What’s that noise? Sounds familiar.
“There’s a buzz in the city,” Freddie Freeman said. “It’s great. We’re drawing the interest of the occasional fan again.”
There are lines outside the stadium stores. There are neatly folded stacks of Ronald Acuna jerseys inside. Seats are filled at game time. People are excited to watch a first-place team that for the past three years has been a 90-loss team. Worst to first. Has a ring to it.
What’s that noise? It’s the manager’s cellphone buzzing again.
“We haven’t been home a lot, but I’ve been getting a lot of text messages from friends in the city,” Brian Snitker said.
So your friends didn’t text you the last couple of seasons?
“Sure. ‘Hang in there.’”
The Braves won 19 of their first 30 games and entered the weekend in first place in the National League East. As Friday’s 9-4 loss to San Francisco adequately illustrated, a great April offers no guarantees over the course of a 162-game season. But it was a hint of a sunny ending after so much rebuild misery. It also reignited a city’s famished fan base that has hungered for a watchable and winning product.
Any sports team can get a city excited. The Falcons did it two years ago by going to a Super Bowl. Georgia did it in January by going to the college football championship game. The Hawks did it for five minutes -- either three or 103 years ago, it’s all a blur now.
But baseball is unique. It’s constant. It’s daily, like a soap opera. There’s a build in momentum when a baseball team gets hot or is in a pennant race. That can’t be replicated in other sports. The team is followed and talked about from the time one game ends to when the next one starts, which is usually less than 24 hours later. Then it builds some more.
The Braves’ 1991 season was special when compared with all others, including even their World Series title in 1995, which had a sense of relief to it. The worst-to-first run, the National League pennant and the amazing seven-game series against Minnesota 27 years ago commanded our attention in part because it was all was so unexpected. The players were new and young and likable and exciting.
I remember walking into grocery stores and suddenly seeing “Go Braves” written in frosting on cookie cakes.
I remember seemingly half the population suddenly wearing “A” hats or Braves shirts.
I remember driving through downtown Atlanta and seeing parking gates with manufactured cardboard tomahawks attached at the end. Every time the gates went up and down, it was like watching robotic tomahawk chops. In a parking lot. So cool.
It’s a long way from 1991. That team was about pitching, which is dependable, calming, sustainable. This team is about hitting, which is fun but generally volatile and less dependable. But what this season has shown is how quickly sports fans can become consumed with a product, particularly this product.
The Braves have our attention again.
“It’s nice for the players in here to see how much fans are getting behind this team,” Freeman said.
He arrived in the major leagues in 2010, after the Braves’ glory period of 14 seasons (1991-2005) but for postseasons in three of his first four years. Then came the tear down, the spiral and the fan apathy.
“I don’t think it’s been like this since at least 2012 or 2013. Even though we won 96 games in 2013, it was kind of right when Chipper (Jones) left and a little bit of the fan base left. And it’s completely understandable -- the guy was here for 20 years. You still have your die-hard fans who are going to be here no matter what. But for the occasional fans, I think the interest has peaked again. They want to see the Ozzies and the Ronalds and the Sorokas. They’re sitting at home with the family and before it was, ‘There’s a Braves’ game. Oh, I think I’ll pass tonight.’ I don’t think they’ll pass anymore. I think we’re a must-see.”
Freeman, who reiterated in spring training he never expected to lose this much when he signed his contract extension, probably is enjoying this more than anybody.
“I’ve been waiting for the uptick, and it’s here,” he said. “The light at the end of the tunnel. I think we’re done with the tunnel. We’re in the light now. These young guys -- I don’t think you can anticipate what they’re going to do but they made it through the tunnel real fast.”
Acuna (20 years old) and Ozzie Albies (21) may share center stage all season. They run. They hit. They club home runs. They have become merchandising nirvana. To the Braves’ credit, they restrained themselves when it came to oversaturating the city with “ACUNA! ACUNA! ACUNA!” before the season, but all bets are off now. Acuna jerseys were everywhere at SunTrust Park on Friday night when the Giants series opened. So were Albies Star Wars-themed bobblehead dolls on a giveaway night.
Add Freeman, Ender Inciarte, a revived (though now injured) Dansby Swanson and 20-year-old starting pitcher Mike Soroka – who dazzled in his first start and “thinks like a 35-year-old,” Freeman said – and it’s easy to see why the bandwagon is filling up again.
“I feel like everybody in the whole area is in a good mood,” said veteran reliever Peter Moylan, who’s in his third stint with the team. “Winning will do that obviously. But it’s not just winning, it’s the way we’re winning. You had that (awful) game in Chicago in the rain when (the Braves led the Cubs 10-2 but lost 14-10). But then we come back and win three out of four. You lose the first two in Cincinnati, then you go 6-1 on the road trip. Come on, that doesn’t happen.”
Apparently it does this year.
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