Farewell Bobby

Scrounging through the Fresno Bee today, doing what we in the business refer to as “desperately searching for something to write about,” I came across news that longtime Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox will retire at the end of the 2010 season.

More surprisingly, I found out he was raised in Fresno County.

As an Atlanta native and lifetime Braves fan it shocked me to learn that this huge celebrity had made the same move I had in reverse (and I can’t resist the temptation to note that he never moved back).

When people find out I’m from Georgia they always get excited and ask some variation on the theme of “What’s it like over there?” This makes me feel like an idiot because I can never come up with a cute little anecdote or story to sum up the only place I ever lived before last August and I end up saying something stupid like, “Tell ya what, we sure ain’t got any Hmongs!”

And so, I will take this opportunity to relate a bit of Georgia culture through my memories of Bobby Cox’s Braves. Sit down boys and girls, it’s story time:

In the Southeast nobody asks what your favorite baseball team is. There is no big-league team in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, or Kentucky (and everyone knows Florida isn’t really the south anyway) so the entire region pulls for the boys from Atlanta. More than a team, they are a Southern institution.

Cox has been a central figure of the Braves for 30 years now. His all-time record for ejections is a small point of pride, the wild and rebellious spirit of the region embodied.

For some reason women seem to get into the Braves more than men do. My grandmother hasn’t missed a game (on TV) as long as I’ve been alive. She has a sort of personal connection to the players, and whenever one gets hurt she’ll express her sympathies with something like, “Awww, po’ Chippuh” (Translation: “I’m saddened by Chipper Jones’ injury”).

My earliest memories of the Braves are from a nearly empty Fulton County Stadium. This was before 1991, when the team was a guaranteed flop. My mom held a death grip on me all night because she was afraid of the steepness of the stands (we always, always sat in the upper deck) and must have envisioned me tumbling down them in a horrific recurring daymare.

That night they played the legendary Jaws music as a batter warmed up and I overheard my granddad say, “Man, it’s a bad night.” He was talking about the game, but for some reason it convinced me that our car was getting broken into or we’d get attacked on the way home and I cried and nobody could figure out why. The mind of a four year old.

I was in the first grade during the “worst to first” year of ’91 that made Bobby famous. My teacher was ecstatic about the team, as was the entire city. People drove down the highway doing the Tomahawk Chop out their window and a playoff ticket may as well have had the Georgia Lottery jackpot numbers on it.

Stories of that magical season still abound down there. Yep, the World Series loss to the Minnesota Twins just might be the South’s most talked-about losing effort since the Civil War.

A few years passed, and we all grew accustomed to seeing the Braves in the postseason. When the team finally got over the hump and won the 1995 World Series (still Atlanta’s only major pro sports championship) my dad and I set off fireworks in the driveway.

Fireworks are illegal in Georgia so we had to trek it over to Alabama to even get the things. The next day I heard my best friend’s mom talking about the “neighborhood idiot” who set off fireworks after the game. I almost kept a straight face, almost.

The ’96 World Series against the dreaded, hated Yankees marked one of my first encounters with middle school rebellion. My 6th grade teachers still wore Braves gear and filled the room with posters for “Crime Dog McGriff” and “Professor Maddux”, but this time my classmates acted differently. Many snickered and said, “The Braves suck. I hope the Yankees win.” I was intimidated by their negativity, and it set the tone for that awful three year period.

By high school everyone was bored with the division titles and the national media regularly slammed Atlanta for not selling out playoff games. They just didn’t get it. The South will always create wonderful musicians, artists, and writers, but it just ain’t a place for long-term sports devotion (college football is a tribal obsession, not a sport). Even the Braves’ “A” logo is more famously worn by rappers than baseball players.

Finally, in college I found that Braves games were the perfect place to go on a date. I’d take my girl up under the awning in the upper deck (like father, like son) and we’d talk and yell at the big screen and laugh at the drunks and hooligans. Magic, baby, pure magic.

This might be the saddest aspect of the pending retirement: that Cox is the last moving part left from that wonderful ’91 team, the last tangible connection to the fire that swept the South during the turnaround and what those memories mean on a personal level.

For yours truly, it will be the last of the sports world connecting me to the mysterious place that was 1991. One more connection to my childhood gone forever.

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