An Atlanta Braves column has been warranted for a few weeks. The South’s favorite baseball team leads the National League East Division by 3.5 games, and has the 2nd
best record in all of baseball. After the injury bug started chomping away at nascent and baby born dreams of a title before the season even began (two starting pitchers went down with season ending injuries in spring-training), the emergency patch work starting rotation that the front office cobbled together has been the best in the game, thus far, and inexplicably, shows no signs of slowing or faltering. It’s only April, but still. That in itself is worthy of a column. Fredi Gonzalez’s continued confusion as Manager, in some of the most seemingly sanguine of situations to manage, is worthy of a column…and trust me…it’s coming. The fact that we maddeningly continue to play Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton even though they haven’t performed well in two years and are receiving contracts that top $150 million combined is worthy of a column. Heck, the new stadium, and what that will mean for fans and revenue for the team and surrounding area, is worthy of a column. There are many reasons to pen a column about the Atlanta Braves in a Chattanooga paper that would dissect and diagram the emerging season with all of her hopes and hype. Yet, I choose a more basic path….a more youthful and faithful fountain to draw from as to why my Braves deserve a column this week. Simply…because this is Braves country and this is why we chop.
Baseball holds a special place in the American fabric. In many ways, her story parallels and informs the American story. It is uniquely American as a sport, and is imbued with all of our better qualities as a people and nation, and some of our worst. In the beginning, when the game was young, it was a hard-nosed game that kept a slow pace. They played mostly because they loved the game, not because of money and status. Fans could leisurely follow the action, keeping the stats of all the participants, and at the same time manage the game in one’s own head…which is still sort of true today. It was a game of rules to be followed strictly, yet faith in the umpires’ ability to be fair and just kept the game’s reputation clean from aspersion. It seemed genuine and pure. But, much like our nation, as the game got bigger and stronger and older and more successful, the innocent veneer was slowly pulled away and the realization that all was not perfect slowly became too apparent to dismiss. Even with cultural and structural American issues like the injustice of segregation, baseball, as a game, helped lead off the needed and right changes that had to happen in order for us to hold our head high and have a clear conscience. Jackie Robinson is important…not just because he was African-American…but also because he was one of the greatest to ever play the game. He showed in real time that prejudice based on race is just stupid, and possibly, self-defeating. As America became a more diverse society, with folks from all over the world wanting to come and try this thing we call “The American Dream”, baseball reflected those changes, too, showcasing the talents of players from all over the world. Much like the Watergate years, and through the 1990’s with all of the general prosperity and accompanying political scandals, the game of baseball sadly mirrored those times of public repulsion at systemic and systematic corruption…with the emerging realization that an entire generation of ball players had cheated their way into the record books, we the people shook our collective heads in disbelief and anger. America, and her favorite past time, share a story. For good or ill, they are a reflection of each other.
The Atlanta Braves is that for the south. This area of the country is fiercely proud of our heritage and accomplishment, yet we realize that our story is one of bumps, bruises, scars, regret, heartbreak, and healing. When the Milwaukee Braves relocated to the “The City Too Busy to Hate” in 1966, it marked a change for the southeast that had never been before. For the first time, the entire region had something in common. Despite what most outsiders think, the south isn’t monolithic. Yes, there are certain things that are ubiquitous…goatees, trucks, softball, church, lazy Sunday afternoons, chewing tobacco, cut-off jeans, country music, hip hop, sitting on the porch, yes ma’am and no ma’am, holding the door open…but we’re not all the same. There is little shared in common with a sand lapper from South Carolina low country and a good ol’ boy from East Tennessee. A dude from College Park has different experiences than one from Memphis. Mississippi girls are a little different than Florida girls. Much like cousins in a family, we are related, but not the same. South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee…we’re all a little different…but we all share the Braves. With the iconic reverence given to the great Henry “Hank” Aaron, the smile one gets every time we see the number 3, the frown and furrowed brow anytime 1991 is brought up (Kent Hrbek is a cheater) , the “where were you when” conversations of 1995…all the way to Chipper waving goodbye for the last time…we share this. It doesn’t matter if you are a Vol and I’m a Dawg. It doesn’t matter if my skin color is different than yours. It doesn’t matter if you are a Yankee transplant with a different accent. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like grits…it’s weird…but it doesn’t matter. If you are standing next to me, and are cheering for our Atlanta Braves, we are a part of something together. Much like this region’s history, with all of the disappointments, let downs, told you so’s, and tears of angst…there is also an abiding hope and joy that comes with being a Braves fan. In spite of all of our differences, and in spite of all of our stuff that we have to work through, we are in this together. This is Braves country and this is why we chop…together.
As a boy, my two grandfathers taught me much about life. It was an interesting thing, because they were never together, as my family, like many others, went through a bad breakup, when I was young. Still, they shared certain things…love through faith, family, and friends…and passed those things along to me and my brothers. They were two of the best men I’ve ever known. I would sit and watch the Braves with my mom’s dad and give play by play, as he lost his vision at an early age from diabetes. He taught me the history of our team. That man had lots of knowledge. My dad’s dad was more stoic, but still just as devoted. Among many things, he taught me that, when the game was over, it was over. Leave it and we’ll get’em next time. Different men, different lessons, same love for the Braves…and that is why I chop.
W. Michael Lawson is an alumnus of Lee University and University of Richmond. Mr. Lawson currently hosts a weekly radio show “The Strong Sauce Hour” and Co-hosts a daily sports show “The Sports Drive” on 101.3 FM/1570 AM. You can follow him on twitter @thestrongsauce.