It is late October with a definite chill in the air. Over 80,000 people have come to Auburn, the Loveliest Village on the Plains for a matchup against the 10th ranked, Ole Miss Rebels. Actually, the team has not been the Rebels since 2003. Many sports fans cannot immediately recall the next official mascot of the University of Mississippi. It was the Black Bear, aptly named “Rebel”.
The Black Bear never really caught on and in 2017, the mascot was changed yet again. They became the Landsharks, creatures I do not readily recall from biology classes. Old habits die hard, and I still instinctively think of Ole Miss as the Rebels.
On this special football weekend, when these two rivals met for only the third time with both nationally ranked, there was another team on peoples’ minds as well. Like the Rebels, they have a name that is often challenged as being politically incorrect. That would be the Atlanta Braves.
There was something special about watching Auburn play its best game of the year and then coming home and watching the Braves win the fourth game of the World Series with my grandchildren. I was surprised at how knowledgeable they were about the players, who was hot and who was not, and just the entire flow of the game. It honestly took me back to my youth.
Little League baseball was pretty much the only Summer sport for small kids in my hometown of Cottonwood. The league was integrated as early as I can remember, long before desegregation had become mainstream in the Deep South. I have often thought it was because it took boys of both races to get up enough players to form a local league of four teams. Whether that it true or not, I remember those days fondly, a barrier breaker when there were still a lot of walls around.
My great-grandparents would take the train to New York to watch the Yankees. They saw Babe Ruth hit his 60th homerun, or so they said. I was mesmerized by their stories of the true glory years of baseball. I knew all the stats, the players for every team and embraced the history and lore of baseball as only a boy that age can do.
Along about that time, the Milwaukee Braves made their move South. It was a big deal to a 12-year-old kid to have a home team to call his own. Prior to 1966, I would listen to the Cubs, the Yankees, and the Dodgers on my small transistor radio on the few clear channels you could get on the radio.
The Braves became my team. I listened even when they played on the West Coast, my radio plugged into my ear and the sheets pulled over my head so my Dad did not know I was up so late on a school night. I wish I had asked him before he passed away if I fooled him, or if he knew all along, that I was listening to baseball.
Along the way, I met some of the Braves greatest players. Hank Aaron, Phil Niekro, Joe Torre, and later day heroes like Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. I still followed my pre-1966 idols, like Sandy Koufax and Ernie Banks, but after the Braves moved to Atlanta, they were my team. Millions of others felt the same way as the Braves captured the heart and soul of a region hungry for major league sports.
When our kids were smaller, we watched the Braves- over 100 games a year – on television. It was a ritual we all enjoyed, true family time. Then the baseball strike came along and broke up our routine. I doubt I have watched 100 games since the strike in 1994, at least not on television.
What I have embraced over the past few years is college baseball. We followed the Auburn Tigers to the World Series in Omaha in 2019. I was taken back to my youth. I rediscovered what I loved about the game. I especially loved the energy and passion of college age men playing simply for the love of the sport.
This year, more specifically this post season, I have rediscovered my love of major league baseball, and in particular the Atlanta Braves. They are still the team, not just of a city, but of an entire region. The Braves have played with heart and ignited a heated desire amongst their fans to win. Atlanta last took the World Series in 1995. It is time to satisfy that longing of their fans to win it all.
Football and baseball, intersecting on the same weekend, at the highest level. Two sports to talk about non-stop. It makes you want to get a haircut just so you can hang out at the barber shop and chew the fat with other success starved sports fans.
I remember some of the painful losses of my youth. “It is just a game”, my mother might say to console me. 60 years later, I realize she was only partially right. It is a just a game, but teams can unite fans from all walks of life. In a divided world, sports can be a uniting force.
I do not know if the Braves will win it all or not, as this article must go to print prior to the final game. I do not know if the Auburn Tigers will win in College Station against Texas A&M as that is still several days away. Of course, there are more than a few Georgia and Alabama fans reading this column who would probably have their own thoughts about this subject.
As my enthusiasm and energy levels peak, I will repeat my mother’s words that it is just a game. Secretly, I will say “Yeah, right”. Go Braves. War Eagle. Go Dawgs. Roll Tide.
Dan Ponder can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org