‘Maybe we do deserve nice things’

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ATLANTA — After an unexpected, first-in-a-generation World Series win, why spend only one day reliving and celebrating the victory? Much like their run to the championship, the Braves threw a bash this past week that was anything but conventional.

The Braves spent their home opener and the six days that followed feting their stars and fans in a unique tribute the team termed “Champions Week.”

“I want them to enjoy everything about this,” manager Brian Snitker said of his players. “You’re never guaranteed that you’re going to be able to experience this again, so enjoy every second of it.”

Since Opening Day on Thursday, the Braves have held World Series-related giveaways, unveiled new championship banners and hosted a ceremony to give players their awe-inspiring rings. Typically, these events are all crammed into one momentous day, not overlapped across an entire week.

Sold-out crowds, anthem serenades from a homegrown tenor, a fighter-jet flyover, a parade, fireworks displays and a seemingly endless loop of Queen’s “We Are the Champions” were among the sights and sounds at Truist Park.

“It was packed,” Braves third baseman Austin Riley said after the season opener. “You get the chills, you get the adrenaline. It was nice to be back in front of our home fans.”

“We have a lot to celebrate,” added Greg Mize, Braves vice president of marketing and innovation. “The way the entire city, region rallied around us, we wanted to make sure that we could spread out the celebration so that as many people as possible could be part of it.”

The past few weeks have been hectic for team officials, who organized the weeklong celebration right after MLB’s release of a revised, post-lockout regular season schedule. When they saw the team would be home for a full week to start the season, they wanted to do something the league later said it had never seen done before. After all, this was the team’s first championship since 1995 and just the second since moving to Atlanta in 1966.

It also turned out to be the perfect homecoming for an All-Star first baseman who grew up a Braves fan. After spending the first six years of his career with the Oakland A’s, Matt Olson was traded to his hometown team last month, to fill the massive void left by fan-favorite Freddie Freeman, who ultimately signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“Getting here, feeling the atmosphere in the stadium and going out and being able to play,” said Olson, who went 8-for-14 in a season-opening split with the Cincinnati Reds, “it’s been a blast.”

While watching his teammates from the 2021 team celebrated by Atlanta fans all week, Olson had one prevailing thought.

“It makes me want to win a World Series,” he said.

EVEN AMID THE fanfare of “Champions Week,” Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson admitted he had long since turned the page on 2021. Since the start of the offseason, his focus has been on one thing: a repeat.

“Shoot, it was pretty much the day after the parade,” Swanson said. “As an athlete, when it’s over, it’s already on to the next year, mentally.”

But for Braves fans, the shift hasn’t been anywhere near as quick. That Tuesday night in November, when an Atlanta team finally became champions again, will never be forgotten.

Fans watched in ballpark seats in Houston and in living rooms across Georgia. They watched in bars in Buckhead, apartments off Bankhead and in cities and towns distant from the peach groves and the Peachtree streets. The euphoria of a title, anticipated for decades, finally came via a clinching Game 6 rout of the Astros.

“I was at work and I started screaming and crying, and people started looking at me like I’m crazy,” said Atlantan Ashley Bivins, who grew up playing catcher on baseball and softball teams. “Baseball and the Braves are so near and dear to me.”

That kind of joy could be seen all over the city, on disbelieving faces covered with zig-zag lines of happy tears. Somebody pinch us. Is this really happening?

Forgive Braves fans for finding it all a little hard to believe — for decades, losing big games had been more synonymous with the city’s pro sports clubs than winning them. Along with Atlanta United’s 2018 win in the MLS Cup, the city now has just three major professional sports championships in its history. Even the Braves’ 1995 title was surrounded by World Series defeats in 1991, 1992, 1996 and 1999.

Since ’95, the Braves had 16 Octobers end in playoff defeat — until last season.

“It was like a breath of fresh air, like: ‘Maybe we’re not cursed? Maybe we do deserve nice things,'” said Atlanta native Riah Greathouse. “It’s like you’re in therapy and in a toxic relationship, and after a while you start to think, ‘Well, I don’t deserve nice things, that’s why I’m not a winner.’

“And then it’s like, ‘Wait — I am worthy.'”

“Champions Week” ends Wednesday, when Georgia‘s national championship football team is recognized. In January, the Bulldogs beat conference rival Alabama to earn the school’s third national title and first since 1980.

The celebration is fitting, especially if you believe the Braves broke an Atlanta title jinx.

“My buddy’s a huge Georgia fan and he and his friends don’t think they would have won if we hadn’t won,” said Swanson, who was born and raised in the Atlanta area.

Just as Swanson’s friends believe the Braves’ belief rubbed off on the Bulldogs, Swanson thinks his team’s success last season was impacted by the postseason run the Atlanta Hawks had, led by guard Trae Young.

Swanson witnessed the way Young stormed into a raucous Madison Square Garden and put up three 30-point road performances in wins over the New York Knicks, then led the team to an upset of the Philadelphia 76ers in seven games. Swanson felt he and his teammates could do something similar.

“You could tell the reason they were so good — I mean, they have personnel — but it’s just the belief in their main guy, Trae, and those guys around him,” Swanson said. “That does something for a city and does something for a team. And I felt like it did it for us, too.”

IT WAS OCT. 29, 1991, two days after the Braves had lost Game 7 of the World Series. On a blustery, blue-skied afternoon in downtown Atlanta, a 6-year-old Greathouse went up to the rooftop of the Justice Center building where his mother Pat worked. She accompanied him, as did one of his best friends.

“I remember there were garbage bags on top of the buildings where we were, where they had just taken paper and put it through a shredder,” Greathouse said.

The thin cuts formed makeshift confetti. It was to be thrown down from the rooftops and parking garages where the garbage bags had been placed.

To some Atlantans like Greathouse, the two months leading to that day set a tone for the heights to which the Braves soared last fall. That stretch, starting with the dramatic September pennant chase with the Dodgers, made the Braves relevant. For the first time, fans in the city truly felt they were backing a winner that could have sustained success, not just individual stars like Hank Aaron in the 1970s or Dale Murphy in the 1980s. They were finally supporting a team full of potential stars.

Some Atlanta fans looking back now believe that if it weren’t for 1991, there might not have been a 1995 — or a 2021.

“It set the basis for 30-plus years of Braves fandom for me, and now I feel like that’s setting the foundation for my son,” said Greathouse, whose 7-year-old, Alexander, is growing up an Atlanta fan, too.

Following an abysmal 1990 campaign that saw the team finish 26 games out of first place, the 1991 season featured a mad dash from the back of the division pack to the front — not dissimilar to the sprint to the postseason that followed GM Alex Anthopoulos’ savvy trade-deadline moves last year.

All throughout September 1991, the Braves and the Dodgers traded places atop the National League West. On the penultimate day of the regular season, Atlanta clinched with a win over Houston, sending the Braves to the playoffs and launching their impressive 14-year run of division titles.

But 23 days later, the players sullenly walked back into the visiting clubhouse at the Humbert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis. They had just lost a World Series Game 7 thriller to the Minnesota Twins. A win would’ve marked the first major pro sports championship in Atlanta history.

Despite the defeat, what followed was a celebration unlike anything the city had witnessed.

On the bustling avenue below the rooftop where Greathouse stood with his mother and friend was what police later estimated to be one million people. They crowded sidewalks, light poles and milled about in the street. As the massive throng lined both sides of the roadway, a tunnel about six-feet wide cut between it. The space formed a narrow path through which more than 50 red, white and blue Camaros, Corvettes and Mustangs traveled, tops off, at stop-and-go pace.

As then-Atlanta mayor, the late Maynard Jackson, said to a local news station during a live broadcast of the parade: “The biggest crowd I’ve seen in the history of Atlanta. I don’t care what the occasion. I’m talking, the biggest crowd by far.

“We’ve been lifted up by the Braves. We’ve given the Braves our roots, and they’ve given us their wings.”

Last week, former Braves reliever Marvin Freeman remembered how the vintage Mustang he and catcher Mike Heath were traveling in overheated.

“We got out and had to walk the last mile of the parade,” Freeman said. “Me and Mike talk about that to this day. We actually got out of the car, went in a bar and got a beer and then joined the processional at the meeting place downtown where everybody was congregating at. It was hilarious.”

The frenetic scene was more than just a funny memory for Freeman, though. He learned something from Atlanta sports fans that day.

“It showed that they were really, really hungry for a world championship in any sport,” Freeman said. “And it showed that second place wasn’t as bad as we made it out to be as players. Because they welcomed us as if we won the World Series. I know we didn’t finish the job, but it was such an eye-opening experience seeing how those fans were just all-in on the Braves.”

WHENEVER DAVID ROGERS reflects on Atlanta’s run last year, his 7-year-old son, Hill, is top of mind.

“He caught onto my enthusiasm, so he really got into it,” said Rogers, a 36-year-old Atlantan. “And it was fun to live it with him; his unjaded view of the Braves — since all he’s kind of known was that they won. It was fun to see his excitement without the memories of defeat.”

Like Greathouse, Rogers attended Thursday’s opener, when the Braves unveiled their new World Series pennant. Bivins took her son Ahmir to Monday’s game against the Washington Nationals so he could claim his promotional replica of the championship ring the Braves received on Saturday. In addition to those festivities, the Braves honored their 2021 individual award winners in a pregame ceremony Friday. On Tuesday, they handed out bobbleheads of Riley, the middle-of-the-order slugger whose postseason heroics helped carry the Braves last fall.

“Even though he’s 3, he’s been a big part of this moment, too,” Bivins said. “I’m just hoping that as he gets older he gets to experience this again at an age where he’ll understand it more, as well.”

Much like the constantly changing city they call home, these Braves are a team in transition. They have grown, matured, become something bigger than most outsiders expected, and done so quicker than expected. The team has started discovering the limitless potential in its future.

When they weren’t expected to, these Braves arrived. They won. But now comes the next battle: Can they remain at the top where they once, a generation ago, also briefly sat?

“One of my favorite things about this group of guys is that it’s all about competition for us, and that’s why we’ve been so successful in the past,” Swanson said. “And it’s why we’re hopeful that this year will be the same thing.”

Whether this year ends in another World Series win or not, the Braves have given their most ardent supporters something many of them had lost the past 27 years: hope.

“It’s nice to say that not only is this the home team,” Greathouse said, “but this is a winning team.”

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