I was only a few months old when I went to my first baseball game and saw the Braves play at Turner Field. There’s a picture of me bundled up in some sort of puffy suit, my chubby face looking down at my team with confusion.
I’m still looking on with some confusion. The Atlanta Braves are 0-8 right now. They have shown up for the 2016 season inept and stumbling, dropping leads and losing players to injuries. Reliever Dan Winkler broke his arm while throwing a pitch. Outfielder Ender Inciarte pulled his hamstring. The Braves haven’t started a season with a record this poor in decades—since 1988, to be exact. We’re supposed to “trust the process,” but that process is painful when you’re sitting in Nationals Park watching the Braves get killed, and everyone is cheering for “Beautiful Bryce,” and even the soft pretzels are outside your snack budget. (As are the mysterious “peanut jacks,” which I think are just Cracker Jacks, but who knows?)
Even when my team is beginning a marathon season that will probably feel like running an actual marathon in the heat of the Georgia summer, I love the Braves, and I have a strange but abiding love for baseball. I say “strange” because any true fan would argue that I’m not a fan at all. I go to maybe one game a year, and I never watch them on television. I don’t memorize statistics, and I’m even terrible at keeping up with players’ names.
I enjoy tennis and understand the ins and outs of it. I find rugby and basketball exciting. But no other sport makes me feel like baseball.
Why is it that baseball gives me these feelings of love and nostalgia and hometown pride? When the whole stadium stands to watch the arc of a home run. The strategic conversations over player substitutions. The smell of hot dogs, the glare of fluorescent lights under a summer sky, and even the cheesy between-inning games and the kiss cam and the country songs. I don’t want to learn what all of the stats mean or watch every game. But I want to know that baseball is being played, that people are watching, chanting, and cheering. And I want the Braves to be winning.
When I was growing up, my family and I made the trek to the nosebleed seats at Turner Field every summer, to have the rare treat of junk food and hopefully see fireworks burst out of the giant, lit-up Coca-Cola bottle. My young brain was absolutely convinced that the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner were “O’er the land of the free and the home of the Braves.” I wondered what they sang in other cities. “The home of the Orioles” just didn’t have the same ring to it.
We won the World Series when I was six, and I took that as proof that we were—and always would be—the best team in baseball. I had to release my energy and emotion by taking part in every cheer, even when I wasn’t quite sure what I was cheering for. It didn’t matter, did it? I belonged. I was part of it.
One of the chants that often rang around the stadium was for Chipper Jones, that good ol’ boy who became a Braves legend. Jones spent his entire career with the Braves, won the National League MVP in 1999, was an eight-time All-Star, and has some of the best stats in history for a switch hitter. His real name is Larry, but everyone knows him as Chipper, and I simply can’t think of a better baseball name out there. When I was ten, and out there chanting “Chipp-er JOOOOOONES” with the rest of the fans, I felt like he was all of ours, our cousin, our neighbor, our old friend, carrying our own reputations and hopes on his shoulders. How funny, the emotional connection we make with athletes we’ve never met and likely never will.
I’m glad to see Jones back as a special assistant. With all of the grumbling that’s been directed toward manager Fredi Gonzalez, I’ve even heard rumors that Jones could replace him. Admittedly, I’ve only heard these rumors from a fellow Braves fan who also watched the team get pounded at Nationals Park. So maybe that was the disappointment talking.
I haven’t had that starry-eyed admiration of a particular player since Chipper retired in 2012. My hopes were high this week that heralded rookie Mallex Smith would save the Braves from themselves with his lightning speed. Could he develop into another hero? Could I finally be ready to think about chanting another player’s name?
There was a lot of excitement surrounding Smith, who was brought up early from the minors to replace Inciarte, but we saw him get injured trying to steal second base; as he slid in, his helmet fell off and bounced up to hit him the forehead. He was pulled from the game and received five stitches. But I haven’t given up on him. Smith will return, and his speed will help the Braves…not lose so badly? It’s going to be a long season. But the promise Smith brings to the table will move it along.
Some people were raised with their teams, like I was with the Braves. But many root for teams outside of their hometowns, perhaps because of a chance encounter, an old jersey they were given, or their family’s choice of cable company. Because of feelings. They pick their teams because of their feelings. And I know feelings aren’t a popular topic in sports, but if we dig into it, what makes sports great are the emotions they elicit, the excitement and the hope and the nostalgia and the smack talk.
Don’t try to pretend the emotional drive isn’t a part of it. We’ve all been around a fan like my roommate, who moped for two days after his football team didn’t make the Super Bowl. We’ve been swept up in the tension of bases loaded, score tied, ninth inning, and the total pandemonium of a grand slam—that high can linger for hours.
And even when the feelings are melancholy, as they are for Braves fans right now, our loyalty doesn’t change. In economic language, the return on investment is nil if you’re loyal to a team that doesn’t perform well; what does it give you beyond years of letdown, and money wasted on tickets and expensive food?
Well, it does give you something: a sense of staying power, perhaps. A feeling of legacy. Perhaps we have an innate need to be loyal to something bigger than ourselves: a religion, a cause, a sports team. And that’s where the love and nostalgia and hometown pride flows from. I have cheered for the Braves since I was a few months old, and whatever happens in the seasons to come, I still will.
Mary Ellen Dingley is a writer who has chanted Chipper Jones’ name from many corners of the globe. You should follow her on Twitter.