No sport’s history is as thick and hydra-headed as baseball’s, and that includes its chapters on heart-crashing loss. Few sports fans are as addicted as baseball fans to the idea that the other guys can’t win so much as the teams to which they plight their troths can only choke.
It’s one thing to marry your rooting passion to teams that seem forever mired in mediocrity. It’s one thing to marry that passion to teams that struggled to make the journey, finally got their periodic pass to the October ball, and found the queen of the ball laughing in their faces when they asked her to dance.
But marrying your passion to teams who get to the top of Mount Nebo as regularly as the Atlanta Braves and the Los Angeles Dodgers and get kicked to the rocks below when they thought they’d cross to the Promised Land at last, just as regularly?
The Braves haven’t won the World Series since NASA lost contact with Pioneer 11. The Dodgers haven’t won it since the birth of Donald Trump’s fourth White House communications director (Hope Hicks). For a little perspective, the Milwaukee Brewers, the San Diego Padres, the Seattle Mariners, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Texas Rangers, and the Colorado Rockies have never yet reached the Promised Land.
The Braves have eighteen division titles since 1991, including that staggering (if you disallow the season disruption of the 1994 strike) fourteen straight, with five pennants and that one World Series win. The Dodgers have thirteen division titles since 1988, including the incumbent eight straight, with two pennants (back-to-back) and no World Series wins.
The demigods of the Elysian Fields being who they are, naturally the Braves and the Dodgers played for the pennant in this pandemically arrayed season almost straight out of Bizarro World.
Commissioner Rob Manfred’s pandemic-inspired short irregular season inspired his too-far-expanded postseason experiment that actually allowed two teams with irregular season losing records (the since-vanquished Brewers and the Houston Astros with identical 29-31 records) to enter in the first place. Perhaps with exemplary and extraterrestrial justice, the World Series will feature nobody whose butts weren’t parked in first place at irregular season’s end.
But I digress. Too many teams lose because someone does what he knows is wrong and nobody else has the presence or the authority to stop him. Too many more teams lose because someone doing the right thing has it blow up in his face courtesy of the unexpected countermove or glitch.
Too many fans, too, cling tighter if their teams’ histories feature too deep a canon of falling short when it was time to stand the tallest. It’s never the other guys who were just that much better, it’s their guys who can only and always dissemble. Even if they didn’t dissemble. Even if the parallel to the law that somebody has to lose is that everybody gets to play again tomorrow or next year.
Braves fans are starting the choke memes already, if they didn’t start them right after Dansby Swanson and Austin Riley ran them out of a possible game-out-of-reach rally in the top of the fourth inning in National League Championship Series Game Seven.
Well, maybe they waited until Mookie Betts fleeced Freddie Freeman with a staggering, solo home run-stealing catch that would have fattened a Braves lead back to two runs in the top of the fifth Sunday night. Maybe they waited until pinch hitter Enrique Hernandez tied the game at three with a leadoff solo home run in the bottom of the sixth.
Maybe they waited until Cody Bellinger broke the tie with a solo bomb in the bottom of the seventh and Julio Urias finished what he started, three innings’ shutout relief.
Swanson didn’t cut his Braves off at their own pass by going rogue, exactly. He tried turning a mistake into a virtue and learned the hard way that the other guys administer justice but not mercy.
When Nick Markakis grounded one sharply to Justin Turner right of the third base line, Swanson probably should have stood fast forcing Turner to take the sure out at first keeping two runners in scoring position. But he ran on contact.
Swanson tried for the textbook play when Turner threw home right on the button, getting himself into the rundown starting maybe fifteen feet from the plate, the better to leave Austin Riley—whose RBI single busted the tie to set up first and second, which became second and third on a wild pitch—room to take third and keep at least one insurance run ninety feet from the plate with two on and one out for on-deck batter Cristian Pache.
What Swanson didn’t expect was Riley at second hesitating before breaking for third. Maybe Riley saw no chance to advance at first no matter how well Swanson handled things on the rundown track. When Riley broke for third at last, Turner tagged Swanson with a Superman-like dive and threw from his knees to shortstop (and eventual NLCS MVP) Corey Seager hustling to cover third just before the dive.
Riley dropped into his slide the split second Turner threw. He was D.O.A. It turned out that so were the Braves from there, but they still had five innings to atone. They didn’t bargain on the Dodgers’ relief pitching keeping them to one measly walk the rest of the night.
Neither did they bargain on the Dodgers’ Game Six starter Walker Buehler flicking away the bases loaded and nobody out in the second inning by striking out the next two batters before inducing an inning-ending ground out. Never mind Betts robbing Marcell Ozuna with that likewise back-to-the-wall-scaling, extra base hit-stealing catch in the fifth.
Neither did they bargain on their pitching staff that became a shutout machine in the earlier postseason rounds suddenly proving human, after all. Or, on the Dodgers shaking off manager Dave Roberts’ day-late/dollar-short lift of Clayton Kershaw with Game Four tied at one to win three straight elimination games for the pennant.
It would have been mad fun to see the Braves tangle with the Rays in the World Series. The Scrum of the Southeast. But there wouldn’t necessarily have been a guarantee for the Braves. Not against a team that got out-hit by both the Empire Emeritus and the Houston hulks and still found ways to beat them both. Not against a team that hit .171 with men in scoring position all postseason long—and still won the American League pennant.
But I have a personal message for Braves Republic. Go easy on the choke label. The cumulative differences between the Braves and the Dodgers are half a pencil thin. The Dodgers only out-hit the Braves by nine points and only out-pitched the Braves by 1.26 in the ERA column. Makes perfect sense when you remind yourselves as the broadcasters did too often: including the NLCS, the Dodgers scored exactly one more run than the Braves all year.
Timing often has the bigger hand, unfortunately. That and, as good as you are, the other guys proving to be just that little bit better. It’s not as though the Braves were taken down by a fluke team. They didn’t fall to the 1944 St. Louis Browns, the 1945 and 2006 Detroit Tigers, the 1959 Chicago White Sox, or even the 2002 Anaheim Angels. It’s also not as though the Dodgers had to beat a bunch of pushovers to win the National League pennant.
Think about this, too, Braves Republic. What you have now is a team with at least one potential future Hall of Famer on the assumption that a 30-year-old Freeman isn’t on the threshold of his decline phase, and a lot of good-to-great-looking youth on the mound, at the plate, in the field. You have a steady manager and a smart enough front office.
What those fourteen-straight Braves division winners had was as many as four Hall of Famers at once—three top-of-the-line pitchers (Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz) and the arguable number five third baseman of all time (Chipper Jones)—and still had only one World Series ring to show for it.
Even as this year’s Braves go home from this season that will be remembered as Alfred Hitchcock Presents The Inner Sanctum of the Outer Limits of the Twilight Zone, well, Lucy, who got more splainin’ to do?