I always seem to land in Atlanta Braves country.
I lived in Bainbridge, Ga., in the mid-’90s at the height of the franchise’s success. No surprise it was Braves territory. But several places I’ve lived in Florida that should have belonged to the Rays or Marlins were nevertheless Braves bastions.
I’ve lived and worked all over North Carolina — Lee, Edgecombe, Cabarrus, Mecklenburg, Lincoln, Catawba, Cumberland and Robeson counties — and every one of these places is a hotbed of Braves fans. Oh, you’ll find fans of other teams. The Baltimore Orioles have many pockets of supporters, as do the New York Yankees. But the Braves seem to dominate statewide.
Not that I’m complaining. Even though I’m personally a Chicago Cubs fan, I have nothing against the Braves or their fans.
Everywhere you go in the United States, one team or another claims the lion’s share of local baseball fans. And in much of the Southeast that team has been the Atlanta Braves. At least within my lifetime.
Those who’ve been around longer or are students of baseball history know that it wasn’t always so.
Until 1962, no major league team had ever been based in a former Confederate state. That year the Colt .45s of Houston were formed — they became the Astros a few years later. Then, in 1966, the Milwaukee Braves moved to Atlanta, creating the Braves franchise we know today.
I worked several years ago for a boss who was a Milwaukee native and grew up going to games to watch Hank Aaron swing the bat. This supervisor always recalled the Braves’ relocation to the South as a loss of part of his childhood.
In actuality, though, the Braves had only arrived in Milwaukee in 1953 from Boston, where they formed in the 1870s. They operated under various names, including Beaneaters, Rustlers, Bees and Red Caps in those early years. But “Braves” ultimately stuck, despite the team itself jumping towns twice.
Except for the heroics of Aaron and few other heavy-hitters, the newly minted Atlanta Braves weren’t very good in their early years. But they began getting national exposure after being purchased in 1976 by cable TV mogul Ted Turner, who aired their games nationally on his “superstation,” WTBS.
This is the Braves team I grew up with. Since they mostly lost, Turner’s “America’s Team” label didn’t say much about America. They did have one really good season, 1982, when they won the old NL West, but they were disappointing most of the time.
Still, you could watch them from just about anywhere. Other teams, including the Cubs on WGN and New York Mets on WOR could be seen on cable in many places, but the Braves were first and most widely viewed.
People living far from Atlanta felt they had a connection with the Braves, despite unhappiness with the team’s performance.
I watched a mid-’80s game at my uncle’s house in Coal City, West Virginia, and heard him complain about Dale Murphy’s home-run hitting prowess only showing up in games that were already decided. That might not have been fair to Murphy, but fans were frustated and thought “America’s team” ought to be winners.
Of course, Atlanta got better. Much better.
The Braves pitching squad may have been the best in baseball throughout the ’90s and early 2000s. The Braves ended a long championship drought with a 1995 World Series victory over the Cleveland Indians, becoming the first Major League club to win in three cities. Although that was and still remains their only title in Atlanta, they dominated the National League for the better part of a decade.
Readers may have noticed that most days we try to include Braves coverage in the Robesonian, as long as space and late games aren’t prohibitive. That’s not because of any personal bias. I’m not a Braves fan and my colleague Rodd Baxley is a San Francisco Giants fan. But we know which team most readers follow.
I have wondered whether regional loyalty to the Braves will ever erode. Today’s cable and satellite networks offer fans more choices. Atlanta is hardly the team it was a few years ago, though the Braves could still make a run in the relatively weak NL East this season.
You also may think Atlanta is the closest team to Robeson County, but that depends on your exact location.
If you drive from The Robesonian’s office in Lumberton to Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, you will travel 345 miles, taking you roughly five hours. The drive to Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., would be a few minutes longer and 349 miles. But from other locations, Parkton or St. Pauls for instance, the Nationals would be the closer club.
I think it’s possible that we’ll see a shift in the fan base toward Washington or Baltimore. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
Real Braves fans love their team through the good years and the bad.
Good for them.