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MCCULLOUGH: Remembering the '91 Braves

The Braves' collapse at the end of the regular season was one for the history books, and missing out on the playoffs was a disappointment. The team's near-annual run at the postseason has become ho-hum to a lot of people who got spoiled by years of division and league titles and World Series appearances. But even being able to contend beats the way it used to be in the '70s and '80s. Still, it made me long for 1991.

It's hard to believe it's been 20 years since the beginning of the Braves' magical stretch of post-season appearances. And 21 since that dismal "worst" season that preceded the "first."

In 1990 I was a freshman at the University of Georgia. Back in those days we didn't have cellphones, Internet (or computers for that matter) or cable in our dorm rooms. We had a community television in the lounge, and we spent many an afternoon or evening in there watching the Braves lose and lose and lose some more. Ninety-seven losses in total. Dead last in the division. And the league.

The following spring when the season began, a couple of my buddies made a ridiculous prediction: the Braves would go to the World Series that year. After I got through laughing I promised them that if that happened I would streak through the apartment complex where one of them lived.

About six months later, the Braves won the division. Seven nail-biting games against the Pittsburgh Pirates later and my buddies' prediction came true.

Don't worry, mama. I reneged on the streaking, much to the relief of sighted people everywhere.

But the Braves were in the World Series! I walked around in a daze for about a week, just saying those words over and over. Aliens landing in Sanford Stadium could not have shocked me more. The Braves. The lousy, last-place, perennial cellar-dwelling Braves were going to the World Series. It just couldn't be possible.

But it was. And what a wonderful time. Atlanta -- Loserville -- and the rest of the state was on fire for the Braves. School didn't matter, work didn't matter, politics didn't matter, and I'd like to see what the rate of serious crimes was for that October in 1991. It had to go down.

Every night during the series we listened to the games on the radio at the dining hall where I worked. At tense times, you could hear the guys in the dish room chanting the war chant and doing the tomahawk chop. Somehow the Braves won three games and actually led the series 3-2 until Kirby Puckett hit that Saturday night home run off Charlie Liebrandt and made it even-steven going into Sunday.

There are things that get fuzzy over the years and things you remember in stark detail. That Sunday night will always stand out.

Nine-and-a-half innings of shutout ball by both teams. And then Smith and Knoblauch and Morris, and well, you know how it ended.

When the Twins scored that run, one of my buddies, Brad Wolfe, threw something across the room and then proclaimed, "We have to go to the airport."

That, I can tell you, did not register. It was after midnight. We all had to work the breakfast shift the next day. We had classes.

"They're going to need us," he said. The rest of us in the room were fans of the team. To him, the Braves were like family, and they were at their lowest moment.

So Brad, my friend Chuck Mattson and I got in Brad's Jeep and left Athens for the Atlanta airport. We got there about 3 a.m. It was in the days before al-Qaida, so we parked and walked through the airport. Pretty soon we heard tom-toms and the war chant. We followed the noise to a gate.

A few hundred folks were there, some in head dresses, some with tomahawks, some with their faces painted, all in Braves gear. The party atmosphere made me think for a minute that maybe we saw it wrong. Maybe the Braves won.

Sometime around 3:30 in the morning, the team plane landed. Ron Gant, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, Bobby Cox and the rest got off to thundering applause fit for nothing less than winners. Some of the players seemed genuinely shocked to see such a turnout for a team that came up one short.

Cox made an impromptu speech and thanked everyone for showing up. After that the players left and everyone went home. By the time we got back to Athens the sun was coming up. I changed clothes and went to work. I still remember how tired I was that day.

But I'll never forget that morning in the airport either, and I'm so glad I let Brad talk me into going. Hundreds of thousands of folks have seen the Braves play in the postseason over the past two decades, been to the victory parades and all the rest. But only a few hundred of us can say we offered up our shoulders for the Braves to lean on that early Monday morning after they came so close to winning it all that first time.

I doubt this instant-information, instant-gratification, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately generation will ever get to experience the fever and the love we had for that 1991 team and what it did for our state.

And that makes me miss it even more.

Email Nate McCullough at nate.mccullough@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Fridays. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/natemccullough.