The Braves will leave Atlanta for Cobb County after the 2016 season. But in essence, they’re already gone. During the off-season, team executives cut three of the top four sluggers—Justin Upton, Evan Gattis, and Jason Heyward—from a lineup that already ranked second to last in run production. They did little to improve their rotation or their bullpen. Then, just days before the season opener, they traded Craig Kimbrel, one of the best closers in baseball. “None of Atlanta’s moves seem particularly astute,” baseball analyst Cliff Corcoran wrote on SI.com. The Braves are playing the long game; they’re restocking the farm system and leaving room on the payroll for bigger contracts down the road, in hopes of contending at their new park in 2017. But in doing so, they’ve also ended any real chance of winning in the two seasons left at Turner Field. Las Vegas oddsmakers have them losing more games this season than all but four MLB teams. Barring a miracle showing, what’s an Atlanta fan to do? Well, you could embrace the sorrow and reminisce with us. Through six decades in our city, the Braves gave us some wonderful memories.
1. April 22, 1966
You may know the name Ralph McGill for the boulevard that runs from downtown to the Old Fourth Ward, or for his writing that thundered against segregation. In an Atlanta Constitution column on opening day for the city’s new team, McGill also hit upon the reason we watch sports:
“So we welcome the Braves and the teams that will contend with them. And if there is, in this brilliant and spring-green and flowered beauty, also the aroma of a distant baseball pennant and a World Series, who shall say it is not possible?”
Who shall say it is not possible. Popcorn, peanuts, cold beer. As the managers bring out their lineup cards, as the catcher takes the last warm-up toss and fires to second, as the pitcher winds up for the first pitch, everyone is innocent. That’s how it felt in the pale blue wheel of Atlanta Stadium in 1966. Our Braves had never failed.
That night they claimed the Mets were throwing spitballs, but it didn’t matter with all the rain and mud. Eddie Mathews came up in the first with Felipe Alou on base and cracked one down the third-base line. It came to rest in a puddle. Alou slogged home. The Braves would go on to win 8–4, the first home win in the first season for the first Major League baseball team in the South.
McGill could not have known how distant that pennant was, or how much the Falcons would lose when they showed up that fall, or how many times the Hawks would choke, or how often Atlanta would be called Loserville, or how high we would rank, year after year, on the Forbes list of most miserable sports cities. He saw the Braves miss the playoffs in 1966, and 1967, and 1968. In February 1969, two days before his 71st birthday, eight months before the Braves won their first division title, Ralph McGill died of a heart attack.
2. September 30, 1969
In August they lost five in a row and dropped to fifth in the National League West. Then things got strange. They pulled off an unthinkable triple play against the Cubs, first baseman to shortstop to catcher to third baseman to pitcher to second baseman to the left fielder covering second. The next night, Morganna the Kissing Bandit dashed onto the field and embraced third baseman Clete Boyer. And the Braves stormed back into contention: Over one stretch in September, they won 17 of 20 games.
The division-clinching victory was just as implausible. Starting pitcher Phil Niekro singled and scored the game’s first run. The game-winning RBI came from Rico Carty, who had recently spent 165 nights in a tuberculosis sanitarium. Hoyt Wilhelm, a 46-year-old knuckleballer claimed on waivers earlier that month, came in to save Niekro’s 23rd win. Braves 3, Reds 2. At least 2,000 fans rushed the field. One player lost his cap. The bullpen gate disappeared. Third base turned up at a bar, where one guy bought it from another guy after punching him in the face. Niekro poured drinks at his bar on Ellis Street. Manuel Maloof gloated at Manuel’s. Mayor Ivan Allen doused himself with Champagne. Atlanta celebrated as if the Braves had won the World Series, blissfully unaware they would soon be swept by the Mets in the National League Championship Series.
3. April 8, 1974
Hank Aaron was 40 years old, worn down from two decades in the majors and a barrage of hate mail from racists who didn’t want him breaking a white man’s record. That year he would hit just one home run for every eight games the Braves played. But the world watched that cold Monday night as if his 715th were a foregone conclusion. He walked onto the field through a gantlet of 40 women who wore shirts with his name and number. Attendance had fallen as low as 1,362 the previous season, but now 53,775 jammed the stadium; 40 million watched on TV. Al Downing walked Aaron in the second inning, provoking boos, and faced him again in the fourth. The second pitch was a fastball that stayed up. Aaron swung for the first time that night, driving it over the wall in left-center field.
As Aaron trotted around the bases, his mother watched from a seat near the dugout. She heard gunfire and thought the racists were following through on their threats. But it was only the Braves mascot, Chief Noc-a-Homa, firing his cannon. The celebration delayed the game for 11 minutes. Then, the mass exodus. By the time the Braves finished beating the Dodgers, 7–4, most of the fans were gone.
4. October 22, 1991
They lost pretty much nonstop for 16 years, pausing just long enough in 1982 to get swept by the Cardinals in the NLCS. At the 1991 All-Star break, they were 39–40, trailing the Dodgers by nine and a half games. What followed was the most memorable three-month span in Atlanta sports history. The Braves went 55–28 in the second half, snatching the division from the Dodgers, outlasting the Pirates in a seven-game NLCS, pressing on to face the Twins for the championship. After two excruciating losses on the road, they hosted their first World Series game ever.
Midnight came and went, and the game kept going. It was 4–4 in the top of the 12th when Braves second baseman Mark Lemke let a routine grounder roll past him. The Braves got out of the inning only because the Twins ran out of pinch-hitters and had to send a relief pitcher to the plate. In the bottom half, Lemke came up with two outs and a runner on second. He was a small man—drafted in the 27th round, a minor leaguer for most of eight seasons—but now, in the game of his life, he lined one to left and brought David Justice home for the winning run.
The Braves would win two more at home, taking a 3–2 lead back to Minneapolis. And then, in two extra-inning heartbreakers, they let the Series slip away. Atlanta fans deserve their reputation as a flighty and mercurial bunch. But give them their due: In 1991, nearly 750,000 attended a parade for a team that came in second.
5. October 14, 1992
Game 7 of the NLCS. Those Pirates again. Down 2–0 in the bottom of the ninth. The Braves loaded the bases. They might have pinch-run for their hobbling first baseman, Sid Bream, but they didn’t have a good replacement. “As hard as it is to believe,” said Sean McDonough of CBS Sports, “there are a lot of empty seats in the upper reaches of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. And there are many people . . . who are making a U-turn in their cars trying to come back.” Down 2–1 with two outs, the Braves had Justice on third and Bream on second. Francisco Cabrera singled to left. Justice scored. Bream ran toward home about as fast as you’d expect from a guy who’d been through five knee operations. He slid in with the winning run, just ahead of the tag. The Braves would return to the World Series and lose to the Blue Jays in six games.
6. October 28, 1995
By now the fans had gotten properly cynical. They had been tired of losing, of course, but now they were especially tired of not quite winning it all. Which is to say, the mere appearance in a World Series was no longer enough to send them over the moon. David Justice noticed this lukewarm reception during Games 1 and 2 in Atlanta, and he noticed it more in retrospect when the Series went to Cleveland and the Indians fans went insane. When the Braves returned to Atlanta, leading three games to two, Justice told reporters, “If we don’t win, they’ll probably burn our houses down.”
The fans read Justice’s comments and booed him in Game 6. But in the sixth inning, Justice crushed a fastball into the right-field seats. Thanks to Tom Glavine’s one-hit masterpiece, it was the only run the Braves needed. And when 600,000 people turned out for the parade, they cheered not for what might happen or for what almost was. The 1995 Braves actually finished the job. To this day, over 49 years and 162 seasons in the four major sports, they remain Atlanta’s only champions.
7. October 19, 1999
The regular season Braves kept winning, and the playoff Braves kept letting them down. After their third straight 100-win season, they took a 3–0 lead on the Mets in the NLCS. Then they gave away Games 4 and 5, and gave up a five-run lead in Game 6. In the bottom of the 11th, Andruw Jones walked to drive in the winning run and bring home another pennant. The last time we saw the Braves in the Series, they were getting swept by the Yankees.
8. October 12, 2001
There were 10,000 empty seats at Turner Field as the Braves finished off the Astros in the divisional round. More fans might have shown up if they’d known this was the last playoff series the Braves would win before announcing their departure to Cobb County 12 years later.
9. September 27, 2005
Bobby Cox earned his place in the Hall of Fame with seasons like this one. He and his 18 rookies had no business contending for anything, but with a 12–3 win over the Rockies, they clinched their 14th straight division title. No one could have blamed them finishing third, or even last, but it all played into the special Atlanta malaise when they lost in the first round of the playoffs for the fourth year in a row.
10. October 4, 2013
Their next superstar was going to be this local kid named Jason Heyward. At spring training in 2010, he kept smashing the ball into the parking lot, damaging one vehicle after another, and in his first Major League plate appearance, he cranked it into the bullpen for a three-run homer. Regular season Heyward was good that year, with an on-base percentage near .400, but playoff Heyward was a lot like playoff Braves. He slumped through his sophomore season, got better in 2012, and played through terrible misfortune in 2013: an emergency appendectomy, a fastball that broke his jaw. The Braves were good that year, as good as they’d been in a decade, and Heyward was back for the division series against the Dodgers. Game 2, bottom of the seventh, bases loaded, two outs. Heyward lined a single up the middle, giving the Braves a 4–1 lead that became a 4–3 victory. Nobody knew it would be their last win of the series (almost certainly their final playoff win at Turner Field), or that in November they would announce plans to leave for Cobb County, or that after a disastrous 2014, they’d deal Heyward to the Cardinals. What the 48,966 fans knew is that the J-Hey Kid had just driven in the first runs of his postseason career, and the Braves were on the verge of tying the series. Anything was possible. It was a clear night, 64 degrees, and from the grandstand you could see those towers on Peachtree.
After the second late-season collapse in four years, the Braves gutted their roster in the off-season with an eye toward rebuilding for 2017. Goodbye, fan favorites Jason Heyward, Evan Gattis, and Justin Upton. (Alas, B.J. Upton—we mean Melvin—is going nowhere.) Here, a primer on some incoming free agents, with tidbits for the hard-core fan, the casual observer, and those who think pine tar is an ingredient in asphalt.
Nick Markakis, Right fielder
Hard-core stat-head Nick’s power at the plate has greatly diminished; he hasn’t hit 20 homers in a season since 2008.
Casual fan Although not quite as good a fielder as the departed Heyward, Nick is a Gold Glove defender in right.
Layperson Like J-Hey, Nick is a hometown boy, who grew up in Woodstock and attended Young Harris College in northeast Georgia.
Pricetag $44 million for four years
Jonny Gomes, Outfielder
Hard-core stat-head He still hits left-handed pitchers: a career .277 batting average against southpaws.
Casual fan Despite being a prominent part of Boston’s 2013 championship team, at 34, Gomes is a part-time platoon left fielder, at best.
Layperson Jonny (yes, that’s the correct spelling) helped make those nasty, bushy Civil War beards a thing in Boston. Pray his Atlanta teammates have better fashion (and hygiene) sense.
Pricetag $4 million for one year
Alberto Callaspo, Infielder
Hard-core stat-head He hit an anemic .223 in 2014, with only four homers and 39 RBIs.
Casual fan Has played every position in MLB except pitcher, catcher, and center field. Will probably see time at second until uber-prospect Jose Peraza gets here.
Layperson Infamous for an episode recorded in a minor league teammate’s tell-all involving a hot dog bun and a certain part of another teammate’s anatomy.
Pricetag $3 million for one year
A.J. Pierzynski, Catcher
Hard-core stat-head The career .281 hitter can still add some power off the bench, having hit 17 homers as recently as 2013.
Casual fan The former All-Star is now 38 and strictly here as a backup for prospect Christian Bethancourt. So the less you see of A.J., the better.
Layperson A notorious brawler and trash talker, A.J. is one of the most reviled players in baseball. In other words: He might be your best chance for on-field entertainment at the Ted.
Pricetag $2 million for one year
Illustrations by Jason Schneider, Photographs by AP Images
Update 4/27/15: This story was updated from the original print version to reflect the trade of Craig Kimbrel.
This article originally appeared in our April 2015 issue.