The Rookie of the Year candidate is a mythic figure in these parts on account of his multisport brilliance at Parkview High in nearby Lilburn. Before Game 2, I talked to Mickey McMurtry, the head coach at rival Lassiter High. McMurtry was on the receiving end of a Chip Hilton-like performance from Francoeur in the 2002 state finals. In a best-of-three series, he golfed a gargantuan homer to win Game 1, hit a grand slam to ice Game 2 and the championship, went 6-for-7 with four homers and two doubles overall, and was the winning pitcher in both games. “You just sat there and said, This is what a guy who’s gonna make some money looks like,” McMurtry recalls.

The other local products—McCann, reliever Macay McBride, and Blaine Boyer and Kyle Davies, a pair of pitchers who didn’t make the postseason roster—have their (smaller) rooting sections as well. On my way out of the park, I see a fan carrying a six-foot wooden tomahawk inscribed with the names of all 18 rookies who made an appearance for the Braves this season. It’s not quite the heyday of the tomahawk chop, but it’s a start.