JOY IN MUDVILLE
It is 7 p.m., tail end of the rush hour, and a cold, hard rain is falling on Atlanta, Georgia. All along Peachtree Street you can make out fugitive figures with umbrellas unfurled and wind-bent, ducking into doorways, dodging out of the paths of their fellows in the nick of time. People lurch through the misery heads down, collars up, avoiding each other by magic.
An ambulance squeals around a corner, siren wailing. Inside, two men in green coats are bent over a prostrate form sprouting six feet of tubes. In two squares of light, the emergency guys blur past, their heads nodding and bobbing, hands darting--efficient and a little desperate. This is serious. Flash of ambulance. Flash of bobbing heads and hands. Flash of sheets drenched red. But hardly anyone looks up from the street. It's dark and dank and wet, and it's time to go home. "Too damn cooold for Atlanta this time of year," someone mutters. True.
But at least the monkey's running free.
"Yeah, we got us one, so the monkey's off our back," car salesman Lucius Bell says, staring into a nice warm shot of Old Grand Dad. "We finally got us one. So we can rest a while and not worry about it. Falcons? They ain't goin' nowhere. Not inna big game. Game that means somethin'. Hawks? Shhhhhhh...same ole, same ole. But the fact is, that monkey? All gone. The sucker's probably still runnin' around here somewheres with a bellyful of bourbon. Tell you this: Everybody musta bought that fool monkey a drink couple weeks back. Sumbitch been hangin' around waaay too long in Losersville."
A little while later, in a place called The Vortex, a man named Harry S. Hillman explains more about the night the Atlanta Braves finally won the World Series--once he finally gets around to the winning part:
"Oh, man," he says. "You wouldn'ta believed it. Now, I remember the years when they wore those sky-blue double-knits and they couldn't hit water if they fell out of a boat, and everybody made those Terry Forster jokes on account of he ate all the barbecue ribs in the state of Georgia and weighed about 480 pounds but he couldn't throw the damn thing past a nine-year-old. I remember when Henry Aaron hit the Big Home Run--you know, numero seven-one-five--but all these eighteenth-century, antebellum buttholes were sending him hate mail on account of he was black and they just couldn't live with a black guy breaking the record of the great Babe Ruth. I remember the 1982 playoffs--you better believe that--when the St. Louis Cardinals swept our guys three-oh in the playoffs. Know what Bob Horner hit in that series? Oh-nine-one, for Godssake. Chris Chambliss? How about zero-zero-zero? Man, it was like General Sherman comin' through here again."
Harry S. Hillman also remembers 1991. Remembers how the Minnesota Twins beat the Braves in a scintillating, seven-game World Series. It doesn't take him more than twenty to twenty-five minutes to explain that. And he remembers 1992, when the Blue Jays took them out in six. Thirty minutes. As for 1993--when the upstart Phillies, all dirt and craziness and heart--knocked the mighty Braves out of the National League Championship Series, he finally just shakes his head.
"I'll tell you this," he says. "You got to close the deal sometime. If you don't, that Losersville thing gets realer and realer. Hey, the Flames won the Stanley Cup after they left Atlanta. Well, couple of weeks ago we finally closed the deal. Yeah, I went to the last game, and afterward, the whole damn town went crazy. I'll tell you: Rock-ribbed Baptists were pulling off the jug, and you didn't hear any talk about what color any of the players were, either. It was Chop! Chop! Chop! all night long. Bet a lotta people missed church that Sunday morning after."
People say 1995 wasn't like 1991 in Atlanta. In 1991 scalpers sold tickets to the World Series for 500 bucks apiece. In 1995, cover price, for the most part, remained cover price. In 1991 37 Atlanta bars conjured up a drink called the Tomahawk Shooter. This year the Shooter was nowhere to be found. In 1991 a long line of customers snaked around the outside of Frankie's Sports Bar at the Prado, all hoping just to get a whiff of the excitement inside a place where the players regularly go. This year the crowds at Frankie's were nice but nothing out of hand.
In the midst of this year's World Series, Atlanta outfielder David Justice badmouthed the fans for their complacency...just hours before striking the Series-winning home run in Game Six against Cleveland. Suddenly, 1991 and 1992 were forgotten. The baseball strike was forgotten. The monkey was running loose on Peachtree Street, and an entire city not only celebrated, it breathed a sigh of relief.
"For years, it was like having that sword of Damocles hanging over your head," said Oscar Peterson, an AT&T marketing manager who says he plays the radio a lot better than he plays the piano. "It got so that sports fans here were more worried about looking bad in a big game or a big series than they were excited about winning it. When Paul Zimmerman hung that `Losersville' thing on Atlanta in Sports Illustrated way back in the late Seventies, it hurt. And it stuck. Got to be a mindset. Early on, the Hawks delivered a promise, but now, like any city that has a winning team, I believe the Atlanta fans will really rally around the Braves and give them a few years of grace. If you don't win, no grace period."
The reason we bring this up--and don't let this get around, okay?--is that no major professional sports team in our own fair city has ever won a championship, as long as you don't count soccer (who does?) or World Team Tennis. In fact, only one team--the one that plays football--has even been to the Big Game, and that team has lost the Big Game four times. Let's hope Paul Zimmerman isn't paying attention, because Denver, too, could well be dubbed Losersville. Consider:
With the Elway era nearly at an end and the Broncos mired at 6-5 this season, Super Bowl rings aren't likely to finally come the Donkeys' way anytime soon. Nightmare of nightmares: The reconstituted Oakland Raiders not only have a shot at it, they're one of the chalk horses.
Your Denver Nuggets--a long story of constant frustration--rose up and beat the mighty Seattle Supersonics two seasons ago, but suddenly that seems further back than red-white-and-blue basketballs and the heyday of Byron Beck. San Antonio swept Denver aside in the playoffs last year, and this season the Nuggets have stumbled from the gate with an awful 1-8 mark through Monday, with scant hope for improvement against strong division rivals like Utah, San Antonio and the winner of the last two NBA championships, Houston. Bernie's Boys better wake up or they'll be shoveling snow in Minnesota.
No one is knocking the Colorado Rockies, National League Manager of the Year Don Baylor or MVP runner-up Dante Bichette. The three-year-olds played their hearts out in newly dedicated Coors Field, and they really, truly scared those World Champion Atlanta Braves in the first round of the NL playoffs. "We were antsy, because the Rockies were a mirror image of our team in '91," starting left-hander Tom Glavine said afterward. "The Rockies weren't supposed to be there. They were a bunch of young, hungry players riding the crest...we knew they were a tough team in their ballpark." But the Rockies don't have a Tom Glavine, a Greg Maddux or a John Smoltz. The only hint of Atlanta pitching they have is David Nied, late of the Braves, and he was hurt all season. Fact is, the Rockies' first World Series win will be many years in coming, and it will be worth the wait.
In the meantime, if you want to get the monkey off your back in Losersville II, don't buy him a drink. Get him a pair of ice skates. In an ironic reversal of the Atlanta scenario (Flames flee to Calgary; Flames win 1989 Stanley Cup), the Colorado Avalanche will probably be the first Denver pro sports team to win a championship, and they've been here for about half an hour. The former Quebec Nordiques are currently the best in the West with a 13-4-2 record, a sharp young team with a great future that could upstage all those weary Broncos and Nuggets put together.
How soon? How about next year? Let's not jump the gun and raise the Stanley Cup aloft too soon. But when it happens, make sure the monkey gets a ride. Or, as Harry S. Hillman explains it: "You can never be too grateful too soon. Now, I remember the 1984 season...
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