Atlanta overcomes decades of frustration to win World Series
By David Waldstein
So, this is the Braves team that found a way to match the great Atlanta teams of the 1990s. This team, with no trio of Hall of Fame aces, no legendary manager and no backlog of World Series experience to build on, somehow found a way.
The current edition of Atlanta’s storied ballclub could never equal the star power of its forebears, but it has already drawn even with them in championship trophies, achieving in one trip to baseball’s mountaintop what its predecessors could do only once in five tries.
On a cool Tuesday night with the roof open at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Atlanta beat the Houston Astros, 7-0, in Game 6 to win the World Series in its first appearance in the Fall Classic since 1999 and capture Atlanta’s first title in 26 years.
“This city has been hungry for a championship for so long,” said Freddie Freeman, the longest-serving member of the team, who homered and caught the final out. “I cannot wait to see the crowds in the next couple days when we get back home. I’m just so thankful that we were able to bring them home a championship.”
It was the first title for the club since 1995, back when an extraordinary collection of superstar pitchers and multitalented position players like Chipper Jones and Fred McGriff, backed by Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox, won the first major championship for the city of Atlanta.
Those great teams were expected to win multiple rings. But they did not win a championship until their third appearance in the World Series, played in five overall and, despite a wealth of talent, never won another.
The 2021 team, under manager Brian Snitker, features lesser-known players like Jorge Soler and Dansby Swanson, both of whom hit thunderous home runs to propel Atlanta on Tuesday. Soler blasted a three-run shot in the third inning, and Swanson crushed a two-run homer in the fifth.
Many teams, like the Seattle Mariners, Colorado Rockies, Texas Rangers, San Diego Padres and Milwaukee Brewers, would happily accept a solitary championship. But the old Atlanta teams, which won more than 100 games six times, bore the heavy tag of underachievers, especially with a pitching staff anchored by Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, and the franchise won 14 consecutive divisional crowns (there was no division title in the strike-shortened 1994 season).
The current squad bears scant resemblance to those teams, for it was not expected to make the World Series this year, much less win it.
“It’s way different,” said Eddie Pérez, a coach on the current team, who made his debut as a player in 1995. “You know why? Because we had to fight here. Back then, we knew we had a good team and that it was only a matter of time before we would win. Here, this year, we went through so much and look where we are now. I never thought we were going to be here.”
It is a plucky assemblage of overachievers that could barely cobble together a full starting pitching staff, let alone one of the greatest ever assembled.
But Max Fried was a worthy descendant of that lineage, pitching six shutout innings for the win, and helping to restore the image of the starting pitcher in a postseason dominated by relievers.
The team had a year marked by injuries, and the controversy surrounding Major League Baseball’s decision to move the All-Star Game out of Atlanta, but the Braves somehow bent the rest of baseball to its will, forcing Rob Manfred, the MLB commissioner, to hand over the coveted trophy. When he did, several thousand fans standing behind the visitors dugout booed loudly.
It all seemed so improbable back in July when Atlanta lost its best player, outfielder Ronald Acuña, Jr., to a torn knee ligament. In early August, the team was a game under .500 and in third place in the National League East. But general manager Alex Anthopoulos made a string of moves at the trade deadline to bolster the lineup, adding Soler, Eddie Rosario and Adam Duvall, among others.
Soler was named the most valuable player of the World Series, and Rosario was the MVP of the National League Championship Series, making Atlanta the first team to have acquired both of those award winners via trades in the same year.
But in the regular season the Braves won only 88 games, the fewest of the 10 playoff teams. In their division series Soler tested positive for the coronavirus and missed several games. The team’s most dependable veteran starter, Charlie Morton, suffered a broken leg in Game 1 of the World Series.
“We hit every pothole, every bump you could possibly hit this year,” Freeman said, “and somehow the car still made it onto the other side. It’s just an incredible group.”
Game 6 began amid a noisy throng of orange-clad Houston fans hoping to see their team finish a comeback from a three-games-to-one deficit. But when Soler hit his atmospheric blast an estimated 446 feet, clear over the train tracks above the left field stands, thousands of Atlanta fans revealed themselves amid the suddenly quiet crowd in Houston.
Luis García, Houston’s starting pitcher, was one strike away from escaping the inning, but he hung a slider to Soler, who smashed it onto the street outside the stadium. Soler dropped his bat, turned to his dugout, tapped his chest twice and before running the bases, yelled something toward his teammates.
“I just said, ‘I’m here,’” he explained through an interpreter, and he was not exaggerating.
It was Soler’s third home run of the series, and he joined Hank Aaron, who did the same in 1957 for the Milwaukee Braves, Lonnie Smith (1991) and Ryan Klesko (1995) as the franchise’s only players to hit three home runs in a World Series.
In the fifth inning, Swanson, the No. 9 hitter, blasted a two-run home run off Cristian Javier.
Freeman’s home run in the seventh — along with his RBI double in the fifth — accounted for the final two Atlanta runs and provided the perfect exclamation point for a World Series that will not be remembered long outside of Atlanta.
Only two of the games featured lead changes and four of the six games were decided by at least four runs.
But it was a thing of beauty for Atlantans, who have yearned for another champion for most of the past 26 years, but often found sporting heartbreak instead.