Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Brotherly Thrashing on Opening Day

The Batman on ice in real life...he ain't no Dirk Gainer
Yep, it's my brother's birthday today.  The big 2-2.  Enjoy it because you'll be 25 and halfway to 50 before you know it.

In honor of the Batman's big day and of course MLB's true Opening Day, I'm going to take you on a trip down memory lane.

The year was 1995 and MLB had just come off a bad work stoppage in 1994 so the season was reduced to 144 games and started in late April.  My family was living in Erlanger, Kentucky at the time and my sister was just born in November of 1994 across the river in Cincinnati.  I was living it up second grade style at Caywood Elementary and my brother had yet to begin his real schooling.  In fact, the whole gang was preparing for a big move down to Alpharetta, Georgia.  We were at the old Riverfront Stadium in downtown Cincy in its final year under that name seeing the hometown Reds.  I remember Dad telling us the professional baseball team in Atlanta was the Braves and that we'll probably catch some games.  After playing tee ball and a couple years of rec ball, I knew I had my team moving forward.  I knew nothing about the team or history and I definitely did not know the ride I was about to take with this team over the next decade.

We moved and I was starting 3rd grade at Big Creek Elementary and my brother kindergarten.  You know the story, the Batman and I would ride the bus together and I'd make sure he got to his classroom every morning.  We played entirely too much Power Rangers and Super Nintendo but nearly every night, we would flip on TBS to watch our newly beloved Atlanta Braves.  We ate, drank, slept, and played baseball.  From "pickle" in the side yard to "home run derby" in the backyard, we were hooked.  We could not wait to see Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz, heck, even Steve Avery that year was TNT dynamite!  Mark Wohlers was killing peeps in the 9th and all the saavy vets like Javy Lopez, David Justice, Fred McGriff, Ryan Klesko, Marquis Grissom, Jeff Blauser, and Mark Lemke.  We knew the whole roster but #10 was special.  Larry Wayne "Chipper" Jones.  He was a rookie that year because he blew out his knee the year before and was recently transitioned to third base.  He wore his socks high, batted on both sides of the plate, and was your all-American ball player.  It was a special connection because like my brother and I, it was Chipper's first season as a Brave.  

Almost immediately, Dad was getting tickets to Braves games seemingly every week!  I remember the trips downtown battling traffic, Dad getting ticked, homeless folk asking for money (side story, Dad gave me a buck to give a bum one time and I walked over BY MYSELF before my father realized that was a poor parental decision on his part, I'm still alive though...), Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, our seats habitually being right next to our left fielder Klesko that we could have thrown peanuts at him, and leaving early on school nights watching the fireworks going off as we got in the car and headed home.  Of course beyond those memories was the fact the Braves were indeed have a special season.  Before you knew it, October came around and the playoffs had begun.  Chipper had a tremendous rookie season and was robbed of the NL Rookie of the Year Award (Hideo Nomo of the Dodgers, really?!?!).  The Braves blew right by the Rockies and our former hometown team the Reds (4-0 sweep baby!).  It was on to the WORLD SERIES.

We were able to see a few playoff games but the moment Dad came home with 2 tickets to game 2 of the World Series, I got nervous.  My parents ended up both agreeing I would be the one to attend with my dad and I'll never forget it.  I'm sure my bro still can't believe he didn't get to go but at five, I'm sure he got over it quickly.  It was kind of cold at the ball park but I did not care, the Braves won and were up 2-0 in the Series.  I still have that ticket stub as it's easily one of the greatest games I've ever been to for any sport.  In the sixth game of the Series, I remember sitting in a little rocking chair watching Marquis Grissom catch the final out.  As an 8 year old kid, it was the first real time I had experienced sports euphoria and I was instantly addicted.  Watching the team celebrate, not knowing of course this would be the only time, I couldn't wait for next year to start already.

The Batman and I continued to go to numerous games with friends and family over the years.  We watched Chipper Jones grow up and dominate his position for several years including the 1999 NL MVP award.  We saw numerous Hall of Fame pitchers dominate a league and a manager that helped the team win 14 consecutive division titles.  We experienced an Andruw Jones foul ball that nearly killed a woman 3 seats down from us and a brand new stadium in Turner Field.  We moved again in 2001 but that didn't stop our loyalty when heading back to Ohio.  However, as college grew ever nearer for me and high school for my brother, other priorities and teams and sports grew on us.  I remember being at UC my freshman year being upset because it was the last year Braves games would be on TBS.  Then not long after that, the Mitchell Report came out and all my positive memories were exploding at the seems.  By the time I was a senior, the only player remaining with the Braves was Chipper Jones.  He stole a batting title but I knew a chapter was coming to an end.

Fast forward to March 2012 and Chipper Jones announces the 2012 campaign will be his last.  I remember sitting here in my office at work reading the news.  While the soon to be 40 year old's decision was not a surprising one, it still got at me a little bit.  I immediately thought of all the childhood memories that he brought to my family.  It was special because not only will he be a Hall of Famer in a few years but he spent his entire career with one team.  That's unique in this day and age.  That loyalty, trust, and honor to a franchise does not come around everyday in any sport really.  It made me appreciate Chipper Jones as a person even though we all make mistakes (Hooters girl, remember that scandal?).  I am not a huge baseball fan anymore but I will always be a huge Chipper Jones fan.  He'll go down as possibly my favorite pro athlete of all time.  I certainly hope in this final hurrah, the Braves can get back in the postseason so I can experience the tomahawk chop one last time.

Thanks Chipper.  Thanks for giving my brother and I a childhood we will never forget and a professionalism in which to aspire at any level.  Stay healthy and a special note to the 2012 Braves roster, "Win one for the Chipper!"