Rooting for a sports team is a peculiar thing to do. You attach your hopes, dreams, and emotions to a group of people you’ve never met, and you root for them to succeed as though they were your own children. The whole concept of being a sports fan sounds so silly if you can take a step back and think about it that way. But there’s a reason we still do it anyway. Life itself is a competition of sorts, full of pitches and swings and wins and losses, and everyone can relate to failure and success. Sports are a fun way of doing just that, relating to one another in a way that’s fun and exhilarating and heartbreaking, often all at the same time.
Sports are undoubtedly fun when you and your team win, whether you’re a participant or spectator. The goal of the game is to win, so winning is preferable to losing in virtually every circumstance, all else equal. But as the cliche goes, winning isn’t everything. Sports are also about having a positive outlook, a belief that you can do anything if you try. Sports are about having a winning strategy and a winning mentality, knowing that if you don’t win this time, the pieces are in place for you to win the next time you compete, because you’re giving your best effort. Sports can be fun, and rooting for a team can be fun, if you know the players are genuinely trying to do their best and routinely exceeding even your loftiest expectations.
Such is the case with the 2010 version of the Atlanta Braves. There’s no doubting the fact that they lost the NLDS to a flawed San Francisco Giants team and were themselves clearly the worst of the 8 MLB playoff teams. Teams with finite resources will always have a tough time recovering after losing their two best hitters and best relief pitcher to injury, especially if they weren’t already the best team in the league.
For a while, the 2010 Atlanta Braves played exceptionally good baseball. From the end of the early-season losing streak until the day Chipper was hurt, the Braves were a great team. Not as great as some of the mid-90s teams, but still great. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the team that backed into the postseason despite losing 2 of 3 important games in the season’s final series against the Phillies.
One thing that was never in doubt about the 2010 Atlanta Braves was the character of their clubhouse. If they found a piece that didn’t fit (Yunel Escobar), it was replaced with a piece that did fit (Alex Gonzalez), no matter the cost in terms of sacrificing measurable player value. As a Braves fan, you always accepted that this would be the case with Bobby Cox at the helm. He made some maddening tactical decisions, up until the final outs of his managerial career, but Bobby Cox never lost his clubhouse or the respect of his players. You also knew that was worth something, even when the results weren’t great on the field.
The 2010 Atlanta Braves were not a great team in the end, and a better Giants team won the right to face the Phillies in the NLCS. Umpiring issues aside, it was a series of terrific games. Four one-run games, each with such a high level of drama that it’s a shame, even from an objective standpoint, that the series couldn’t have gone one more game. The Giants got hits exactly when they needed them, and they ultimately prevailed.
Just minutes before the end of Game 4, the umpiring and all other issues were not on the mind of most Braves fans at Turner Field. The same fans who, out of frustration, booed Brooks Conrad’s errors in Game 3, were on their feet cheering for him as he pinch-hit to lead off the 9th. You could almost feel the end nearing, but you could also feel the empathy for a player who was having the worst week of his professional life play out before millions of people. He had played such a key role in getting the Braves to that point, and Atlanta chose to remember the good times and hope he could work his magic just one more time. With the end nearing, the fans took the higher road. Just as the end neared for Conrad, the fans also knew that the end was at hand for Bobby Cox, and there was no one who was rooting for Brooks Conrad more than Number Six.
Aside from winning the World Series, which was never a realistic thought for this team, the best sendoff I can imagine is what actually took place. The team was scratching and clawing, drawing two walks against Brian Wilson, one of baseball’s elite relief pitchers. Conrad, Rick Ankiel, Eric Hinske, All-Star Omar Infante, and Melky Cabrera would oppose Wilson in the most important inning of the season, but I and the rest of Braves Country expected the impossible one more time. With Bobby Cox, and with these players playing specifically for him, you had to feel like the impossible was within reach.
For that reason, among others, I think this Braves team is going to stand out to me for a long time. I had the chance this year to see more games in person than ever before (7 in total), including the Jimenez no-hitter and both NLDS home games, but that’s only one reason.
This team didn’t have the talent of any of the 1991-2000 Braves teams, but everyone was tuned in to Bobby Cox and ready to work for him day in and day out. The cast was unique: Moylan, Diaz, Jones, McCann, Glaus, Wagner, Ross, Hinske, Conrad, and a host of younger players made it easy to get behind this team. With plenty of uncertainty heading into the offseason, the cast is likely to change in 2011. And even if the manager is Fredi Gonzalez, or someone else who is seemingly made in the mold of Bobby Cox, it will never be the same without the original.
So farewell, Bobby Cox. I know that putting my faith in people I don’t personally know, especially wealthy athletes and coaches, is often foolish, but I can’t help myself with your team. You’ve shown with this team, and throughout your career, what it means to understand people and get the most out of them. You’ve literally walked in the shoes of your players, putting on the uniform with cleats for 29 seasons. I’ve been watching the Braves since I was seven years old, and I won’t soon forget the impact you’ve had in your career or this final 2010 season. It’s been a pleasure to root for you and your team.