Thursday, January 8, 2009

Goodbye Smoltzy: The national pastime in past tense

Today the Braves let John Smoltz go to the Boston Red Sox. The last bastion of former Atlanta pitching glory is gone. Time was when the thought of facing Smoltz along with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine put fear in the minds of any opponent. Maddux and Glavine have been gone for years (though Tommy tried to make a go of it with us last season).

So, the Braves really have no pitching of that caliber left and today many Braves fans vented their frustration, including Chipper Jones. With all that has happened to the game and to the organization, Smoltz's exit seems just another symptom of why I prefer to live my baseball in the past tense.

I remember the first time I went to an Atlanta Braves game. It was
August 28, 1966. You might not believe that I remember that game but I do. Back then the Braves had a huge four-story (or so) smiling Indian brave in right center field that would move its mechanical arm with a tomahawk up and down whenever the Braves did something good in the game. Meanwhile, over in the left field bleachers, Chief Knockahoma had his tee-pee. It bellowed smoke out of the top of it if a Brave hit a home run. And if the opposing team hit a home run the Chief would come out of his tee-pee with a shot gun, take aim, and fire a very loud blank at the dastardly opposing hitter as he rounded second base.

Can you imagine that today? An employee of the Braves pretending to shoot a member of the opposing team during a game? Ah, things were simpler then.

I'm not really a baseball fan. Sure I enjoy reading about baseball, talking baseball, watching the Ken Burns series on baseball (which is really as much about baseball's labor relations as anything else) and I usually catch the World Series every year. But, more than baseball itself I am into the Braves. I have always rooted for the Braves. Even when they lost over 100 games in 1977 and 1988 the Braves were dear to my heart.

So, I've paid my dues. I didn't mind winning 14 consecutive division titles or the World Series in 1995. I didn't mind that one bit. Because I knew that someday things would change. Every dog has his day.

But, the luster for the Atlanta Braves faded a bit in 1994 with the strike. I recall listening to a sports talk station one evening as the strike approached. The announcer and his guest were taking plenty of calls. But, as I listened I heard the game of baseball being referred to as "entertainment", as a "business", no one was talking about the "sport" of the thing.

I then realized that major league baseball was no longer a sport. It was no different from a movie or a music CD or a three-ring circus. It was just entertainment. I dialed the talk show and waited about 45 minutes before they took my call. All I had to say was that if baseball is no longer a "sport" then there could no longer truly be any "fans". Instead, against my will due to the strike, I was now forced to become a "consumer" and react to the what baseball had become the only way a consumer can...by not buying the product.

I haven't been to a half dozen Atlanta Braves games since. Though I do still enjoy the game by supporting the Rome Braves, Atlanta's Class A affiliate.

Then, of course, came the steroid controversy. Nothing pained me more than to watch Barry Bonds (whose feet grew 2 and a half sizes after the age of 35) overtake Hank Aaron's home run record. One of the great things about baseball used to be that you could make comparisons through the eras. But, now in addition to becoming just another form of "entertainment" the game became (and probably will remain so with more sophisticated, difficult to detect steroids) a freak show for asterisk kings.

So, goodbye Smoltzy from a former major league baseball consumer. I would shed a tear for the way you were treated but, hey, it's just business right? And what is all the whining about from the delusional "fans" who think in sentimental terms more appropriate to the idea of a glorious game before artificial turf and the designated hitter, when the postseason was played in the light of day and did not feature the shadows of "juiced" players in prime time feeding the self-serving media machine?

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