It’s been five years since the Braves had a winning season. It’s been seventeen years since the Braves won a playoff series (despite playing in seven postseasons since). It’s been three-and-a-half years since the team’s core was dismantled — trading away star players (and their enormous contracts) after a very disappointing 2014 campaign, acquiring young prospects who were supposed to lead us back to an era of dominance akin to the Braves’ 1990’s glory days.
It’s been a tough road for Braves fans. Sure, we’ve made it to the playoffs multiple times over the past decade and a half, but we haven’t came close to experiencing true success (a World Series trophy) since 1999. That’s nineteen years ago. When we finally thought we had a real chance to make it back in 2004-05 and again in 2010-13, Atlanta just couldn’t get it done in the postseason (sounds familiar, right?). And then, to add insult to injury — in one offseason, the team we thought had the potential to go all the way, was suddenly gone. We were told to be patient while unknown teenagers in the minor league system developed. While we waited on our future saviors, Atlanta finished three miserable seasons, winning 67, 68, and 72 game seasons, with the likes of Erick Aybar, Adonis Garcia, and Drew Stubbs (those were the days). For a team that prided itself on a winning tradition year-in and year-out for nearly a quarter century, this was unfamiliar territory for fans, who expected their hometown team to contend for the postseason each year (even if their dreams would be shattered early on in each postseason).
Sure, they did this in the late ’80s, producing (debatably) the greatest team of the 1990’s. But, the late ’80s was a long time ago. So was 1995 (Atlanta’s only World Series title) and 1999 (last World Series appearance). And 2001, for that matter — the Braves last playoff series victory.
I wasn’t around in the 1990’s to experience the Braves success. I wasn’t around to experience the excitement of the 1991 worst-to-first team that captivated the city. I wasn’t around to see Sid slide in the 1992 NLCS. I wasn’t able to feel the anguish of losing two World Series to the Yankees in 1996 and 1999 — and wonder how such a team with three of the greatest Hall of Fame starting pitchers of all time were never able to capture more than one world title. There’s an entire new generation of Braves fans around that never saw the Braves experience any postseason success. An entire generation that’s only familiar with mediocrity and occasional good teams that would only be wiped out come playoff time.
This generation has never experienced a year like this one. It’s been compared often to 1991, but for many like me, there’s nothing in personal Braves history to compare this year to. You could point to the arrival of highly-touted prospects Brian McCann and Jeff Francouer in 2005, but the team had already been very good through the first few years of the 2000’s. McCann and Francouer were expected to be the pieces that got them further in the postseason. That didn’t work.
This year is different. The Braves have been losing badly for four consecutive seasons, but you’d never know it if you watched a game today. The excitement and the unbridled passion young stars like Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuna Jr., Ender Inciarte, and Dansby Swanson bring have reinvigorated this club and its depressed fan base. The team is fully aware of the Braves recent history, the team’s projections, and the fact that this was supposed to be another “rebuilding year” — and they couldn’t care less.
Sites that once projected the Braves to finish with 74 wins, now have them at 88 (a remarkable improvement over just a month and a half). Sports writers who had pegged the Braves for yet another mediocre season are now glorifiying the club and its prospects that have taken the league by storm. Fans, who mercifully hoped for a .500 finish to the year, are already talking about October. And the team seems to be living and dying by every game of the year — treating each contest as if it’s game seven of the World Series.
We could rehash what all has went right for the Braves this year, but it boils down to the fact that they just don’t quit. They believe in each other, they’re playing scrappy, and they’re finding ways to win on even their worst of nights (such as last night’s six-run 9th inning comeback). From placing pressure on pitchers to bunting against the shift to working walks in big situations, they’re finding ways to get on base, confident that their teammates will come through. When one player just doesn’t have it one night, another steps up. That’s the kind of thing that can’t be measured by projection services and that’s the kind of play that has (thus far) broken the Braves years-long losing trend.
They’re playing for each other, not for themselves, and in the process, they’re having a blast. You could see the passion for the game when the Braves worked a walk to take the lead in game two with the Cubs on Wednesday night as Acuna nearly choked Albies in excitement. Conversely, you could hear the disappointment in Acuna’s voice as he shook off a question about his clutch home run in the first game of the Cubs series, saying, “but we didn’t win”. You could see the pure joy as the team celebrated in the clubhouse on Sunday afternoon as if the team had just won the World Series. The old unwritten baseball rule, “act like you’ve been here before”, just doesn’t apply to this team, simply because — well, most of them haven’t been here before. They’re experiencing real success at the big league level for the first time and providing real excitement and swagger to a city that is suddenly rediscovering baseball.
Like Little Leaguers, they’re having fun just playing the game with a team that has become like a tight-knit family. This team is playing for each other, they’re having fun… and who knows, they might just be giving Atlanta a miracle run. Sure, it’s still May and a lot can happen, but something tells me this club just isn’t like the rest. They’re not the 1991 Braves … they’re the 2018 Braves, and they seem ready to write their own history.
Maybe years of mediocrity and a youthful underdog team is what this fan base truly needed to be able to appreciate this beautiful sport once again. Summer is about to get hot in Atlanta.