Tradition is stressed often at Turner Field. That’s what a history of 14 straight division titles will do for a baseball franchise. But it’s ironic that the opponent for this year’s first playoff series is one that has historically been a thorn in the Atlanta Braves’ side.
The Dodgers. Yes, the Los Angeles Dodgers.
You remember the Dodgers, the team that is still in the National League West, the division the Braves used to be in for some unknown reason. That’s the team that for two of the best pennant races in Atlanta history the Braves had to beat.
First, in 1982, the Braves were a team lead by a new manager; some guy named Joe Torre. He would go on to do great things, but his first season in Atlanta (at least as a manager) will be one many will always remember.
The Braves won their first 13 games. Then, in the middle of the summer, they squandered a big lead by losing 19 of 21 games. But on the final day of the regular season, the Braves backed into the playoffs as the Dodgers lost to the Giants on a Joe Morgan home run.
That was a magical team. It was the year the Braves became America’s Team. They were broadcast every night on TBS, back when TBS was something special. The players became household names all over the country. That was back when not every game was on TV, but the Braves were.
The infield was Chris Chambliss, Glenn Hubbard, Rafael Ramirez and Bob Horner. Claudell Washington, Brett Butler and Dale Murphy were the outfielders. Bruce Benedict was the catcher, and the pitching staff was, well, really Phil Niekro and Gene Garber.
Ernie Johnson, Pete Van Wieren and Skip Caray were members of the family. They told us what those players were doing, either on the radio or on TBS. It was the first time people in the south really cared about baseball, after years of many not even knowing the Braves really existed.
And it was the Dodgers they had to beat. The Dodgers, the team that had won the 1981 World Series and the team led by Tommy Lasorda, a manager everyone loved to hate. The Dodgers, the team with the perfect infield of Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey, that wore blue and had a swagger unknown to any team outside of Cincinnati.
There were big games, big matchups. Remember the game in Atlanta when Bob Watson hit a pinch-hit walk-off home run off Dodgers’ reliever Terry Forster, who the next year would join the Braves since he couldn’t beat them. How about the big error by Atlanta second baseman Jerry Royster, when he let a ball go through his legs in Dodger Stadium to give Los Angeles a win and extended the Braves’ losing streak?
But the Braves won it in 1982 and erased years of watching the mighty Dodgers waltz into town and make them look like the cellar-dwellers they actually were in the 1970s.
Then nine years later, when the Braves decided to get good again, it was the Dodgers they had to beat – again.
Los Angeles had signed Darryl Strawberry, the biggest free agent in baseball. They had all the pieces, including Brett Butler, who had also signed a large contract and made his old fans in Atlanta cringe at the sight of seeing him in the blue uniform. They had a great team.
But in 1991 the Braves had something special. It was very similar to the 1982 team in that it had something click. It was just time – for the young players to mature and stop losing and for the fans of Atlanta to remember what a pennant race was all about.
The signature series of that pennant race was in mid-September. The Dodgers came to Atlanta a half-game out of first place. Lasorda was on the front page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution with a T-Shirt on that had ‘I Love Atlanta’ on it.
The Dodgers struck first, in the game that many will tell you had more electricity than a power company. There were people that circled Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium with tomahawks and wore their Indian gear. Just about everybody brought a sign. Never had a game been more important to the city of Atlanta than on September 13.
But while Los Angeles got first blood, the Braves bounced back the next two games. Ron Gant doubled home Keith Mitchell with the game-winning hit on Saturday, and then Sunday the Braves struck early led by a grand slam from Sid Bream in the first inning.
The next weekend in Los Angeles, the Dodgers returned the favor, winning two out of three games. Atlanta lefty Steve Avery shut out the Dodgers in game one, but Los Angeles bounced back to win on Saturday and Sunday.
The lead would bounce back and forth for the next ten days, but the Braves again got help from the Giants, who took two of three from the Dodgers in San Francisco on the final weekend of the season. It was almost a carbon copy of what had happened nine years earlier as the Braves won another division title.
Now here are the Braves in 2013, winning the division easily like they used to in the old NL West. It’s been 14 years since they were in the World Series, 12 years since they won a postseason series and three years since they were even in a postseason series.
And who are they playing in the first round? You knew it had to happen this way. But we’re just all waiting to find out the final result. Perhaps this part of the Braves’ tradition will repeat itself once again and Atlanta will have the upper hand over the Dodgers.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.