Baseball season is here, and not a moment too soon. After enduring a gray winter, I’m ready for some delicious, overpriced hot dogs.
My love affair with the Atlanta Braves began at age 9 when my uncle John took pity on a rural Alabama mountain kid, and took him to his first big league game. My dad was not a baseball fan, and he didn’t have time to drive 150 miles to a game anyway.
We picked a good one. The Braves beat the Houston Astros 7-6 in the bottom of the 9th on a Joe Torre home run. Did this game make a big impression on me? Call me sometime, and I’ll tell you that night’s starting lineup.
I spent the next year badgering my dad to take me back to Atlanta, and on the 4th of July, he gave in. We made a day of it, taking in the WSB holiday parade on Peachtree Street, and a doubleheader with the Chicago Cubs. At the parade, Braves stars Hank Aaron and Rico Carty waved at me. Sure, there were thousands of people lining the streets, but I’m pretty sure they waved only at me. The Braves beat the Cubs in game one 8-3, with Phil Niekro pitching against his brother Joe. Just like in the backyard!
When I became a reporter, I covered a few games, getting to see the players up close and personal, in the clubhouse. I asked Phil Niekro, fifteen years after that 4th of July game, if he remembered beating his brother that day. “Are you kiddin’?” he said. “Absolutely. Our dad was here, and he didn’t know who to root for!” Again, just like in the backyard.
I was there when the Braves stopped Pete Rose’s 44-game hitting streak. The Braves beat Rose’s Cincinnati Reds 16-4 that night, and he was angry that Braves pitcher Gene Garber went after him full force in his last at-bat, rather than throw him an easy pitch. I gained great respect for Garber that night. As for Rose, not so much.
I attended several Dodgers-Braves games, and since the Dodgers usually won, I would head straight to their clubhouse. (The losing team’s clubhouse is not a happy place.) I recall several funny interviews with pitcher Don Sutton, who is still entertaining on Braves radio games today. Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda always spoke to reporters while enjoying a postgame pasta feast, and if you got too close, you might get splattered with sauce.
Many nights, I would accompany my all-time favorite Brave Dale Murphy to the players parking lot, where he would answer each question, and sign every autograph until the last fan was gone. In contrast, some of his teammates would almost run over anyone who dared cross their path. Dale was not like the others, a major reason he is still universally respected today.
Hall of Famer Greg Maddux is the best pitcher I have ever seen. During his career, which stretched from the mid-80s to the late 2000’s, no one compared to him. He spent most of those years with the Braves, exercising his pinpoint control.
He worked fast, unlike some pitchers who were human rain delays. One Sunday, I took my sons to a Maddux game. We got to Atlanta a little late, and then circled the stadium a couple of times looking for a good parking space. Before you know it, it’s the fourth inning. Find your seat, grab a hot dog, it’s the seventh. Game over, in an hour and fifty minutes. Didn’t we just pay twenty dollars to park a few minutes ago? He didn’t waste any time.
My sons were mesmerized with Braves pitchers. They would study their pitching styles, and imitate their deliveries. With Maddux, I was afraid they’d imitate something else too. You see, Maddux made very few mistakes. One season he pitched more than seventy consecutive innings without giving up a walk! So when something went wrong, he would express himself quite clearly. The TV field microphones picked up everything. When the umpire signaled “Ball Four,” viewers could easily hear Maddux yell a full-throated obscenity. “What did he say, Daddy?” my kids would ask. “Luck!” I would quickly lie. “He’s saying he had bad luck!” “Oh, okay,” they would respond, looking at each other like, “Well he is our dad, and he’s never wrong.”
Soon of course, they would hear all kinds of interesting new words at school, and they realized I was a lying fraud. Thankfully they loved me anyway.
And they still love baseball too, especially this time of year. Our beloved Braves are undefeated.
David Carroll, a Chattanooga news anchor, is the author of “Volunteer Bama Dawg,” a collection of his best stories. You may contact him at900 Whitehall Road, Chattanooga, TN 37405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.