ATLANTA — This city remembers 28-3.
Atlanta remembers Lonnie Smith, and 2nd-and-26, and Jim Leyritz, and the 1988 Slam Dunk contest, and giving up 10 runs in the top of the first, and Eugene Robinson, and an “infield” fly that landed out past the airport, and Kirby Puckett, and blowing a 3-1 NLCS lead in the bubble. Atlanta remembers all these grievous wounds and so many more, and that’s why — even leading three games to one in the 2021 World Series, one game from a title — Atlanta isn’t comfortable now, not even close.
Braves fans filed out of Truist Park Saturday night giddy with hope, riding the high of back-to-back homers from Dansby Swanson and Jorge Soler that keyed a 3-2 comeback win. In the minutes after the win, a battalion of security officers knifed through the crowd like a snowplow. At their center: John Smoltz, one of the legends of the 1990s Braves, now a broadcaster with Fox Sports. The surging crowd cheered for Smoltz, raising their phones to take photos as he waved and edged into an elevator.
Thirty years ago almost to the day, Smoltz was the centerpiece of a game that would become a recurring Atlanta trope: very good, but just not quite good enough. In Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, Smoltz threw 7 1/3 innings of brilliant scoreless baseball against the Minnesota Twins. It was an iconic performance, one of the great pitching efforts in Game 7 history. The only problem? The guy who threw the greatest — Jack Morris, who hurled 10 scoreless innings — was in the opposing dugout.
Ken and Michelle Anderson of Chattanooga, Tennessee, remember that night, and so many more like it. They both grew up Braves fans — Ken’s grandfather took him to his first Braves game when Ken was just two years old, in 1969 — and they’ve weathered some truly godawful Braves teams. They watched Smoltz get on the elevator, and Ken, sporting a white Austin Riley jersey, allowed himself a bit of hope.
“We’re up 3 to 1, we’re not going to lose three in a row,” he said. He paused a moment, and then the old doubts began to creep in. “Unless something goes really wrong. I’m definitely confident, but as Atlantans, you’re always on guard.”
A text-chain survey of lifelong Atlanta Braves fans returned responses that sum up the duality of Atlanta’s emotions on the edge of a World Series championship:
“Ecstatic, and incredibly nervous”
“Hopeful but not holding breath”
“Can’t celebrate too soon”
“Let’s bring it home”
“My heart will be broken”
“Atlanta as a city could really use a victory,” said Ash Dhokte, a 15-year fan of the team. His young son Neen, a fan of Albies and Freeman, expressed absolute confidence that the Braves would win Game 5 … even though he believes “there won’t be as many people at the game because it’s Halloween.”
As an Atlanta franchise, the Braves have been to six World Series: 1991, 1992, 1995, 1996, 1999 and this year. The team has one trophy, four losses and one yet-to-be-determined. Atlanta has had four World Series clinching opportunities, two games in 1991, two in 1995. They lost the two 1991 games by a total of two runs, and they rebounded from a Game 5 loss in 1995 to win the World Series at home in Game 6. Since then, they’ve welcomed in new generations of fans blessed with no memory whatsoever of those early catastrophes.
“I’m extremely confident,” said 21-year-old Tucker Fowler of Alabama, pearls covering his red Braves jersey. “Those teams were not this team. This team doesn’t have weaknesses.”
This team also doesn’t carry the memory of past World Series collapses. Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Chipper Jones … they played through all of those 1990s losses, each one magnifying the pressure of the next. But Freddie Freeman was two years old when Smoltz lost to Morris in 1991. Dansby Swanson wasn’t born when the Braves, spent from Sid Bream’s NLCS-winning slide in 1992, lost in six to the Blue Jays. Ozzie Albies wasn’t a gleam in his parents’ eyes when Mark Wohlers hung a curveball to Leyritz and the Braves lost four straight to the Yankees in 1996. Austin Riley was barely out of diapers when the Yankees hung four more straight wins on Atlanta in 1999. The fans may feel the weight of a curse, but for the players, those are sins of their baseball forefathers, not them.
For someone who’s been there, though, the reality is a bit more tangible. Asked how confident he felt with a 3-1 lead, Braves manager Brian Snitker sighed one of those world-weary, seen-it-all baseball lifer sighs. “I just want to win [Sunday],” he said. “I don’t know how confident I am. I’m glad we are, quite honestly. I’d rather be up three than down three, I guess. But I’ve been around too long to get ahead of myself.”
Not far from where Snitker spoke, in the hallway beneath the Truist Park bleachers, with players’ families celebrating just a few feet away, Kraig Guffey of Marietta summed up Braves fans’ state of mind with a mantra worthy of a t-shirt.
“There’s no such thing as ‘confidence’ for an Atlanta fan,” he said, “but there’s always hope.”
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee and contact him at [email protected]