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Sarah Woodall: While early in season, 'Baby Braves' evoke memories of a dominant past
Ronald Acuna Jr.
Atlanta Braves’ Ronald Acuna Jr. reacts to hitting an RBI single during the eighth inning against the Chicago Cubs in a game on Wednesday, May 16, 2018, in Atlanta. - photo by AP photo

It was a cool fall morning on October 2, 2002. I was in eighth grade and my parents, after informing me of an orthodontist appointment I had that day, arrived to pick me up early from school. 

Of course, I was totally unaware of their true intentions. This “appointment” would actually be at Turner Field, once the Fulton County home of the Atlanta Braves, for Game 1 of the NLDS against the San Francisco Giants.

Tom Glavine was pitching against Russ Ortiz. The sun was shining and the air was crisp, a perfect day for postseason baseball — and playing a little hooky from school. The Braves lost (and went on to lose the series),  but I added another lasting memory to my childhood. It was truly a wonderful time to be an Atlanta Braves diehard.

The ambiance of Turner Field growing up was almost therapeutic: With every crack of the bat, pop of the catcher’s glove, the crescendo of cheers after every exciting play that cued the famous ‘Tomahawk Chop’ — foam tomahawks or hands rocking back and forth in rhythm with the famous war chant blaring the speakers — brought me joy. I felt at home in Braves country.

It was the era of Bobby Cox, the glory years for the franchise. I watched a number of household names and future Hall of Famers take to the diamond (Marcus Giles, while not a part of the Hall, was certainly one of my favorites). Games were broadcasted on TBS, and although too young to truly experience Atlanta’s lone World Series win, I saw the Braves rattle off many of those 14-consecutive division crowns and playoff runs. 

Some nights my family and I would huddle next to a bedside radio (yes, out of our sheer superstitions) listening to playoff baseball. And during our brief residency in the Chicago metropolitan area, a trip to Wrigley Field was a must whenever the Braves were in town.

There was plenty of heartbreak along the way too, but like that one eighth-grade afternoon I reminisce of those days at Turner Field. Each time I went back, I was a kid again. This team was a part of me.

For the longest time, I feel, it was very much the essence of the southeast too.

And after a five-year lull it seems as if that wonderment has returned, just in time for the next generation of young Braves patrons.

Sure, Atlanta failed to sell out for opening day at SunTrust Park, but this fanbase along with the national media has quickly caught on to something nearly two months into the 2018 season.

These Baby Braves aren’t on their hands and knees crawling in bewilderment. They’re caught in an upswing, walking tall with the national spotlight now gleaming on their backs.

First-year GM Alex Anthopoulos and manager Brian Snitker have fielded an exciting product from their new home of SunTrust Park in Cobb County to complement the surging Atlanta United FC and the Atlanta Falcons — coming off a second-round NFC playoff berth earlier in the year.

This ballclub is paced by a handful of 20-somethings fresh off the farm, including rookie sensations Ronald Acuna Jr. and second baseman Ozzie Albies, and the recent resurgence of 24-year-old homegrown Brave Dansby Swanson. They are lighting up multiple statistical categories, the pitching has been good enough (combined 3.53 ERA), and so far this supporting cast under veterans Nick Markakis (.344 hitting) and All-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman feels like a long time coming.

Entering last Tuesday’s series opener against Philadelphia, Atlanta leads the national league in runs, OPS and total bases. The Braves went on to drop two of three in Philadelphia, though they still boast a 21-12 mark against divisional opponents.

Albies’ (.280 hitting) club-leading 14th home run of the season boosted the Braves to a 3-1 win over their division rival Tuesday night and kept Atlanta ahead in the East. After batting .326 over his first 11 games in the majors, Acuna as of last week sported a .774 OPS and at times has wowed statisticians with his exit velocity on contact.

And let’s not forget one big category: Wins. On May 3, Atlanta’s 7-0 rout of the New York Mets put it atop the NL East standings for the first time since 2014. As we approach Memorial Day, the Braves are just half-game behind the Phillies in the division and are on pace for 98 wins, a huge leap in progress considering Atlanta finished with 90 losses in 2017 and has not had a winning season since 2013. 

In addition to wooing the MLB in the midst of this rebuild, Atlanta is winning moneyball. The Braves’ ceiling seems even higher considering Anthopoulos, also the team’s executive vice president, has only $38 million in salaries committed through next year while having Freeman signed until 2021.

It is still too early to talk playoffs, but there’s no reason to dread implosion. I’m not implying this team will make a run at the World Series in this year or the next, but this current narrative indicates Atlanta’s relevance as a competitive ballclub is back, and its domineering reputation once held in the 90s could make another go in the coming years.

With my childlike enthusiasm for the Braves back, I’m certainly going to enjoy this ride for as long as possible.


Sarah Woodall is a sports writer for The Times. She can be reached at swoodall@gainesvilletimes.com or @Woodall8Sarah on Twitter.

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