Guys’ night out

“Decompression” is the best word to describe my rare night out with the guys last Tuesday.

The idea for the outing sprang up last week when I saw that the San Francisco Giants were coming to town to play the Atlanta Braves. Carla was amenable to giving me the night off, so plans were set in motion.

Brian and Daniel
Brian, left, and Daniel, right, met all the requirements of compatriots for a guys’ night out: they’re guys.

I haven’t seen a Braves game since my buddy, Bob, moved away several years ago, and I felt it was time. My friend, Brian, is a life-long fan of the Giants, and our mutual friend, Daniel, lives in Grant Park, about a mile from the stadium. Not only did he provide free parking, Daniel’s baseball knowledge combined with Brian’s pop culture omniscience set the tone for the perfect guys’ night out conversation.

Admittedly, Daniel is better friends with Brian, based on a relationship that dated back to when the two were in seminary at Mercer’s McAfee School of Theology, but baseball talk is a universal language, and our conversation was easy and constant all night.

It’s been my experience that when guys attend a ball game, they talk about all of the previous times they have been to ball games. Over time, our memories fade, and we are left more with impressions than the ability to relive the experience play-by-play. Details such as who hit home runs, who pitched, special promotions, the importance of the game, whether someone achieved a milestone or broke a record, who won, weather conditions and run-ins with unruly fans all coalesce to form the substance of guys’ ball game conversations.

Our view at Turner Field
Our view from the lower level, first base side in right at Turner Field.

None of this talk was of earth shattering importance, but that was precisely the point. No problems to solve, no children to console, no “honey-do” lists or sharing our feelings. The two married guys were only interrupted by phone calls from our wives once a piece. That’s notable.

For Braves fans, Tuesday night was completely forgettable. The Braves lost 9-0, thanks mostly to a poor outing by Jair Jurrjens and clutch hitting for the Giants by Leesburg, Ga., native Buster Posey, who drove in five runs. But the outcome didn’t matter. For a few hours we were just guys talking about baseball. I’m sure our analysis was flawed, our view of bang-bang plays obstructed and our stories exaggerated. Still, the evening met all the criteria for a great night out.

Afternoon showers that stopped just before game time gave us a cooler-than-normal climate to enjoy being at “The Ted.” Our first level seats, bought off the Internet for a steep discount, were ideal for watching Jason Heyward track down fly balls hit to right field.

Buster Posey
Buster Posey drove in five of the Giants’ nine runs. Oh well, if you have to get beat by somebody, may as well be a Georgia boy.

We weren’t accosted by any obnoxious fans, and there were no drunk loudmouths to ruin the evening. Through social media I learned that our church friends, the Akins, were also at the game, and when I looked up at the giant screen between the first and second inning, I saw more church friends, the Willises, laughing it up and having a good time. I learned the next day that our friends from Macon, the Brownes, were also at the game. It was a veritable family reunion.

And speaking of family, I’m beginning to feel that it’s time to take the boys to a game. If our friends, the Ortons, can take their almost one-year-old son, Jack, then I think we can stand to get Harris and Carlton to their first game. Barron is old enough to understand what’s going on now, and Carla always enjoys a chance to people watch.

There will be a time when my whole family makes it to a game, but sometimes you have to hang out with just the guys. It’s just necessary.

At the risk of sounding like the “Most Interesting Man in the World,” I don’t need a guys’ night out often, but when I do, I like the Atlanta Braves. Stay baseball fans, my friends.

Where do you like to go for guys’ night out? Where do you send your husbands or boyfriends when they need to get away or you need them to get away? Have you had memorable nights at a Braves’ game? Join the conversation by sharing your comments below.

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.

Watching the Braves with Paw Paw

At 11:39 p.m. , Wednesday,  – well past my bedtime – Braves rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman grounded into a double play, ending the Braves season. As I struggled to stay awake during the final two hours of the 13-inning marathon game, I couldn’t help but think of my grandfather as I watched the drama unfold.

Skip Caray, Ernie Johnson and Pete Van Wieren
The voices of the Atlanta Braves circa 1977. From left, Skip Caray, Ernie Johnson and Pete Van Wieren.

Paw Paw was the kind of Braves fan that followed their occasional ups but mostly downs with a chuckle and pitying head shake. Paw Paw was a SuperStation fan, letting the voices of the late Ernie Johnson, the late Skip Caray and Pete Van Wieren form the background noise of summer.

The kindest and gentlest of grandfathers, Paw Paw never got outwardly angry at the Braves’ shenanigans. When a bad play caused another loss, the worst oath he would utter was an elongated “shewwwwt.”

Watching ballgames with Paw Paw was less about baseball for me and more about being with him. He didn’t try to explain the action or teach me any of the intricacies of a sport that still baffles me most of the time. He simply uttered little expressions of disbelief or humor as the Braves’ antics unfolded on the field.

2011 season ends with loss to the Phillies
The scene from the dugout after Wednesday night's loss to the Phillies.

While the 2011 edition of the Braves were losing a game they should have won to end a season that should have ended in a trip to the playoffs, I thought about the summer I became a Braves fan. The magical 1982 season began with a record-setting 13-game winning streak. Manager Joe Torre made all the right moves that season with an MVP year from Murphy, 17 wins from knuckleballer Neikro and the amazing double-play combo of Glenn Hubbard at second base and Rafael Ramirez at shortstop. That also happened to be the summer we moved from Texas to Florida, and during the transition, my brother, Lee, and I spent two weeks in Columbus, watching the Braves every night with Paw Paw.

We went to our first Braves game on Aug. 20, 1982, with Paw Paw’s church. My Aunt Phyllis took us to see the Braves play the Mets, a game that was supposed to have been pitched by Neikro but ended up in the hands of Pascual Perez who missed his start the previous night because he got lost on I-285 on his way to the ballpark. The Braves won, and I was hooked.

Florida had no major league team at the time, so as we settled in Lake Wales, we adopted the Braves who were conveniently on television every night, thanks to WTBS. For me, it was as simple as liking the Braves because Paw Paw liked them.

Paw Paw died in the winter of 1992. He lived to see the Braves play in a World Series, completing a worst-to-first turnaround from the 1990 to 1991 season. He didn’t get to see their lone World Series championship in 1995. I’m sure, though, that he wouldn’t have gotten too worked up during the Braves’ 15-year playoff run nor too discouraged when all but one of those seasons ended with a loss.

As they failed to reach the postseason Wednesday night after blowing an 8-and-a-half game lead in September, I frowned, shook my head, let out a soft “shewwwwwwt” and went to bed.

Thank you, Braves, for another interesting season and another chance to remember my Paw Paw.