What makes the Braves Southern

Next Thursday the Atlanta Braves will begin another marathon baseball season with aims of winning a World Series. Oddsmakers give them a 22 to 1 chance to accomplish this feat.

The 1995 Atlanta Braves after winning the World Series
The Atlanta Braves celebrate winning their only World Series championship in 1995. Even with unprecedented regular season success, championships have eluded the Braves.

Whether or not they actually succeed really isn’t the point. I’ve been a Braves’ fan since 1982 when my Aunt Phyllis took me and my brother, Lee, to our first Braves game during a vacation visit from Texas. The Braves have won the World Series exactly once since 1982. For all their success in the 1990s and early 2000s, winning 14 division titles and one World Series, it still comes down to championships. By that measure, the Braves have been a disappointment.

Who can forget the meltdown that ended last season? Cruising into the playoffs, the Braves blew a 10-game lead allowing the Cardinals to get into the post season and win the World Series. It was agonizing to watch the Braves’ hopes die on that last Wednesday of the season.

Disappointment: That’s what makes the Atlanta Braves a quintessential Southern team.

Southern identity is inevitably linked to the War Between the States, though less now in the New South. Judging by the number of “Second Place Trophies” – those monuments to Southern bravery and fallen heroes that adorn many town squares throughout the South – there is a sense of pride in having fought the battle no matter what the outcome. Southern identity is about fighting, not necessarily winning.

You can argue that its more frustrating to fall just short than to be out of it before August, but to me, baseball’s lengthy season, series format for its playoffs and championship and even the grueling 9-inning, often 4-hour plus games all conspire to make winning consistently year after year as rare as a two-headed calf.

Braves fans took a lot of abuse around the league toward the end of the run when first round playoff games wouldn’t sell out. We were called “spoiled” and “lackadaisical” and “unsupportive.” But honestly, who wants to be brought to the brink so many times, only to be let down?

Having grown up in Texas with a hapless franchise to pull for, I have followed the Rangers from a distance, naming them my “American League team.” Fans of the Rangers have gotten a taste of the Braves fans’ diet. After years of futility, the team has made two straight World Series appearances only to lose them both. They were one out away from winning the World Series last year against St. Louis on two different occasions.

That, my friends, is frustrating.

Chipper Jones
Can Chipper rebound from his knee injury to make a meaningful contribution to the team in his final season?

While hope springs eternal in major league cities around the country, I have come to appreciate elements of the Braves outside of winning championships. I have followed with interest as the Braves – like the rest of us in this economy – have tried to manage their payroll. I was intrigued by the way they handled the transition from legendary manager Bobby Cox to Fredi Gonzalez. I enjoy seeing the development of players through their minor league system, watching guys like Craig Kimbrel and Freddie Freeman burst onto the scene.

So whether or not the Braves make a World Series run, I will root for them this year. I will follow them as closely as I can, losing track a few times during the season when they make lengthy West Coast road trips, but being entertained by their pursuit of victory for the next seven months.

They will have increased competition from the Washington Nationals and Miami Marlins. The Phillies are still the team to beat in the division. There are question marks in the lineup with Chipper’s spring training injury and youth at shortstop. Young arms abound in the starting rotation and bullpen, but whether all the promise materializes remains to be seen.

But it will be seen. Millions of people across the South still claim with pride to be Braves fans. Here’s hoping for a fun season, win, lose or rain.

Play ball!

Are you a Braves fan? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below telling us why or why not.

Toilet trouble

I believe every homeowner should be able to patch a hole in drywall, install a ceiling fan and stop a running toilet. If self-reliance and resourcefulness aren’t Southern traits I don’t know what are.

My two-week battle with a running toilet tested my convictions in ways that both surprised and infuriated me.

It all started with a stuck flapper. The upstairs commode used primarily by our three boys would run because the flapper would somehow become stuck in the upright position, allowing water to flow ad infinitum from the tank into the bowl.

In addition to an inflated water bill, this relatively minor nuisance also produced one or two incidents of overflowing the bowl when one of our dear offspring clogged it. After several weeks of having to remove the lid and push the flapper back into place, I finally committed to making what I knew from experience to be a simple and inexpensive repair.

FAIL! Do not attempt to install a Mansfield flapper valve on an American Standard toilet. I believe the technical problem is, as my plumber told me, "It don't work."

I stopped into Home Depot, headed for the toilet plumbing aisle and was reaching for the $2.98 rubber flapper when I was engaged by an under-utilized employee, eager to help. The orange-aproned gentlemen announced he was a plumber by trade and insisted I purchase a top-of-the-line, Mansfield flapper valve and not just the flapper itself. This device, which I had never seen before, was $8.98.

Still inexpensive enough not to raise any alarms, I was taken in by his expertise. He then proceeded to explain the wonders of the pressure valve and asked if I had ever tested my home’s water pressure. Naturally, if one doesn’t know one’s water pressure, one cannot begin to work on a toilet.

So I added a $20 water pressure gauge to my nearly $10 flapper. As I scanned my items at the do-it-yourself checkout lane, my certainty and pride at addressing root causes rather than just surface symptoms began to wane. Doubt crept into my mind as I walked slowly to my car, studying the packaging on the two items.

First, I realized that I had been talked into spending 10-times what I had intended. Second, I discovered that to install this “best flapper valve in the world,” I would have to remove the tank.

Hindsight is 20/20, they say, and I should have stopped right there, turned around and exchanged my purchases for a $3 flapper that would have fixed my known problem. But I didn’t. Good ol’ Southern self-reliance, remember? No, instead, I spent the next two hours wrestling my toilet.

After I finally got the old flapper valve out and the new one installed and tank reattached, I turned the water back on to the tank and proceeded to clean up the mess.

That’s when I heard it: the first shot in the uncivil war between me and that toilet. The refill valve kicked on for a few seconds and then fell silent. I suspiciously eyed the toilet and decided it was just adjusting to the new valve.

After two weeks of the toilet sporadically running for a few seconds every three or four minutes and my changing the level of the refill valve float dozens of times, I finally decided it was more than an adjustment period that was the problem.

I attached the water pressure gauge to the spigot at the back of the house. The Home Depot expert had informed me that a household pressure should be between 40 and 80 PSI. I left the gage attached for 12 hours to allow for any pressure fluctuations. It topped out at 120 PSI.

I reluctantly returned to the scene of my first debacle and detached the tank again and started the process over. With my laptop on the vanity showing the “how to stop a running toilet” video, I checked every possible cause of the problem. Finding no obvious mistakes in my handiwork, I reattached the tank and discovered a new problem.

Not only was the toilet still running every few minutes, it was now leaking. At the pinnacle of frustration and depth of despair I sought the phone number of our neighborhood plumber. The cloud of failure overtook my mood, and what started out so well was now headed into the dreaded contractor zone – all because of a $3 flapper.

This is my toilet tank, conveniently labeled for all you do-it-yourselfers and arm-chair plumbers to marvel at. This is how it looks after someone who knows what they are doing has fixed it.

A few days later, our plumber friend came over and had our toilet working properly in less than an hour. As it turned out, the “world’s best flapper valve” only works on toilets made by that manufacturer. He replaced the refill valve, which was also damaged in my repairs, and we were back in business. The tank looked exactly as it would have if I had simply replaced the flapper as I had originally intended.

But the not-so-helpful Home Depot helper was right about my water pressure. Our plumber told us that Lilburn runs its water pressure higher than most municipalities, and he gets a lot of business in the area replacing home water pressure valves. Failure to address this problem, which is not something undertaken by even an ambitious do-it-yourselfer, leads to much more costly failures such as the hot water heater, faucets and even washing machines and dish washers.

All told our bill was about $400, roughly half of what it would have been were not for our friend’s aggressive discounting.

So what life application could I derive from this encounter?

I amended my credo about what home projects everyone should know how to do. I now believe every homeowner should have the phone number of a good drywall contractor, electrician and plumber.

Your mental health is worth something.

Can you tell a similar tale about a household project gone wrong? Are you still kicking yourself for turning something simple into a complete mess? Share your story by leaving a comment below. It’s therapeutic!

New South Bracketology

There are times I pretend to be an expert: any discussion of running, life in the New South, Star Wars and fantasy football.

There are other times when no amount of pretending can cover up glaring ignorance: parenting, relationships, basic plumbing and filling out NCAA tournament brackets.

2012 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament bracket
Here it is, in all its glory: the 2012 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament bracket. After one day, mine is taking on water.

The mania that has swept the country during the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments (although primarily the men’s) overshadows real news of importance in people’s lives. The never-ending Republican primary plays in the background as gas prices soar, tensions rise in Afghanistan and Iran and severe weather spreads across tornado alley through the Midwest and South.

All that stuff impacts people’s lives, but for a few days, the NCAA tournament distracts us from all that and gives us something else to think about.

NCAA Final Four logo
What teams did you pick for the Final Four? Leave a comment below with your picks and join the madness!

Of course, the Internet is to blame for this. Back in the day, you had to go out and buy an actual newspaper to fill out a bracket. I can’t remember the last time I put pencil (definitely not pen!) to a bracket on newsprint. Maybe 1997? In any case, the ubiquitous bracket online and the obnoxious presence of ESPN have conspired to empower anyone to fill out a March Madness bracket.

The result? More ground lost to women in the battle of the sexes.

That’s right, the bracket is no longer male-only turf. All it takes is for one woman to post a bracket on Pinterest and suddenly, millions of women discover that they, too, can compete. Perhaps their significant others have been hiding this bracket from them in order to preserve the last bastion of competition where men can pretend to have superiority.

The democratization of the bracket now has more women entering – and winning – NCAA tournament pools. Why? Women aren’t bogged down in details like offensive rebounds, road records and defensive styles. Their picks reflect the truly random nature of the NCAA tournament.

Vandy takes down Harvard
The Harvard of the South defeated the actual Harvard in round one of the NCAA men's basketball tournament on Thursday.

Back when I worked in newspapers, it was always the sports writers who did the worst. All of their knowledge only clouded their judgment. The newsroom pool was usually won by a copy editor with a degree in English literature who made her selections on the basis of which school had the best library or most published authors.

I’m just grateful that my wife hasn’t shown any interest. The humiliation of losing to her in an NCAA tournament pool would only add to the list of subjects in which I can no longer debate her with any credibility. That list includes colors, the arrangement of furniture, baby names, etiquette, television and relationships.

This is really the only week the tournament matters. After the field is narrowed to 16 this weekend, the majority of the country’s brackets will be hopelessly mangled, and the tournament will join the other current events as background noise to our lives. Only the real, hardcore fans will stick with this thing to the end on April 2.

Besides, the real fun lies in figuring out a way to avoid work on Thursday and Friday of the opening week to watch the games. Again, the Internet has brought about a huge sea change on how people slack off from work to watch basketball.

Back in the day, you had to sneak away for a three-hour lunch to watch games or somehow get a portable television into your office. Now you can just log on to ESPN.com and let the Gamecast take it from there – not that I would EVER do that.

When the number of games diminishes to three or four a night, and they all appear in prime time, the illicit nature of the tournament will be gone, along with most of our final four picks, and life can return to normal.

So at the risk of being held accountable by my faithful readers, I will reveal my Final Four selections: Kentucky, Missouri, Florida State and North Carolina. I predict North Carolina will beat Kentucky in the championship, 76-69.

Your guess is as good as mine.

Have you filled out your bracket? Who made your final four? Who is your champion? Leave New South Nation your picks in a comment below and join the fun!

Method to my madness

Today marks the 52nd weekly post of New South Essays, and it’s high time I let you in on a little secret: I started this blog a year ago to capture your attention, entice you to engage with my writing and whet your appetite for my book.

chapter 1
I'm five and a half years into my first book. Hopefully the others will take less time.

This journey began in 2006. Two years after completing an MBA, I was in need of a new intellectual pursuit, a challenge that provided a creative outlet. I needed a mental exercise that matched the physical exercise of my foolhardy marathon hobby. So I returned to my first love – writing.

My day job in public relations had progressed to the stage in which I spent more time managing budgets than crafting sentences. My need for written expression was going unmet. During our family vacation to Santa Rosa Beach in July 2006, I wrote a chapter a day on the novel I had been kicking around in my head for a few years.

For the next four years I got up early each Saturday and wrote a chapter. My only reader was Carla, who found the book captivating enough to anticipate the next week’s installment with her Saturday morning coffee. A loving but unhesitating editor, she offered instant feedback, telling me when a character was inconsistent, a plot line implausible or dialogue hollow.

By the time I finished the first draft, while on vacation in Santa Rosa Beach exactly four years later, I had generated 146,912 words in 76 chapters. Disjointed and choppy, amateurish and unwieldy, the as-yet-unnamed project was a long way from being finished. I put it aside for six months, dreading the hard work of paring it down to a more reasonable length and a more comprehensible story.

The Saturday after the 2011 blizzard had kept all of Atlanta homebound for a week, I met a friend’s dad for coffee. He is a published author, and I had arranged to talk with him ostensibly about what was involved in the publishing process. Sam gave me all that and more. I came away from our conversation with a renewed commitment to seeing the task through, and picked back up on the rewrite.

I’m now 54 chapters into the first rewrite, splitting my early morning writing time between editing and writing New South Essays. I’ve loved the weekly discipline of writing the blog, and your response and feedback has only encouraged me to continue. For an old newspaper hack like myself, a weekly column is a familiar medium and the consistency of it appeals to my regimented and disciplined side.

My free-spirited side is fed by working on the book. If I’m honest, I’d have to guess that I’m still a year or more away from having a polished manuscript to show prospective agents and publishers. An editor friend and former roommate has the first five chapters, working to help me improve it, one installment at a time.

Macon post card
Before you can leave Macon, you have to go there first.

What I’d describe as contemporary Southern fiction, the book is tentatively titled “Leaving Macon,” and it chronicles the life of a young junior leaguer who in one tumultuous year discovers her husband is unfaithful, her three-year-old is unruly, her acquired wealth is unfulfilling and her identity unsettled. Through a series of new relationships, including her son’s redneck Tae Kwon Do instructor and an African-American woman restaurateur, she uncovers her true self and finds courage to move forward with her dreams.

Thank you for coming along with me and giving me courage to move forward with my dreams. There’s plenty more to discover and report on in the New South, and I welcome your ideas and participation. Who knows where this will lead.

Southern sports showcase

Last weekend was a convergence of televised events that treated channel surfers with more than the usual amount of Southern accents.

Matt Kenseth wins the 2012 Daytona 500
Matt Kenseth won his second Daytona 500 in one of the weirdest races of all time at the historic speedway.

Unless you were under a rock you know that last weekend was the 54th running of the Daytona 500, the official start of the never-ending NASCAR season. What you may have overlooked was that it was also the 2012 Bassmaster Classic at the Red River in Shreveport, La.

Yeah, yeah, the rest of the world had the Oscars to fuss over, but for true Southerners, it was a weekend to revel in the great sports that have found or are beginning to find a broader fan base.

Truth be told, I don’t watch much racin’ or fishin’ on the TEE-vee. A few years back, Barron had a brief obsession with NASCAR after he saw the Pixar film, Cars. That year, Kevin Harvick won the Daytona 500 by two-tenths of a second over Mark Martin in the closest finish ever, and Clint Bowyer crossed the finish line upside down and on fire.

“Whoa! What is this!” Barron said in a “where has this been all my life” tone as the race finished.

Once he realized there was a five-hour race every weekend for nearly 10 months and all races don’t end that way, he lost interest. But for a couple of years we were as much NASCAR fans in our household as the other neophytes sporting numbered trucker hats and T-shirts with such thoughtful slogans as “Boogity, Boogity” and “The surgeon general said nothing about smoking the competition.”

This year’s race was a logistical nightmare. It was supposed to gun on Sunday afternoon, but rain delayed the event until Monday night. Several wrecks chased fan favorites Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and last year’s winner, Trevor Bayne. Then, with 40 laps to go, something broke on Juan Pablo Montoya’s number 42 car. It swerved and hit a jet dryer causing an explosion and subsequent blaze that delayed the race another two hours. By the time Matt Kenseth crossed the finish line to take his second Daytona 500, it was Tuesday morning.

In driver parlance, it was a weird deal, man.

I don’t want to give away the outcome of the Bassmaster Classic because even though the event has ended, the three-days of weigh-ins will be televised on Saturday and Sunday on ESPN2. What? You say you don’t mind? OK, well, SPOILER ALERT! Chris Lane took the top prize of $500,000 by catching 51.6 pounds of fish in three days.

Chris Lane
Chris Lane holds the 2012 Bassmaster Classic trophy aloft and gives a celebratory yell.

What? You say you’ve never heard of Chis Lane? THE Chris Lane? OK, well, neither had I, but that’s not the point. As a guy who grew up with a bass fishing dad, I can still hear Jimmy Houston’s cackle and see Bill Dance’s pratfalls in my childhood memories. Bass fishing was something I never cared to watch on television, but grew to enjoy with my dad when we had chances to go.

So why are these sports inextricably linked to the South? We all know football is king down South, but people in other parts of the country play it, too – although that’s getting harder and harder to prove by watching the Bowl Championship Series games.

NASCAR and Bassmaster have several things in common: their origins are Southern, they are warm weather sports, their fan bases have some sense of participation and, most importantly, they have numerous corporate entities involved that wish to reach an audience with their products.

Ultimately, it’s sponsorships and advertising revenue that lands your sport on TV.

So before anyone claims the South has risen again based on the ascendance of its hallmark sporting events, think about your consumer behavior next time you pay $8.49 for a Strike King® Kevin VanDam Sexy Dawg Topwater lure or pick up a Diet Mountain Dew.

Did you really want that or did you just watch too much racin’ and fishin’?

Keep your hooks wet and your car off the wall, and have a good season. Second place is just first loser!

What do you think is the king of Southern sports? What makes a sport Southern? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.