If this isn’t Shoeless Joe Jackson looking out at some ball field cut into a cornfield and asking, “Is this heaven?” then what is it? Because it’s certainly not Atlanta.
The Braves returned to the playoffs in October after four years of personnel miscalculations and an extended viewing of Mike Hampton’s exploding limbs (later to become a Ripley’s exhibit, adjacent to the two-headed goat).
The Hawks appear to be stabilizing under new coach Larry Drew. The presumed-to-be undermanned Thrashers resemble a Swiss Army knife, taking apart the Axis powers with just the corkscrew and the bottle opener.
The Falcons are 12-2, which ties them for the NFL’s best record and makes them two wins better than the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, who visit here Monday night.
Put away the paper bags. You won’t need those here in our sudden sports Utopia.
For the first time in Atlanta history, all four pro franchises from the four major sports are on track to make the playoffs in the same season (the Falcons, Hawks and Thrashers following the Braves, or vice-versa).
The only thing that could possibly top this would be if, by some miracle alignment of the stars, Atlanta Spirit owners actually
stopped suing each other. Oh wait, that just happened. The courtroom pie fight is over.
What next? Free beer?
“This is something, isn’t it?” said Evander Holyfield, who ranks among the city’s most famous and longest-suffering sports fans. “Of course, I’ve been watching the Braves back since I was in the Boys Club. They weren’t very good, so they’d just give the tickets to us. The place was empty and we got beat all the time, but, shoot, I
didn’t care. It was the only way I could see a game because I didn’t have any money.”
Holyfield actually represents an interesting timeline in this evolution. He worked concessions at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium at Braves and Falcons games, selling Cokes and popcorn. Later, after he turned boxer and won a few fights, he attended Hawks and Atlanta Flames games.
Of course, there seldom has been a sports season without some form of disaster. The city too busy to implode, we’re not.
The Braves went through a stretch where they reached the postseason only once in 21 years and finished last or next to last 14 times. The Falcons mostly were a cartoon under the Smith family. They had a few good seasons but one of the best ended in heartbreak (a 1980 playoff loss to Dallas). This was loserville central and it became the city’s moniker.
The Flames, the NHL’s first incarnation in Atlanta, won the Stanley Cup — but not until after moving to Calgary. Probably in some small, remote Canadian neighborhood north of 285, they celebrated.
The Hawks were a postseason staple for most of two decades (18 out of 22 years, 1977-99) but they always hit a wall. Quoth Holyfield: “I always thought if we could beat Boston, we could beat everybody else. But we couldn’t beat them. They played that slow defense. They were aggravating.”
Aggravating. That word sums up a lot since the 1960s.
Technically, the city’s first pro champion was the 1968 Atlanta Chiefs of the North American Soccer League. That title had such a pronounced effect on the sports world that 10 of the league’s franchises folded after the season.
In 1990, Holyfield dropped James “Buster” Douglas for the world heavyweight title. He now laughs about it. “People would come up to me and said, ‘You’re the first champion that Atlanta has.’ It’s almost like I gave people hope. Then the Braves went worst-to-first [in 1991] and even though they didn’t win the World Series, there was something to cheer for.”
Finally, in 1995, the Braves won a World Series. The following year, they blew a 2-0 Series lead over the New York Yankees and lost four straight games.
Atlanta fans have been crawling through the desert ever since. The city has had three teams make the playoffs in the same year, but not since 1998. That year the Falcons made it to the Super Bowl, losing to Denver. The Braves and Hawks also made the playoffs.
The Falcons are legitimate Super Bowl contenders, seemingly the closest of the four teams to winning a title. Holyfield has been to a few games this year but isn’t sure when he’ll go to the next one.
“I know I can catch them on the tube,” he said. “I figure I might just wait for Dallas until I see them again. They’re going to the Super Bowl so I’ll see them there.”
Suddenly, success is assumed.