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Chipper, Braves rekindle dreams of childhood

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

"Chipper, Braves rekindle dreams of childhood One night and one more time, thanks for the memories."

— Fall Out Boy

Every sports fan has something of a love-hate relationship with his favorite team.

A successful stretch ... a long winning streak, victory over a hated rival, a push toward playoff or bowl contention ... is cause for celebration. A particularly hard-to-take loss can throw fans into a funk that lasts for weeks — or until the next big game — and a season that yields no glory opens players, coaches and organizations to venomous discourse that knows no limit.

I love the Atlanta Braves. I grew up listening to them into the night on a transister radio in the tiny bedroom I shared with my brother during those long-ago days in Irwin County when the Braves made their move to Atlanta from Milwaukee.

To a wide-eyed kid whose love for the game transcended the limitations of small-town rural Georgia, Fulton County Stadium was a magical place, a land of heroes and giants whose exploits filled my imagination with wonder. Most of my boyhood days were filled with dreams of belonging in that magical place.

Alas, my only visits to Fulton County Stadium and to its successor, Turner Field, were as a paying customer. Still, each and every visit brought back flashes of the dreams that carried me through my youth and reminded me that even as the world exceded the boundaries it regularly set for itself, baseball endured.

So it was this year as I, still stinging from a Braves collapse of epic proportions the year before, warily prepared to follow my chosen team through its 162-game season. I swore to myself that I would not be sucked back in, would not rebuild hopes and dreams of playoff glory around a team that so monumentally failed the year before.

But, as Pacino doing Michael Corleone in “Godfather III” put it, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” By the third series of the season, my caution had dissolved and I was back dangling from the hook like a 6-inch-long perch.

I grew cocky enough to talk about playoff possibilities along the way, then gave up completely as a seven-game losing streak painfully unfolded. I watched the amazing emergence of Kris Medlin, of Andrelton Simmons, of Freddie Freeman; and I suffered through the steady declines of Dan Uggla’s and Brian McCann’s and Michael Bourn’s batting averages.

I cursed as Jonny Venters’ splendid slider slid into oblivion, cheered as Martin Prado bounced back with a stellar season and wondered for about the 154th time if Tommy Hanson would ever reach a level of consistency that would allow me to count on him in any big game.

Through it all, though, there was a constant, a reason to stick with the Braves even when their fortunes wavered up and down like some kind of cruel yoyo.

There was always Chipper.

Larry Wayne Jones Jr., the golden boy who’d started his career as a Brave 19 years ago, would, it turned out, finish it up with one final victory lap. Who knew it would turn out to be such a glorious lap?

There were walk-off homers, clutch hits against some of the game’s best pitchers, a splendid play in the field that reminded long-time Braves fans just how gifted a player Chipper had been in his prime. It was painful sometimes to watch him push his beaten-up body, but he’d take a day or two off and come back the next day with a renewed vigor, inching ever closer to retirement and assured enshrinement in Cooperstown.

I’ve heard a number of people who call themselves Braves fans belittle Chipper’s accomplishments during what has turned into quite an amazing farewell tour. Like many who begrudge anyone his or her success, they somehow feel better about their own inadequacies when they point out the flaws — real and imagined — of those whose accomplishments overwhelm their own.

But No. 10 deserves better of those who profess to love baseball. He endured a rocky beginning to his career, led an unprecedented Atlanta resurgence as his skills were honed to superstar level, and fought through only he knows how much pain for one last shot at glory in an Atlanta uniform.

The Braves may not make it past what will most likely be an opening-round one-game Wild Card play-in game to get to the second round of the playoffs. Or they may just pull a St. Louis and win it all this year.

I’m hoping for the latter. But even if that doesn’t happen, I’ll always hail this 2012 Atlanta team. They gave us a memorable thrill ride, and their best player showed us that, yes, there is still room for magic on a baseball diamond.

Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcher@albanyherald.com.