Clyde McGrady explores the bond he shared with his father over a mutual love of baseball and their favorite team.
Wednesday, September 28, 2011 (11:17pm)—
Sully: Can you fuckin’ believe this?!
Sully: The Braves, they’re completely fuckin’ blowing this game!
Me: They are?
Sully: Yeah, aren’t you watching this?
Sully: Why not?
Me: Listen, that’s not why I called.
Sully: What’s up, then?
Me: … My dad just died.
Sully: … Wait, WHAT?!
On September 28, 2011, the Atlanta Braves finished the regular season with an epic six-game collapse. In the process, they squandered a final playoff spot to the eventual World Series Champions, the St. Louis Cardinals.
September 28, 2011 is also the day that my father died from a severe myocardial infarction, or what’s more simply known as a heart attack. It seemed almost poetic. The man who introduced me to the Braves and my love for the game of baseball collapsed on the same day as our favorite team.
If you were a kid like me, growing up in Georgia in the 1990s, there was more than an outside chance that you loved the Atlanta Braves. They were the single most dominant force in National League (NL) baseball during the decade. From 1991-1999 they won eight division titles, five NL pennants, and one World Series Championship.
Their world-class pitching rotation earned six NL Cy Young awards. Both Terry Pendleton and Chipper Jones were awarded NL MVP honors (in 1991 and 1999, respectively). Additionally, the Braves provided some of the most thrilling moments in baseball history.
When you’re 12 years old, you’re still ignorant to the complexities and nuisances of the world. In your young mind, subtly is a luxury you can’t yet afford. There are bad guys (Barry Bonds, Joe Carter, Jack Morris). And there are good guys (Chipper Jones, David Justice, Fred “Crime Dog” McGriff).
The good guys are your heroes. You know their batting stances. You badger your parents to buy you their jerseys. And the bad guys? They can burn in hell for the misery they cause you and your loved ones. I’m talking to you, Kirby Puckett.
But whenever I think about sports loyalty I can’t help but be reminded of Jerry Seinfeld’s famous joke about “rooting for laundry”:
Loyalty to any one sports team is pretty hard to justify. Because the players are always changing, the team can move to another city, you’re actually rooting for the clothes when you get right down to it. You know what I mean, you are standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city. Fans will be so in love with a player but if he goes to another team, they boo him. This is the same human being in a different shirt, they hate him now. Boo! Different shirt!! Boo.
In 2010, Major League Baseball earned $7 billion in revenue. On its face, this seems ridiculous. I’ve often felt silly, asking myself just what is the societal benefit of watching a man armed with a wooden bat hit a tiny ball far enough into play so that he can arrive safely at a base before being thrown out. And if the player is talented, he can put together a Hall of Fame career by only failing at this seven out of every ten times.
This is an overly simplistic view of baseball but when you drill it down this is what you have: grown men being paid millions of dollars to play a child’s game. You have people forking over hard-earned money for stadium season tickets, premium cable packages, merchandise, hot wings and defying all reason by paying $10.50 for a Miller Lite at Yankee Stadium.
Sports in general command lots of eyeballs, as millions of weekly viewers demand the spectacle of superior athletic competition. This makes them valuable to those who want to sell us things. And boy, do people use sports to sell us things; things like beer, cars, shoes, shaving cream, auto insurance, sneakers, and erectile dysfunction pills.
But sports also satisfy that most basic of human needs: The Communal Experience. They make the daily grind of office life a bit more tolerable by giving co-workers something else to argue about besides who poured the last cup of coffee without making another pot. Not to mention the group bonding facilitated by obsessing over lineups in the office fantasy football league or building brackets for the NCAA March Madness tournament pool.
Sports’ inherent power to unite can be felt instantly when, say, you connect with a fellow Braves fan while you recount where each of you were the moment “Sid Slid.” Or you and your fellow city transplants meet up at a tailgate when the Falcons are in town as you attempt to establish a sense of familiarity and community far from the place that raised you.
For me, baseball was a way to communicate with my dad. It was important to us, providing a common ground for two guys who didn’t always understand each other. Ask any woman in my family and they will tell you, we men are notoriously taciturn creatures of very few words. My mom once told me my granddad would come over to visit my dad and they would sit in the living room, watch TV for hours, and barely say four words to each other. Every day.
My own memories of baseball and the Braves are inextricably linked with my dad. From the moment I watched his eyes well up with pride after I hit my first little league home run, to the countless Braves postseasons we watched together in our living room. These are, without coincidence, some of the happiest moments of my life.
Once I moved away from home, I would call my dad at the beginning of every MLB season. I’d ask him what he thought the Braves’ chances were that particular year: “You think the pitching rotation will hold up?” We’d talk about our hopes that Jason Heyward wasn’t morphing into Jeff Francoeur: “Nah, he’s gonna be OK.” He would always curb his enthusiasm, saying the Braves would be good, but then cite all the times they had been so close and fallen short of the Big Prize: “They’ll take you to the prom, but then leave you standing by the punch bowl all night.”
My dad showed his affection for the Braves the same way he did with most things he cared for: by complaining about them. Just listening to him, you’d probably think he actually hated them. Mom said he never missed a game the previous season. “I’ve never seen someone hate a team but then plop down in front of the TV every time they come on,” she would say.
As long as I knew him, his complaints were the same: “They never wanna spend any money.” He particularly didn’t care for Braves manager Bobby Cox: “Cox has no idea what he’s doing.” I’m pretty sure that when Bobby Cox passes on to that Great Ballpark in the Sky, my dad will be the first one to greet him there. And before he can even make it past the pearly gates, my dad will tell him what an idiot he is for blowing a 6-run lead in Game 4 against the Yankees in the 1996 World Series.
On August 27, 2011, the Atlanta Braves held a ten-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals for the National League Wild Card, the fourth and final playoff spot awarded to the NL team with the best record that doesn’t win its respective division. On that day, given the historical data, the Braves’ odds of making the playoffs were a more-than solid 98.7%. Conversely, the Cardinals’ chances were at a near-impossible 1.1%. Only a collapse of calamitous proportions by one team, combined with a hot streak from the other could reverse both of their fates …
Of course, that’s exactly what happened.
I spent most of the 2011 MLB postseason passionately rooting against the St. Louis Cardinals as if they’d been the ones who killed my father. My logic: if they won the World Series it would be one of the most improbable runs in playoff history. That run couldn’t be made possible without the collapse of the Braves. From then until the end of baseball history, every mention of the magical 2011 Cardinals and their stupid-ass “happy flights” would be associated with that final day of the 2011 season and the day my father died. As if there would come a day when I forgot that I lost my dad.
After the 2011 season, the MLB playoff format was altered in an attempt to recreate the drama from that year’s regular season finish. (You may recall that the Boston Red Sox also suffered a cataclysmic season-ending slump that forced them to miss the 2011 playoffs by one game.) In the past, each league was allowed four playoff spots (three for the division champs and one for the wild card). For 2012 an extra wild card slot was added, forcing the two teams to have a one-game playoff “round” for the final spot.
The Braves earned one of those wild card spots. The other was awarded to those (hated) St. Louis Cardinals. On October 5, 2012 at 5:07pm, the Braves played the Cardinals in the one-game “series.” That afternoon, I put on my “24” Michael Bourn jersey and yelled at my T.V. every time Dan Uggla whiffed on a pitch that was nowhere near the strike zone.
I thought about 19-year veteran Chipper Jones’ last hooray as a Brave. I thought about fall 2011 and the ensuing heartbreak. But mostly, I thought about watching all those previous Braves postseasons with Pops, wishing he were there to share the moment. And after the Braves came up short (again) I wish I could have heard him say, “I told ya so.”
MLB spring training is already underway for 2013. If he were around, I’d call my dad to get his thoughts on how the Braves will fair with Chipper Jones no longer in the lineup. Or if he was looking forward to watching the newly acquired Upton brothers, along with Jason Heyward, form the most exciting outfield in the National League.
But I can’t. I miss him.
Someday I’ll likely have my own children. I can only hope that we share a similar bond over something we both love. It doesn’t have to be the Braves or baseball, but that would be nice.
Image credit: David Berkowitz/Flickr