One of the great things about my job is that we don’t “cover” the Atlanta Braves.
That may sound like a contradiction, but it’s not.
Instead of applying for my credentials and taking in the games with the cold passivity that comes with press box seating, I buy my tickets (done), pregame in the parking lot with a buddy (can’t wait), take my $12 seat (better than you might think), and cheer like the lifelong fan I am.
It’s also a curse, because being a Braves fan must be one of the most emotionally taxing sentences in all of sports.
True, Cubs fans have suffered longer, the NFL’s Bills endured a similar string of what-might-have-been seasons, and seeing Sid Bream slide safely home is as about as close to pure, indescribable joy as anyone could ever hope to know in a lifetime of sports consumerism.
But unlike our Buffalo and Chicago brethren, we Braves fans are stricken with that one October of relief in 1995, so we know what we’re missing. Before and since then, we’ve been teased, tantalized, and hexed by the curse of hope.
But while experience can teach you to temper expectations, for most of us, it can’t squash them completely.
Left to our own thoughts and wishes, maybe it would, but that’s not the nature of the game. Sports give way to predictions, and predictions, yield the ‘H’ word.
We’re already familiar with why we shouldn’t believe in 2010.
The ace of last year’s staff is in pinstripes, and little has been done to alleviate the dearth of run-producing power in the lineup.
But then, before the season even starts and we’re ready to start waiting till next year, along comes Jason Heyward, looking every bit the second coming of Griffey Jr. like he’s been made out to be.
Then back comes Tim Hudson, healthy again, throwing bullets and sinking BBs in the Grapefruit League.
Then our minds — and worse yet, our hearts — start to wonder.
What if Tommy Hanson keeps getting better? What if Troy Glaus can stay healthy? What if Chipper’s got another .315/25/100 season left in the tank?
And then, with the cruelty of a Hollywood bully befriending the nerdy kid only to better humiliate him later in the film, the prognosticators push us forward.
It’s not so much the columnists or talking heads on TV; we’re wrong often enough that we’re easy to blow off. But when the statistic-driven hardballers start saying it’s likely the Braves will snap their four-year postseason dry spell … well, hope springs.
The line in Las Vegas, where money is on the table, says the Braves will win 86 games this year.
That’s the same number they won last season, but with the NL West expected to cannibalize itself, 86 wins is predicted to be enough to earn the NL Wild Card.
A reputable Web site, Baseballprospectus.com, agrees. Its prediction has the Braves finishing second in the NL East at 85-77 and taking the Wild Card spot as well.
Sounds good, but before we let the optimism spin out of control, here’s a cold dose of reality:
Glaus, who’s slated to be the team’s cleanup hitter, didn’t play in 20 games last year.
Billy Wagner, 38, who’s expected to be the team’s closer, didn’t pitch 20 innings last year.
If those two (and Chipper) stay healthy and produce up to previous levels, the Braves have a chance to make a run.
If Heyward acclimates quickly to big league pitching and seizes the right-field spot with authority, and if Nate McLouth bounces back from a weak end to last season and putrid spring to start this one, those chances improve.
If the rest of the bullpen holds up and the starters stay healthy and so on, and so forth ... you get the point. This team’s held together by a lot of ifs.
And if it holds together through July, maybe then I’ll yield to hope.
Until then, it’s about 54 weeks till Opening Day 2011.
Brent Holloway is the sports editor for The Times. Contact him at email@example.com.