Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Defending Atlanta In The Face Of New York Sports Snobbery.

Rembert Browne is a better man than me. That statement is in no way based upon firsthand experience; I have never spent one scintilla of time with the guy, and I have no idea what he's like as a person. Other than the fact that we're both from Atlanta and like sports, I'm fairly certain we have nothing in common. So I say he's better in a purely speculative context, but I suspect it's true nonetheless. Why, you ask? Well ...

A week ago on ESPN New York, Rob Parker wrote a piece entitled "City of Atlanta Doesn't Deserve Win." The thrust of the article was that Atlanta's sports fans are not committed and rabid enough to merit the good fortune of a playoff win, that our (perceived) inferior brand of fandom was undeserving of sweet victory.

In Rembert's thoughtful response to that article, he takes the high road, and opts to explain why Atlanta fans are the way they are rather than rail against Parker's assessment. Which is why I can state with 99% certainty that he's a better man than I. See, I bleed Falcons, Hawks, and Braves colors. I love them unconditionally even when they're terrible, which has been most of my lifetime. I live and die with my teams, so any article telling me that my fandom is not strong enough to be deemed "worthy" of the fruits of success is going to get my hackles up. I've been ruminating on Parker's words for a while now, and after careful consideration, I'm not taking any high road here.

Look, Rob Parker is a tremendous journalist who has been around the sportswriting business almost longer than I've been alive and has had an unimpeachably brilliant career. I want to get up front how much I respect and admire his body of work before I do what Rembert declined, with dignity, to do in responding to Mr. Parker:

*faces generally northwards, clears throat* ...

Eff you, you supercilious Yankee jackass. How dare you levy judgement on my hometown from your cushy perch in the Big Apple?

Let me tell you something, pal; being a New York sports fan is easy. Easy to root. Easy to care. You get born into that gig, it's a lifetime pass on the gravy train. And it doesn't even matter if you're winning or losing.

Which is not to say that winning or losing doesn't matter to New York fans, but that winning or losing has zero bearing on the spirit and perpetuation of New York's various fandoms.

Since you, Mr. Parker, seem to think the Yankees are, and I quote, "the standard for excellence in baseball," let's start with that. I'd go with "the standard for petulant, spoiled entitlement," but hey, "tomato, tomato," right? Wow, that aphorism utterly fails in print. Anyway ...

Consider the process of becoming a Yankee fan. (A true Yankee fan. We'll dismiss bandwagoners and frontrunners because I think we can all agree that no matter what teams we root for, those people are jerks.) Say you grow up in New York, the product of a diehard Yankees family. Your ancestors going back for generations were Yankee fans. From the time you can form semi-cogent thoughts and make meaningful emotional connections, you're inundated, inculcated, and inducted in the vast cultural jetwash that is the New York Yankees. The iconography of the pinstripes and NY caps, the mythology of Gehrig and Mantle and Joltin' Joe and The Babe and Reggie and a million others, and the sheer historical grandeur of the franchise looming over everything. That's your birthright. That's what you grow up knowing.

For much of the time, because the Yankees have an impossibly outsized payroll and every kid grows up wanting to play in Yankee Stadium (or did before they built that new monstrosity), you're riding a sustained wave of success. Championships came in your parents' and grandparents' lifetimes. Lots of them. And they're surely coming in yours too. Wait around for a decade, 15 years tops, and you'll experience the rapturous joy of a World Series victory. But, and here's where you really have it made: even when you're losing, your fandom is wonderfully, completely impregnable.

When times are tough, and you've been subjected to the agony of more than a few seasons without hoisting the trophy, you always have your heritage. You can hang your hat, so to speak, on the past. You are secure because even if it's not true just this instant, your team has been the biggest and baddest on the block many, many times. When you make a hypothetical all-time greatest Yankee batting order or pitching rotation, you legitimately feel conflicted about leaving Players X, Y, and Z off the list, so overflowing with greatness are the annals of your history. The enormity of the past lends credence and dignity to your present, and you share that common passion and lore with millions of other Yankee diehards. In short, being a Yankee fan means never having to doubt or question that loyalty. Ever. You are protected and reassured by what you know came before you.

Obviously, the Yankees are the extreme case, but every other New York team has a similar reverential aura, if not quite as lustrous as the Bronx Bombers. So do the teams from Boston, Philly, Chicago, and L.A. There's a sort of presence that revolves around the stadiums and arenas, the histories and myths. A near-palpable sense of gravity. It may be diaphanous and sepia-toned, but it is most definitely there.

Now contemplate growing up a sports fan in Atlanta, where almost nothing is our own, and nothing at all has been our own for very long. See, while Boston and New York and Chicago have had ample time to establish and grow their economies, personalities, and sports franchises, Atlanta did not have that luxury. We were still recovering from Sherman's March and the aftermath of Reconstruction. Note: While I'm proud to be a Southerner, I am not some sort of apologist for Dixie and the Civil War or one of those half-cocked idiots who think "The South will riiiiise agin!" The atrocities of slavery needed to be brought to an end and the South was and is better off as part of the United States than as a separate entity, but that bastard burned the whole damned city down, and then the government and the carpetbaggers screwed up the rebuilding process to an absurd extent. As large a city as Atlanta is, it didn't really start catching up developmentally to the rest of the big American metropolises until the latter half of the 20th century. The point being, we have had a comparatively short period of history in which we were economically capable of supporting multiple professional sports franchises.

Now, getting back to the question of our fandom: since we've used the Yankees as our jump point, let's start explaining sports fans in the ATL with the team the Yanks humiliated in the '96 and '99 World Series, my beloved Braves.

We inherited the Braves in 1966, a hand-me-down organization whose history was entrenched in Milwaukee and, before that, Boston. Ownership moved the team in search of a bigger television market, and fast-growing Atlanta lured them south by the expedient of building a shiny new stadium for them to play in. The team then proceeded to be varying degrees of mediocre and terrible for the next 25 years. In other words, that first generation of Braves fans had very little to cheer about.

Don't get me wrong, there were obviously some wonderful players that donned the Braves uniform during that stretch, and one All-Time iconic moment in Hammerin' Hank's 715th dinger at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. On balance, though, the Braves were regarded as a complete joke by the rest of the league for a very long time. If, midway through your life, your town suddenly inherited a team that consistently failed to play anything resembling competent baseball, why, with no history or sense of tradition whatsoever to bind you, would you embrace that team as a rooting interest? More importantly, why would you raise your kids to root for them? The answers, for most people, are that you wouldn't and you wouldn't. And thus were the first two generations of Braves fans (mostly) as tepid and unconvincing as winter sunshine. Only now, as people my age who were there to experience some of the lean years but still young enough to be awed by and phenomenally invested in that miracle of a 1991 season and the ensuing run of dominance are having children, is a generation of Braves fans being born and raised who have a sense of team history and greatness that will sustain them during periods of prolonged failure.

Atlanta's two other franchises share eerily similar histories to what I just described above. The Falcons arrived as an NFL expansion team the same year as the Braves, while the Hawks relocated from Saint Louis in 1968. Both teams have had a few great, memorable players in the past (Deion Sanders, Jamal Anderson, and Mike Vick for the Falcons; 'Nique, Spud Webb, and Pistol Pete for the Hawks.) However, despite a few scattered eras of playoff contention, neither team has ever achieved any substantial level of victory. (The loan trip to a sporting finals by an Atlanta team not named the Braves? When the Falcons somehow skittered and bumbled their way into Super Bowl XXXIII, only to be clobbered 34-19 by the Denver Broncos.)

The most recent incarnations of those teams are the closest we've come to sustained competitiveness, and as we know, close don't pay the emotional-fandom rent. (It just keeps you from getting decent picks in the draft.)

All of which doesn't even address the profound and protracted streaks of coaching, front-office, and ownership incompetence that have plagued the Falcons and Hawks, and that caused the Flames and Thrashers to be deported.

Are you starting to see why New York fans have it easy, and why Atlantans find devout fandom so difficult? Out teams were losers when they got here and, aside from those 90s Braves teams, have been losers ever since. Hell, even that stretch of Braves dominance was sort of a slap in the face. We had the best pitching rotation in baseball for a decade and only won one World Series. As joyful as 1995 was, the rest of that era was phenomenally frustrating. As for the Falcons, they still don't have a playoff victory under what was supposed to be a promising new regime (though maybe we'll get one now that we're getting an entirely new coaching staff besides Mike Smith.) The Hawks? They've been so maddeningly inconsistent, so good-not-great for the past five seasons (and might not even hit that level this season now we've lost Al Horford) that "Never Trust The Hawks" is a standing meme (or a running, not-very-funny joke) on Daily Dime Live.

So yes, Mr. Parker, our city's fans may lack a measure of the devotion and elan exhibited by those in New York. Feel free to crow about it. (Then again, no one is going to call our city's fans a bunch of entitled, obnoxious assholes either, so maybe we win in this exchange after all.)

Either way, given our sports history as compared to privileged one enjoyed by New Yorkers, I think it's absurdly unfair to criticize Atlanta for our dearth of rabid fans. As Rembert so eloquently pointed out, "Down at the bottom of the map, we live by a different creed when it comes to sports. We don't know a lot about winning, but we're pretty fantastic at being good-spirited, slightly delusional losers."

I just happen to have the perfect anecdote to illustrate that point, a story that encapsulates Atlanta fandom and that would never, in a million years, happen in New York, where winning is expected and losers are "bums." Sit back and listen, Mr. Parker ...

As you probably know, the Braves finished with the worst record in baseball in 1990, then went to the World Series in 1991. We lost that series in truly heartbreaking fashion, over seven unbelievable games, to the Minnesota Twins. What you probably are not aware of, unless you lived in Atlanta at the time, is what happened after they returned home. What happened was this: we through them a big ol' parade. Yes, you read that correctly. Our team lost the World Series and we feted them in the streets of downtown Atlanta, with convertibles and floats and confetti and everything. Kids (including me and a bunch of my friends) skipped school and almost everyone else skipped work to attend. We screamed ourselves hoarse and tomahawk-chopped until our arms damned near fell off as those cars rolled by with our boys smiling and waving. We did this because we were so grateful for what they had given us; something we as a sports town had never had before. They gave us the joy of feeling like we mattered to the rest of the country, even if only in the world of baseball. They gave us the thrill of winning, even if we didn't quite win it all. They gave us the ride. They gave us hope.

So you see, whether or not you think we deserve to win is irrelevant. Our past, or meaningful lack thereof, has conditioned us to be the fans we are. So long as we have the ride, and the hope, the winning will be joyfully appreciated, but never expected. And maybe we'll be happier that way.

Two final notes on something you wrote in that article, Mr. Parker: "In fact, at some point, they might ask a friend -- filled with sweet tea -- at a pork-saturated barbeque, 'Are the Falcons playing today?'"

1. That's a horribly stereotyped literary cheap shot. It's easy, it's stupid, and it's lazy writing, and you're better than that. Don't do it again.

2. Sweet tea and barbeque are freaking delicious. If you lived here, that's one other thing you might understand about us, and one less thing you'd mock us for without any basis of understanding or empathy. I'm just saying.

But hey, no hard feelings, right? "Good-spirited and slightly delusional losers ..." you know what? Rembert Browne is probably a better writer than me, too.

3 comments:

  1. Great writing, well laid out argument and well defended.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it!

    ReplyDelete