The initial response to the sight of Atlanta patrons leaving an NFL playoff game with a quarter still to play — this happened only last weekend — was to loose the boilerplate harrumph. “Nothing new here! These people are the fairest of fair-weather fans in all the land!”
That’s always the reaction from national voices, and there was a time when it was the belief of this correspondent. Atlanta’s the city that can’t sell out playoff games and then, when finally it does, the crowd goes home early when the scoreboard gets ugly, et cetera. But 26 years and 10 months of residency have had an erosive effect, and now this neutral-by-profession can say:
Folks, I feel your pain.
Since big-time professional sports arrived in 1966, teams sailing under the Atlanta flag have completed 149 seasons. (We won’t count baseball in 1994, when the World Series was canceled by a players’ strike, or the 2004-2005 NHL campaign, which was scrubbed due to a lockout.) Only one has yielded a championship. That’s a batting average of .007, which is nice if you’re James Bond, less nice if you’ve invested financial and emotional capital in any of those 148 misses.
(Just to clarify: I haven’t included the Atlanta Chiefs’ 1968 NASL title because soccer wasn’t a major American sport. Nor is the Knights’ 1994 International Hockey League championship factored, the Knights having been by definition minor-league.)
The history of major Atlanta pro sports is of the cosmic whiff. Our teams build us up to let us down. The Hawks have never won more than one playoff series in any season since moving from St. Louis. The NHL Flames, who left for Calgary in 1980, didn’t win a single series in six tries. The Thrashers, in operation since 1999, haven’t yet won a postseason game.
The Falcons have won six playoff games in 45 years of trying. The two times they held the No. 1 seed resulted in flops of wildly differing flavor. On Jan. 4, 1981, the Falcons led Dallas by two touchdowns after three quarters and lost. (See YouTube video below.) This January the Falcons led 14-7 only to watch with benign neglect as they were outscored 35-0 in a span of 18 minutes, 25 seconds.
The one time the Falcons graced a Super Bowl — this after the epic overtime victory in the Minneapolis Metrodome that stands as the greatest performance by any Atlanta team — they messed it up. On the eve of Super Bowl XXXIII, safety Eugene Robinson got himself arrested for solicitation hours after receiving the NFL’s Bart Starr Award for citizenship. Was it any wonder the game’s key play — an 80-yard touchdown pass from John Elway to Rod Smith — featured a late-arriving Robinson?
The Braves, to their credit, reached the World Series five times in the ’90s. They lost four, the first three in excruciating fashion. Bobby Cox, manager of those teams, would later say, “We played better in three of the ones we lost than in the one we won,” and it was just Atlanta’s luck that its one professional title was achieved the year after the players’ strike of 1994, a debilitating event that served to sap some of passion from the moment of long-deferred (and never-repeated) moment of arrival.
We Atlantans know the drill: Whenever one of our teams gets close, Lucy snatches away the football and Charlie Brown goes flying. With a chance to take a 3-1 lead in a World Series, Mark Wohlers throws Jim Leyritz a slider. With a chance to close out the Boston Celtics at the old Omni, the Hawks’ final shot is taken not by Dominique Wilkins but by the sub Cliff Levingston, who offers up a running lefty hook. With a chance to take a 2-1 series lead on San Francisco, the reliever Craig Kimbrel is removed but the shaky emergency second baseman Brooks Conrad remains on the field in what will be the penultimate ninth inning of Cox’s managerial career.
One hundred forty-nine seasons, one victory parade. (Although the worst-to-first Braves of 1991, who lost the World Series when Lonnie Smith dallied at second base in Game 7, held a parade, too. And so, on a predictably rainy day, did the Falcons after their lost Super Bowl.) Over the same span, the modest city of Pittsburgh has won 11 championships — 12 if you count the ABA crown taken by the Pipers. Long-suffering Philadelphia has six titles since 1966. Denver has four, one at Atlanta’s expense.
Really, can anyone blame us if we’re jaded? Even if we don’t know what will go wrong this time, we’ve seen enough to know something will. We live in Atlanta, where something always does.
By Mark Bradley