By all rights, the best year ever for an Atlanta Braves fan should be 1995. The Braves -- the Atlanta Braves, fer chrissakes -- won the World Series. And back then, no other team, not even the hated New York Yankees, intimidated opposing teams more than the Braves. That was the year of Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz; of the Crime Dog, Javy and Chipper; of Wohlers and Lemke and Justice. It was a team that carried itself with the confident strut of a winner.
The team swept through the NLCS, then had a long wait to find out who it would play in the World Series. Back then I was following the team for a story, and was at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium when Bobby Cox decided the hitters needed to face some live pitching to shake off the rust.
That afternoon, I positioned myself at the batting cage. I couldn't help but get as close to this as I possibly could; when would there ever be another such moment? Standing directly behind catcher Charlie O'Brien, I was finally able to appreciate the movement on Greg Maddux's pitches. I watched Chipper Jones and Fred McGriff flail at Tom Glavine's tailing fastball. And most of all, I remember big Mark Wohlers and how the ball sizzled through the air every time he threw it.
If only someone had told me as a kid that someday I'd be watching this. The thing is, I wouldn't have believed them.
It was a long way from the team I had lived and mostly died with since the Braves had arrived in Atlanta in 1966. I saw my first game at Atlanta Stadium that inaugural year, and fell in love with baseball. To see Hank Aaron belt a home run, Phil Niekro flutter up a knuckleball or Pat Jarvis tumble off the mound from the exertion of throwing a fastball, it was the stuff of a kid's dreams. I was a Braves fan through and through.
Except ... that kid back then never knew what it was to cheer a winning, championship baseball team. For most of those years, the Braves were an afterthought to Atlanta. There was even talk from time to time of the team moving to another city due to lack of local interest. One game I attended, the announced attendance was less than a thousand other people.
Only those of us who had followed the mostly miserable Braves for every one of the preceding 25 years could fully appreciate how otherworldly it was to see this kind of headline in 1995: "Braves win World Series."
But despite that, the best will always be the summer of 1991.
I didn't have a press pass in '91; I wasn't even living in Atlanta at the time. But – praise the Lord for satellite technology – I followed every pitch on TBS with Skip and Pete. I was in love, and we shared the Braves, and it was the happiest time of my life. It was the moment all long-suffering Braves fans had longed for. The young pitching that Bobby Cox had stockpiled in the minor leagues finally matured into "the Young Guns": Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Steve Avery. Smoltz was 2-11 at the All-Star break and there were the howls to remove him from the starting rotation. Smoltz turned it around and went 12-2 the second half of the season. His personal transformation also marked the team's coming of age. All of a sudden, the entire city caught something seldom seen in these parts: Pennant Fever. The stands were filled, the Tomahawk Chop was years away from becoming a cliché and – thanks to the national reach of the SuperStation – Braves caps literally sold out across the country.
It's a good thing Cox stuck with Smoltz that year; otherwise, we would have never seen that epic and exhausting World Series Game 7 battle waged between Smoltz and Minnesota's Jack Morris. Both pitchers – one a seasoned and cagey veteran, the other a peach-fuzzed rookie – took shutouts into extra innings. The Braves lost 1-0 in the 10th inning but, in the end, it really didn't matter.
Just seeing the Braves reach the World Series that year was victory enough, being able to cheer a team that was my team and not temporarily adopted from some other city. Winning the World Series in '95 is forever special, definitely. But just getting there in '91 was pure magic.