Simmons Says - Home of the Braves
On Halloween, I went over to where my brother now lives in Westwood to help hand out candy. All I was really doing though was working my way to a good seat in front his big screen TV, secured with a bribe of corn dogs for everybody attending (Shout-out Sonic for 50 cent deliciousness!).
When Adam Duvall went deep in the first inning, everybody on his street - and the 2-3 surrounding it - probably knew about the grand slam. Me and Brett were yelling at the top of our lungs. We may have even scared away a few kids from coming to collect some Butterfingers, Twizzlers and Kit Kats.
As the night wore on, the excitement waned. Houston scored two, then two more to tie the game. Even after Freddie Freeman, the new-school Mr. Atlanta, gave some hope that the Astros weren’t going to spoil the night with a solo shot to make it 5-4 Braves, it just felt like disappointment was inevitable. Houston just scrapped and clawed its away to a lead – culminating with an eventual 9-5 victory - and sent many diehard Braves fans into a 48-hour tailspin.
For the first time in the last month, I was happy I wasn’t a 24-hour a day, 365-day a year Braves fanatic. If I was, I probably would’ve been paralyzed by fear of yet another postseason collapse. I saw many of my Facebook friends hitting the panic button --- actually, they were pounding it with a sledgehammer. Their Atlanta DNA was warning them that something bad was coming.
I didn’t have that same reaction. I turned off Game 5 in the late innings when it was obvious the Braves were going to rest their bullpen (otherwise now known as the ‘Arm Barn,’ which I love, even though I think PETA is ridiculous). When Chris Sullens asked me Monday if the Braves were going to win, I told him, “Absolutely. 100 percent.”
Why wouldn't they? The Braves had their ace, Max Fried, on normal rest and their overworked relievers, namely Tyler Matzek and Will Smith, got a couple days off to recover. I was calm and confident by the time Game 6 started, even if Houston was back at home.
Admittedly, that confidence was starting to shake early when Jose Altuve found a way to get on base without hitting it out of the infield for what felt like the 47th time in the series. It only got more worrisome when Fried had his leg stepped on while trying to get the first out on another weakly hit ball. Fried didn’t get the out and looked seriously hurt – the ultimate act of adding insult to an injury.
Something happened in that moment that changed everything though: Fried got really pissed off.
I don’t care what kind of diplomatic answers he gave after the game about the situation, his reaction was 100 percent channeling immense anger in the best way possible. Anybody who has ever pitched, from Little Leagues to the Majors, knows what it’s like when you have the ball in your hand and you’re seeing red. You find a new gear on that fastball - and the best ones actually know where it is going too.
With two on and no outs, Fried just started firing straight heat at the Astros. He closed out the first inning, where he surrendered no runs despite the first two batters reaching, with his fastest pitch of his career. It was Maximum Fried – the guy the Braves needed to shut the door on the World Series.
By the time Jorge Soler hit the longest home run I’ve seen since Hunter Adams sent a softball into orbit one night in Crossville, I knew it was already over. The toughest thing at that point was deciding which Twitter edit of the 5,280-foot home run (seriously, I don’t care about the metrics – that ball was hit a mile) was the best.
Here, help me decide:
I’ll listen to other opinions, but for my money, I think every gigantic sports highlight gets 100 percent more awesome with Kanye’s jam in the background.
After Soler’s moonshot onto the train tracks finally landed, it was time for the Braves homegrown folk heroes to add the finishing touches. First, it was the youngster who grew up 20 minutes from Truist Park taking the reins. Dansby Swanson’s 2-run smash completely silenced the Astros in the fifth. Then, it was Freeman, the torch bearer who has carried the flame of the Braves' spirit passed down from Chipper, Glavine, Murphy and Hammerin’ Hank, taking over in the final innings.
He just missed a homer in the fifth, but still settled with an RBI double. In the seventh, he didn’t miss. Freeman hit a towering shot to left field that found the seats in Houston's weird left-field setup. It was a can’t miss, feel-good moment for Braves fans that was quickly cut short by Joe Buck’s ill-advised speculation about Freddie’s contract before he could even finishing rounding the bases.
(Quick aside: I couldn’t imagine how mad I would’ve been back in 2014, when the Spurs were running through the Heat on their way to their fifth title in the Duncan Era – and first in seven years, if Mike Breen would’ve followed one of Tony Parker’s many huge buckets in the second half or Manu Ginobili’s age-defying throwdown on Chris Bosh with, “Great Play by the Spurs Legend, who may be gone next year.” Geez Joe – put a muzzle on it sometimes.)
By the ninth inning though, Buck's words didn’t matter anymore. The Braves’ run of postseason failures didn’t matter either. Up 7-0, Smith – an absolute horse in the postseason – forced a two-out grounder to Dansby. He gathered, checked second and decided to throw a frozen rope to Freddie for the final out.
It was total jubilation. I don’t know who I was happier for more: manager Brian Snitker (a Braves lifer who has given his life to the organization), Freeman, Ron Washington (whose huevos were huge in the playoffs) or my many friends who I know live and die with the team 162 nights a year. It’s probably those friends.
I can’t tell you how many heartwarming posts I saw about people thinking in the moment about their parents, grandparents or great grandparents who have passed away that would’ve loved to have seen the Braves win the World Series one the many times they’ve had the chance the last 26 years. Even I had that same thought Sunday on Halloween when I was at the same house I watched many Braves games with my great grandmother (Granny Elsie to me) over the years. I know Granny would’ve been up tonight watching every inning, every out and every interview after the game. She may have even, while nobody was looking, snuck in a celebratory sip of champagne too.
I can’t say this was the best sports moment of my life. Those are reserved for my true loves – the Vols and the Spurs. But these last few weeks have reminded me just how stressful and amazing it is when you have a team fighting for, and winning, the ultimate prize. Again and again, me and Brett have talked about how we don’t know if we could handle the heartburn and stress of the Vols getting back into the National Title hunt (I know we could handle it – I don’t know if others could handle us, however). Why go through those stomach-churning moments? Because it's an amazing feeling when a team you root for reaches the mountain top and gets to have the champagne showers in the locker room.
These Braves were a lot of fun the last month - they reminded me of how I felt last fall when the Pioneers turned into a unbeatable juggernaut for two months on the gridiron. When your team is rolling, everything in life just seems to be better. I know my mood has been improved every day after a Braves win and, possibly, I was 10 percent more like Eeyore when they lost.
This run also reminded me how a good sports team can bring so many people together. At a Vols-Bama watch party a few Saturdays ago, we all joked that the only thing those fanbases could agree on was that at halftime, everybody was flipping over to see the Braves-Dodgers slug it out in the NLCS. Over the course of the last few weeks, I’ve enjoyed having the same joy for baseball as a diehard MTSU Blue Raider, a guy who loves to Anchor Down with Vandy and – yes – tons of Crimson Tide crazies too.
I don’t know if I buy into the notion of the Braves being America’s Team, even if Ted Turner made it close by building an entire TV station around their games for multiple decades. I do believe, wholeheartedly, that they are the South’s team. If you live in SEC country, odds are you love the Braves in baseball.
And even if you spend your Saturdays in the fall singing ‘Rocky Top,’ ‘Dixieland Delight,’ ‘Callin’ Baton Rouge,’ (I'll accept ‘Hold That Tiger,’ too) or any other fight song, there is a good chance you stopped and chopped Tuesday night.
The World Series trophy is finally, after 26 years, going home to the Braves again.