If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? The possibility of unperceived existence has troubled philosophers since the early 16th century. This week it troubles me – and most assuredly the National League Eastern Division champion Atlanta Braves. If a team plays great and has great talent but no one notices, is it still a great team?
On Tuesday of last week, my hometown Pittsburgh Pirates clinched a National League Wild Card spot. That meant that if the Pirates beat the Cincinnati Reds in the Wild Card game (which they did 6-1 this past Tuesday), they would play the best-of-five, first round of MLB’s postseason against the team with the best win-loss record in the National League. Until they were inched out by a single game this past weekend, that team was the Atlanta Braves, who are still in the playoffs as the best team in the NL East.
Two days after my Pirates clinched, I checked the balance in my bank account for the several hundred dollars I expected to pay for a ticket to one of the Pirates-Braves playoff games.
With about $300 in disposable funds, I logged onto StubHub, the eBay of tickets. This marketplace of heartfelt dreams priced astronomically out of grasp had never before to my eyes held so many tickets offered clearly way below face price. As James Bond stated when he first heard the name of the voluptuous Pussy Galore, so I thought, “I must be dreaming.” And like the great Carl Yastrzemski, I often do “dream baseball.” To check reality, I googled the Braves’ official website.
In one way I had been dreaming. Those StubHub tickets were not being sold way below face price; they were being sold at face price. A pair of tickets to the Braves’ first playoff game, three-fourths of the way down the first base line, a mere 12 rows off the field, which I’d expected to go for maybe $100 face price each, $200-250 on StubHub, I snatched for $45. To convince myself that I wasn’t dreaming, I paid the $5 instant download fee and as the tickets rolled off my printer, I clutched them in my hand.
The Atlanta Braves spent the majority of the 2013 MLB season with the best win-loss record in baseball. Yet the city we Emory students live in doesn’t seem to care. My friends from St. Louis and Boston, by contrast, wake up in the morning, think of the Cardinals and Red Sox (respectively) and spend the rest of their day in euphoria. I’m not basing my observation of the lack of baseball spirit in Atlanta on the Braves fan depicted in the viral YouTube video titled “Baseball Fan Fondles Woman’s Breast Instead of Watching Baseball” either.
Rather, as I see it, money doesn’t lie. Nor does the absence of excited clamor for tickets. The price of Braves’ playoff tickets and the availability of Braves’ playoff tickets say a lot. Thus my philosophical quandary: if a team is truly great – and keeps winning – and no one cares, is it a truly great team? Do the Atlanta Braves exist as a great team?
Perhaps a better question is, “Why do the Braves not exist as a great team?” If the essence of an object is the sum of its manifestations, the essence of a baseball team must be the sum of the characteristics of its fans: their loyalty and passion, their knowledge, insight and debate, and most of all in a spectacular season like this one, their energy and excitement. Why does this not exist in Atlanta?
The Braves have an outfield rivaled only by that of my home team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the L.A. Angels of Anaheim. In left field, they have the hard-hitting Justin Upton. In center is Justin’s swift footed brother, B.J. And in right field, Jason Heyward and his bazooka arm. Twenty-four-year-old first baseman Freddie Freeman is an MVP candidate, batting. 319 with 23 home runs.
In a column for ESPN New York titled “City of Atlanta Doesn’t Deserve Win,” Rob Parker talks about the Braves’ 2011 end-of-season collapse and says, “Heads should have rolled. Instead, Braves first-year manager Fredi Gonzalez wasn’t under fire from the fan base and will be back this coming season. Again, most probably [the fans] didn’t even notice.” This year, as one of the strongest – if not the strongest – teams in baseball, the Braves ranked 13th in average attendance.
In the 1990’s, the Braves’ pitching rotation was lethal for opposing teams. Over a 10-year period, Atlanta made it to the World Series five times. Even the overpowering Yankees of the ’90s only made it to three. In 1995, the Braves won it. Adam Lazarus, a senior analyst on BleacherReport.com ranked their pitching rotation that year the best of all time.
Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Steve Avery and Kent Mercker are widely considered to to be an unparalleled combination. The Braves of this area were managed by the brilliant Bobby Cox, led by David Justice for the first half of the decade and Chipper Jones the second, and were, in terms of talent, a great team. Parker points out that over a 14-year streak, of winning division titles, the Braves only led the league in attendance once.
In 1998, during that dynasty, Rich Dorsey wrote a column for The Augusta Chronicle with the headline “Turnout Shows Atlanta’s No Baseball Town.” Dorsey calls the empty upper right field deck of Turner Field “a blue hole, an eyesore in its blue-seated uniformity.” Dorsey chastised Braves fans for not even selling out playoff games. He cites Glavine and Cox as defending the fans with arguments that the unsold seats weren’t the best seats in the house.
What true fan would miss a key game because he or she wasn’t happy with the available seats? This isn’t even a money issue because the worst seats are priced accordingly. He also cites the theory that Braves fans were so spoiled by winning that it came to be nothing special. This theory, he explains, is faulty because fan devotion to the Jordan-Pippen-Rodman Chicago Bulls of the same time period never diminished.
The quality of a team’s ballpark is often a measure of the fans’ devotion to the team. Politicians spend public funds to gain public support. Atlanta gave the Braves a new ballpark two ears after their world series win in 1995, but it was a second-hand gift. “Centennial Olympic Stadium” was built to host track and field events and the closing ceremony of the 1996 Olympics, and only then converted into the Turner Field we know and, well, don’t really love today.
I like to think I appreciate all kinds of ball parks. I love PNC Park because every seat has a good view, it overlooks the Allegheny River and the city of Pittsburgh, and it’s genuinely new and nice. I love Wrigley and Fenway because of the brotherhood of fans you find yourself with at both of them, along with the knowledge that great events have taken place in both ballparks.
To me, Turner Field is the old Yankee Stadium if you took away the Wrigley-Fenway appeal and only filled it about 60 percent. I doubt anyone would be surprised if it were discovered that the entire interior of Turner was made by filling an enormous mold with very gray cement.
This Olympic stadium turned baseball park maneuver was first implemented in Montreal after the 1976 Olympics. We might never know the extent to which Montreal’s Olympic Stadium played a role in the dismal attendance at Expos’ games culminating in the team’s relocation to Washington to became the Nationals in 2005, but we do know that if Atlanta fans were ever to passionately embrace baseball, it would be a political coup to replace Turner Field.
So, why isn’t the Braves Nation stronger? Or why is there not really much of a Braves Nation to begin with? A number of reasons are obvious.
The love of baseball is passed down, father to son, father to daughter, grandmother to grandson. Baseball fans grow up having a catch in the back yard and eating a hotdog at the ballpark. And more often than not, they grow up rooting for, praying for and being ready to die for the same team as their parents.
The Braves only came to Atlanta in 1966. They had played 83 years in Boston with the Red Sox as a crosstown rival, then another 12 in Milwaukee before moving to Atlanta. The parents of Atlanta’s baby boomers couldn’t have passed down love of the Braves to their children. When they were growing up, there were no Atlanta Braves.
To the extent that there are long-time Braves’ fans dating back to the Braves’ arrival in 1966, there aren’t too many. In 1970, metro Atlanta’s population was 1.2 million, about one-fourth what it is today. Atlanta is known to have many “transplants” or residents from other parts of the country or world living there for work today. They have no more history with the Braves than they have a southern accent.
Perhaps most important, football – specifically college football – reigns supreme in this part of the South. The Southeastern Conference has the highest average attendance of any conference in the NCAA, at 75,538 per game.
The University of Georgia, a mere hour and 20 minutes from Atlanta, averages 92,703 per game, placing it 6th among all NCAA teams and three times that of the average Braves’ game. That means that UGA averages over 22,000 more fans per game than the NFL Atlanta Falcons, although the Falcons sell out the Georgia Dome for every game.
The facts that the Atlanta Hawks are fifth from last in NBA average attendance and that the NHL Thrashers had such a weak fan base that they left for Winnipeg, a city with less that one fifth the population of Atlanta, suggests that Atlanta isn’t a good sports town in general, outside of football.
But the lack of Braves Pride stands out because the Braves are one of the most talented teams in baseball. They will likely continue winning, but that isn’t supposed to be the only reward for being a great team. Van Gogh and Dickinson created great things during their lifetimes. We say that neither was great until after death, however, because neither was appreciated until then.
A great team is loved by its fans. Atlanta: don’t wait for the Braves to start losing to appreciate what you have now. Don’t make Heyward, the Uptons and Freddie Freeman’s careers great only as an echo of a tree that fell in the forest in the past.
– By Zak Hudak
Photo courtesy of Matt Barnett, Flickr