Here I am at Turner Field yet again. It's not just another game, though. This night could be special. The Braves are trying to cut their magic number to one, watching to see if the Phillies and Mets will ever start their game so they can do the unthinkable: cheer for the Mets.
I've heard a couple of people say that it's amazing there are only 20-something thousand in the stands here tonight. It will just add to the talk about Atlanta not being a real sports town and this city not truly appreciating their major league baseball team winning a division title.
But hold on. I for one think that reputation is bunk. Certainly, there could be more people in the stands here tonight, and with our governor giving the school kids the day off tomorrow you'd think more of them would be here. But while this may be a special night for those people wearing the Braves uniform, for Braves fans, it is just another night.
I mean, this does happen every fall.
Think about it. The kids who were just starting first grade on October 5, 1991, the day the Braves clinched their first division in this remarkable run, are now starting their junior year in college. People like myself, who were just able to finally legally drink that same year, now frighteningly see themselves in their mid-30s. And if you happened to turn 50 that year, you're now looking to draw what social security you'll get before it runs out.
Fourteen years. In 1991, when I sat in the press box at Atlanta- Fulton County Stadium watching the team clinch, it was the first time they had done so in nine years. Nine years is a lifetime when you're having to watch a team like those Braves. And then you had to wonder if it might be another nine years before it happened again.
But it did happen the next year, and then the next year, and then after the strike wiped away 1994, they came back and did it again in 1995. And ever since, the Braves have proven that's what they do. They win the division title.
And, of course, the criticism has been that that's all they can do. You can't call them the Buffalo Bills since the Braves have won the whole thing and the Bills have not. And people who criticize this franchise are just jealous. Sure, it would have been nice to have won more than one World Series, and yes they should have won it in 1991 and 1996, but hey, they didn't. Get over it already.
The fact of the matter is this team has done something that will never be done in baseball again. Never. Winning this many division titles in any league is unfathomable. Can you imagine what you would have said if someone had told you on October 5, 1991, "oh don't worry, this is only the first of fourteen in a row."
Are the Braves' fans spoiled? Sure they are. This is old hat. This is what we do. Our team wins the division every single season. It's not that big a deal because we do it all the time. But don't say this city doesn't support this team. If you were at the last game last season, Game 5 of the NLDS against Houston, you know this city supports this team. This stadium was packed and fired up.
And that's the thing. The playoffs are not unique because there are not many Braves fans that have not been to a playoff game. But compare that to a Tigers' fan. Detroit hasn't been in the playoffs since Ronald Reagan was running for re-election in 1984. Can you imagine the madness that would ensue if the Tigers made it back there? How about the Brewers? The last time they made it was 1982. Do you think their fans would show up if they made it back to the playoffs?
Sure they would. But since Braves fans go through this every year, just like paying taxes, it's just another thing to do in the course of the calendar year. That doesn't give Braves fans an excuse, but it does make sense.
When you look at how many division titles other teams in baseball have won over the course of the last fourteen seasons and compare it to the Braves, it's remarkable. Only the Yankees (8) and Indians (6) have more than five division titles in that same time period. Heck the Braves even put some sort of hex on the Blue Jays, Phillies, and Pirates. The last time those three teams were in the playoffs they were playing the Braves, but it's been more than a decade since they've returned to the postseason.
And how about those Royals? Remember the Kansas City team that lost John Schuerholz to us? Well, needless to say, since the Hall of Fame GM left them, they've been where the Braves have not. The Royals have only three winning seasons since 1991, and they haven't been in the playoffs since they won it all in 1985.
So how would all the fans of these teams that have not been in the playoffs for a long time react if their team made it back to the postseason? They'd probably be pretty darn happy. They wouldn't be any happier than the Braves fans are every year, but it would be different since they are not there every single season. It would be new, just like it was for the Braves when this thing started fourteen years ago.
So forgive us if the game clinchers and playoff games are a little hum-drum. We're just used to it. But you can bet when the playoffs roll around next week, these fans are going to know that this is special - once again.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Division crown not casual, just expected
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