Don't be misled by what happened in the World Series this year. Sure, the invincible Yankees of New York once again beat the Braves of Atlanta, but the Braves should nevertheless remain a grand inspiration to all, baseball fans or not.
As readers of the sporting pages are well aware, the Braves, once the national pastime's perennial losers, have been the game's biggest winners in the decade of the 90s. Why, they've won even more games than the Yankees over the 10-year period — 74 more, in fact, for a total of 925.
Not that the Yankees are chopped liver. Their winning total is the second highest in the major leagues, after all. But it's been pretty easy for the New Yorkers — they've been winning for years and years. They'd already won 22 World Series before the decade even began.
But the Braves had to rise up from being one of the very worst teams of the 80s to being the very best of the 90s.
The Braves' record in the earlier decade was shocking: More games lost — 845 — and fewer won — 712 — than any other National League team, last place four years running.
Those of us with the character to stand by the team during the dismal 1980s were indeed inspired by its reversal of fortune.
You're probably wondering, however, why someone in San Francisco would be among the Braves' loyalists. Television. I got hooked more than a dozen years ago, not long after the cable TV people began bringing us TBS from Atlanta. That, of course, is the cable network owned by Mr. Ted Turner, who just happens to own the Braves — “America's Team,” as his network modestly described them — whose games just happen to be a TBS staple.
As you surely know, writers lead terribly hard lives and are frequently in need of diversion. Thus watching Braves' games became essential daily therapy.
Standing by the Braves wasn't easy. Sportswriters seem to like nothing better than to pick on a team when it's down, and the Braves were just about as down as a team could be.
“The Braves,” a typical sports page barb had it, “couldn't beat Lowell High School in a best-of-seven series.”
When former President Jimmy Carter, visiting from his home state of Georgia, showed up in Oakland to watch an A's game, a local sports columnist observed that “after watching Atlanta, he was dying to see a big league game.”
Pretty sick stuff. But there was worse, a small sampling of which I offer as further evidence of what Braves loyalists had to endure:
• “The Good ol' Braves. In an ever-changing world, they remain a pillar of stability. Last in their division. Last in the National League. Last in all of baseball. Like a tree by the river, the Braves will not be moved.”
• “Pity the Atlanta Braves, the team whose sole purpose is to make everybody else feel better. The sad sacks of the National League.”
• “The Braves can't win because some things, like the law of gravity, are not to be bucked.”
• “Bumbling… miserable… woeful… a perennially pathetic team.”
Even the august New York Times fired a cheapshot: “It is always nice to have a team like the Braves around because no one else has to worry about finishing last.”
The men (and presumably women) on the street didn't seem any more understanding. A caller to a national talk show on former Cincinnati Reds' manager Pete Rose's banishment from baseball for gambling questioned how host Larry King could “talk about the integrity of baseball when they haven't disbanded the Atlanta Braves.”
Ted Turner himself got into the act, declaring he had come to “look on baseball as a kind of little extra burden that I have. Some people have to live with diabetes. I have to live with a lousy baseball team.”
But no more. Even the New York Times acknowledged that the Braves have become a role model on a par with the hometown Yankees — “consistently and relentlessly good,” in the words of Times' sportswriter Murray Chass.
Of course they are, and always have been — win or lose.