Column: Goat Ropings and Rodeos

On May 20, 2010, the Atlanta Braves overcame a 9-3 deficit in the ninth inning to beat the Cincinnati Reds 10-9, an incredible comeback capped by a pinch-hit, walk-off grand slam by journeyman backup infielder Brooks Conrad.

Longtime Braves broadcaster Joe Simpson said of the comeback “I’ve been to two goat ropings and three rodeos, but I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Sunday, eight years to the day after Conrad’s memorable hit, the 2018 edition of the Braves came back in similar fashion, using a six-run ninth inning to beat the Miami Marlins, by an identical score of 10-9.

This comeback was just as amazing as the one eight years earlier, if not more so; this one came without the benefit of a single extra-base hit, as the Braves methodically chopped away at the Marlins lead — down to their last strike 10 times — before finally winning on a bullet down the left-field line by Dansby Swanson.

Swanson’s turn as the hero was nearly as unlikely as Conrad’s — it was Swanson’s first hit since missing 15 games with a wrist injury.

After watching the Braves finish off the improbable victory on Sunday, I said to myself: “I’ve been to two goat ropings and three rodeos, but I’ve never seen anything like that.”

(Ok, I’ve been to one rodeo, and haven’t been to a goat roping. But you get the point.)

But while the comeback was incredible, some of the comments made by the team afterward were perhaps even more telling about the makeup of this Braves team.

“I almost expect them to do it,” said manager Brian Snitker. “Down six in the bottom of the fifth, I felt good. I really did. I thought, ‘these guys have a lot of time to go to work here.’”

“It just shows the belief and pedigree in this team that we have this much belief in each other,” said Freddie Freeman. “It’s fun to be a part of. When you have everybody bought in to play like that, it’s truly amazing what can happen.”

After rebuilding seasons of 95, 93 and 90 losses the last three years, the Braves are back — they sit at 29-18, holding the best record in the National League and a 1 1/2 game lead in the NL East. Atlanta, the state of Georgia and the whole southeast (“Braves Country”) has a team to be excited about again.

I wasn’t around for the “worst-to-first” season of 1991, in which the Braves reached the World Series — their first since moving to Atlanta — after three straight last-place finishes in their division. I’ve always wondered how thrilling that experience must have been like for the Braves and their fans.

Perhaps this season is providing a taste of that — and hopefully, like 1991, the thrills will continue all the way into October.

Going back to those rodeos, the Braves are sitting on a bull named “First Place,” something very few expected when the season began eight weeks ago.

It’s still early — if the 162-game schedule is the fabled “eight-second ride,” we’re a little over two seconds in. Some say the Braves, as young as they are, are sure to fall off the bull before the eight seconds is up.

But given their knack for comebacks, their will and determination, and what appears from a distance to be a great team chemistry, I like their chances.

That bull is sure to try and throw the Braves off — every team goes through plenty of adversity over the course of 162 games that, if they’re not ready for it, can throw them — but I have a feeling that when the eight seconds is up, the Braves could very well be the last ones standing and advance into the goat roping known as the postseason.

And if it happens, I’ll be the first to say: “I’ve been to two goat ropings and three rodeos, but I’ve never seen anything like that.”

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Column: Waiting on Acuña The Right Move for Braves

Ronald Acuña, the Atlanta Braves outfield prospect who is the top-ranked prospect in all of baseball according to Baseball America, has been the talk of Braves spring training since the beginning of camp, tearing up the Grapefruit League and showing why there’s so much hype around him.

But on Monday, new Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos reassigned Acuña to minor-league camp, meaning he will start the season in the minors at AAA Gwinnett — and it’s a good decision by the Braves front office.

Why is it the right move for the Braves to send to the minors a player who is playing as well as anyone this spring and has proven he is ready for the major leagues? Because given the current MLB rules regarding service time and arbitration, this will actually benefit the team long-term.

In the current collective bargaining rules between the MLB and the MLB Players Association, a full season of service time is 172 days, even though the MLB’s regular season is 186 days long. As a result, even if Acuña (or anyone else) plays in the majors for 171 days in 2018, it does not count as a full year of service time and the Braves will have an extra year of contractual control in his arbitration years.

If Acuña is not called up to the major leagues before April 13, he will be a free agent after the 2024 season; were he on the Opening Day roster, he would be a free agent after 2023.

Given the opportunity to keep a player of Acuña’s talent an additional year in the prime of his career, at only the expense of two weeks out of his rookie season, why wouldn’t the Braves keep him at Gwinnett for those two weeks? Put another way, 162 games of Acuña at age 26 is worth losing 12 games of his age-20 season.

This is especially true for a club in the Braves position. The Braves’ rebuild, which began after the 2014 season and has been rooted in building a stellar farm system, has them positioned for sustained success in the coming years, but they are still likely a year away from legitimately contending, barring a surprise 2018.

A .500 season is a fair goal this year; therefore, even if they lose a game in the first two weeks that they might have won with Acuña on the roster (which, by the way, there’s no way to definitively measure), that game will likely not cost them a division title or a spot in the postseason.

This concept is not new in MLB — the Cubs did this in 2015 with Kris Bryant, who was called up on April 17 and proceeded to win Rookie of the Year in 2015 and MVP in 2016.

Like Bryant three years ago, Acuña has had a terrific spring, hitting .432 with a .519 on-base percentage and a .727 slugging percentage, with four homers and 11 RBIs.

The strong spring is an extension of his strong 2017 season across three levels of the minors, where he actually improved statistically at each level, totaling a .325 average with a .896 OPS. Acuña was also the MVP of the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League.

Among those who have seen him play, there is little doubt Acuña is a legitimate five-tool talent with the ability to become a major league star. And while it would be nice for Braves fans, and for the game in general, if he were on the Braves’ Opening Day roster, to me his special talent level and potential further solidify that this is the right move.

A small faction of Braves fans are frustrated at the team’s decision to keep their Acuña in the minors to start the season.

But if this works out like most think it will — if he is, in fact, able to live up to the hype — those same fans will be thanking management when Acuña is still in left field at SunTrust Park on Opening Day 2024 for the World Series favorite Atlanta Braves.

Column: In Agreeing to Phillips Trade, Braves and Reds Going in Different Directions

Three-time All-Star second baseman Brandon Phillips has reportedly been traded from the Cincinnati Reds to the Atlanta Braves, in exchange for two minor leaguers, LHP Andrew McKirahan and RHP Carlos Portuondo.

Phillips, who has played for the Reds since 2006, waived his no-trade clause, a clause he has used to nix multiple trades previously, to return to his home state of Georgia.  The Stone Mountain native has over 12 years of MLB experience, and will turn 36 in June.

The Reds agreed to pay $13 million of Phillips’ $14 million salary for 2017, the final season of a 10-year deal he signed before the 2008 season.

The Braves and Reds both won an identical 68 games in the 2016 season (Braves 68-93, Reds 68-94), but now after agreeing to this deal, two of the game’s oldest franchises have shown how much they are going in opposite directions entering the 2017 season and beyond.

The Braves are on the back end of a rebuilding project, and enter 2017 in a position to be much more competitive than they have been the last two seasons (67-95 in 2015, 68-93 in 2016).

After the firing of GM Frank Wren in 2014, the front office agreed rebuilding the Braves’ minor-league system was the best solution for long-term success, and the club went all in on a massive rebuild.  As a result, every ranking of farm systems has the Braves at or near the top, and most pundits project the major league club to be more competitive in 2017 and contenders for several years after.

The Braves reportedly first attempted to trade for Phillips early in the offseason, before the free-agent signing of Sean Rodriguez.  But Saturday, after the announcement that Rodriguez would be out three to five months with a shoulder injury suffered in a car accident, the team stared at a possible weak spot at second base, and trade talks with the Reds resumed, and then commenced, quickly.

Phillips, who hit .291 with 11 HR, 64 RBI and 34 doubles in 2016, is no longer at his peak performance–he is a three-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner, both most recently in 2013–but is still a solid addition for the Braves, adding more offensive depth and another veteran to lead a clubhouse that blends lots of youth and experience.

Adding a local player, from Redan High School in the eastern Atlanta suburbs, won’t hurt the Braves at the box office either, as they move into a new home at SunTrust Park for the 2017 season.

The addition of Phillips fits the Braves’ pattern from this offseason.  With a bevy of prospects in the minor leagues who could be big-league ready in a year or two, the Braves don’t want long-term deals with players who may block said prospects’ path at their given position.

As a result, the team signed veteran free agent pitchers Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey (both former Cy Young winners), traded for Jaime Garcia, and has now traded for Phillips.  All except Dickey (club option for 2018) will be free agents after 2017.

With these additions, the young talent like Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran, Dansby Swanson and others already at the major league level, and the highly-touted prospects the team has waiting in the wings in the minor leagues, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for the Braves, and it’s not just a candle, but a flood light.

The turnaround of the club’s outlook in just a two-year span since starting their overhaul is impressive, especially considering how many other teams in baseball have been somewhat non-committal as they entered a rebuilding phase, and now appear to face a lengthy period of mediocrity as a result.

The Reds appear to potentially be one of these teams.  After three playoff appearances in four seasons between 2010-13, the Reds dropped to 76-86 in 2014 and 64-98 in 2015.  The core of those playoff teams–players including Phillips, Johnny Cueto, Jay Bruce, Mat Latos, Edinson Volquez and Aroldis Chapman–is gone, with the exception of Joey Votto (signed through 2023).

While some of those players left in trades (others were free agents) and allowed the team to get prospects, the Reds’ farm system is considered by most analysts to be mid-pack.  The team does own the ninth-ranked prospect in the just-released Baseball America Top 100 (3B Nick Senzel), he is the only Reds player in the top 68, and they only have three of the top 100 (the Braves, by comparison, have eight, including two of the top 11).

Most metrics have the Reds winning less than 70 games in 2017, and those projections likely came when Phillips was still with the team.

According to reports since the trade, the Reds may have viewed Phillips as a problem, with his presence potentially blocking younger players–potential parts of the Reds future–from playing time, namely infielders Jose Peraza (ironically a former Braves farmhand), and Dilson Herrera.

This is further evident when considering the return for Phillips.  McKirahan is a former Rule 5 Draft pick, who missed half the 2015 season with a PED suspension, then all of 2016 with Tommy John Surgery.  The 27-year old was not expected to contend for the Opening Day Roster in Braves spring training, although with the Reds’ lack of bullpen depth, with a good spring he could potentially threaten to make the Cincinnati club.

Portuondo is a 29-year old Cuban defector, viewed more as “organizational depth” than a prospect after eight mediocre seasons in the Cuban league, and a 3.63 ERA across two minor-league levels in 2016, his first season in American pro baseball.

The fact the Reds are willing to pay $13 million of Phillips’ $14 million while he takes at-bats for another team in exchange for two players who may never make it to Cincinnati says a lot about the state of the franchise entering the 2017 season.

While the Reds continue their dive into the beginning phases of a potentially lengthy rebuilding process, further cementing their path with the trade of Phillips, the Braves are coming out of their own, and the acquisition of Phillips further equips them in their role as a sleeper team for the 2017 season.

 

*One interesting note for the Braves:  RHP Bartolo Colon and Brandon Phillips were once traded for each other in 2002, in a deal between the Montreal Expos and Cleveland Indians; the pair will now, nearing the ends of their careers, play together for the first time.

Column: The Atlanta Sports Curse Remains Alive and Well

Throughout the first three-plus quarters of Super Bowl LI, it appeared the Atlanta Falcons would practically erase the collective stain of Atlanta sports heartbreak with a victory over the mighty New England Patriots to claim the biggest moment in the city’s sporting history short of hosting the Centennial Olympics in 1996.

But after the Falcons fourth-quarter collapse and overtime loss, the curse on Atlanta sports may be stronger than ever.

Cleveland has been the city whose sports were a collective analogy for heartbreak, but now claims the defending NBA champion Cavaliers.  Meanwhile, after an Atlanta team lost a Super Bowl, especially in the way they did, the Big Peach is now the biggest portrayal of the agony of defeat once again–call it Atlanta anguish.

No team has ever led a Super Bowl by 11 or more points and lost.  The Falcons led by 25 before the Patriots’ first touchdown with 2:06 left in the third quarter, and still lost.  The offense was clicking on all cylinders, scoring 28 points on the league’s top-ranked defense in the game’s first 36:29, then failed to scored again.

According to the modern stat of win probability, the Falcons had a 99.6 percent chance to win as late as the 9:00 mark in the fourth, and was still at 85.1 percent at the two-minute warning, before falling to 0.0 moments later once the loss had concluded.

Some will say they did it to themselves, with poor offensive playcalling in the fourth, a key turnover with 8:25 left at their own 25-yard line, and their sudden fourth-quarter inability to stop the Patriots offense.

Others will point to Brady and Patriots, and rightfully so.  They’re the ones who scored two touchdowns and two conversions in the final 5:56, and another touchdown in overtime after winning the coin toss and scoring in just 3:58, giving the Falcons no chance to possess the ball.

But whatever the reason (and it’s really a little of both), the bottomline is that the most heartbreaking loss in Super Bowl history now belongs to Atlanta.  And while none match the magnitude of this super sorrow, the city is no stranger to crushing losses for its teams.

The Braves are 65-75 in the MLB playoffs since moving to Atlanta in 1966, including 11-18 in the World Series, winning only one of their five World Series appearances.  They have won just 12 of their 30 playoff series–and just 9 of 27 when you take out the lone championship run–and are 10-23 in a stretch of eight straight series losses dating back to the 2001 NLCS.

A team that has essentially been a perennial playoff team (the last couple years notwithstanding) hasn’t advanced past the NLDS in 16 years.  The losses have come in unique fashion:  utility infielder Chris Burke’s walkoff in 2005, the “Infield Fly Game” in 2012, Juan Uribe’s go-ahead homer after he couldn’t bunt in 2013.

In the 1990’s run of five National League pennants in nine years, the World Series moments are just as crushing, if not more so:  extra inning losses in Games 6-7 in 1991, including Game 7’s famous scoreless tie through nine innings; an extra-inning loss in the 1992 clincher; Jim Leyritz’s unlikely homer in Game 4 in 1996, a game the Braves had led 6-0 in a series they led 2-0 before losing 4-2.

The Hawks are 94-145 in the NBA playoffs since moving to Atlanta in 1968, winning just 16 of their 48 playoff series.  The team has never reached the NBA Finals, going 1-12 in Eastern Conference Finals games (the one win was in their first season in Atlanta).

The Hawks best chances at championships have come when they’ve run into some all-time players and teams in the playoffs.  For instance, they have been swept the last two seasons (and 2009) by a LeBron James-led Cavaliers team, including the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals as the top seed.

Even when the Hawks had the great Dominique Wilkins, they met Larry Bird’s Celtics (1983, 1986, 1988), Isiah Thomas’s Pistons (1986-87, 1991), and Michael Jordan’s Bulls (1993, and 1997 after Wilkins left), losing each of those series with the exception of a 1986 first-round win over the Pistons.

Similarly, the Falcons are 9-13 in the NFL playoffs after last night’s loss, although their history differs from the Braves and Hawks.  While the postseason losses for the Braves and Hawks have been fairly frequent after solid runs of regular season success (including a 14-year division title streak for the Braves), the Falcons are 341-437-6 all-time (.439), with long periods of futility broken by the occasional playoff berth.  Before a three-year playoff streak from 2010-12, the Falcons had never reached the playoffs in consecutive seasons.

They did reach the Super Bowl in the 1998 season, losing Super Bowl XXXIII to John Elway’s Broncos, but within two years had the worst record in the league.  Top draft pick Michael Vick electrified the franchise, but Vick failed to reach the Super Bowl, coming closest in a 2004 NFC Championship loss, before being released after his dogfighting conviction.

This year Matt Ryan, who was drafted third overall to replace Vick, and the rest of the Falcons realized their full potential.  It looked like the year the Falcons would bring a championship to Atlanta–and then Tom Brady had other ideas.

Ryan was named NFL MVP on Saturday, and I was surprised to read that he was the first non-baseball MVP in the sports history of this city of Wilkins, Vick, and so many others (the Braves have had four MVPs).  24 hours later, Ryan became the eighth straight MVP to lose the Super Bowl.

Many brush off any talk of about any pro sports curse, saying Atlanta is a college sports town.  While college sports are more predominant in Atlanta than maybe any other major American city, the athletic teams at Georgia (located in Athens with a large fanbase in Atlanta) and Georgia Tech (located downtown) have joined in the curse, as they also had a knack for not performing well in big games.

Atlanta does have one pro sports championship, and it was in my lifetime–I was eight months old when the Braves won the 1995 World Series.  And yet, in the shadow of Sunday’s Falcons collapse, that title doesn’t seem to completely eradicate the Atlanta curse.

For one thing, the one championship doesn’t balance out the losses when the losses are so numerous.  And for another, the 1995 Braves title came against the Cleveland Indians, a team that hasn’t won a World Series since 1948 which resides in a city whose collective drought ran from 1954 until just last year, in a series that someone had to win (if you know me, you know I’m glad who it was).

I know, each game and each season are independent of each other, and each sport is definitely exclusive from the others.

But you can’t help but think about a curse after watching one city with just one title get its hearts broken as another celebrates its 37th pro sports championship.

Fast Five: I Was There

I have been to plenty of sporting events, but some stand out more than others in my memory bank as the best events I’ve ever seen.  Each has their own unique story from my individual perspective.

October 4th marked the release of the new book I Was There, in which 65 of the biggest names in sports media share the five greatest sporting events they have witnessed in person.  The book was compiled by self-described “sports industry lifer” Eric Mirlis.

The criteria for the book is intentionally vague, meaning each contributor to the book can have their own interpretation of what their “greatest events” are.  As a result, in addition to the obvious examples of classic Super Bowls and championship games or series, there are some very outside-the-box events listed by the book’s participants.  Some of the events listed are all-time classics, while others have a deeper personal meaning.

The five events listed by each contributor are listed in chronological order, allowing the writers and broadcasters participating to not have to rank any of their five events over another.

I have seen 14 NASCAR races (10 Cup Series, 3 XFinity Series, 1 Truck Series), 11 MLB games, six ACC men’s basketball games, five PGA Tour events (but nine rounds), 2 FBS college football games, one NBA game, and too many Division II college games, Minor League Baseball games, collegiate summer league baseball games, and high school games to count.

But like anyone else, some of mine stand out, for different reasons.  And while I have not seen a Super Bowl or a World Series game, I have still seen some amazing events.

Here are the five greatest events I have witnessed, plus the five best I have covered:

Five Best Events I’ve Witnessed

Wake Forest at Clemson, Littlejohn Coliseum, Clemson, S.C., January 24, 2015

I attend school at Anderson University, about 30 minutes away from Clemson’s campus, but having grown up in the Triad of North Carolina, I am a Wake Forest fan.  For Christmas a month before, I was given two tickets to Wake Forest’s game at Clemson.  I took my friend Garrett, a Clemson fan, and our seats were in the very last row, near the location of the TV cameras.

Wake Forest was in their first year under coach Danny Manning, after a 2-32 ACC road record under previous coach Jeff Bzdelik, and came in at 9-10 and 1-5 in the ACC, while Clemson entered at 10-8 and 2-4, so this was still a game between two bottom-half teams, but it was still an ACC men’s basketball game.

The Demon Deacons led over 39 minutes of the game, before Clemson took the lead with 0:58 left, and Wake Forest tied the game with a Devin Thomas free throw with 0:35.  Thomas missed the second free throw, but the Deacs got the rebound and looked like they would have the ability to set up the last shot and try to win.  But after Codi Miller-McIntyre turned the ball over with 0:25 left, and after Rod Hall drove inside but missed his shot, little-used reserve Josh Smith, who had just 14 baskets his last 19 games, got an offensive rebound and putback to put Clemson up 59-57 with 0.5 seconds left.  The play was essentially a buzzer-beater, and gave Wake Forest (another) heartbreaking loss on the road in ACC play.

Garrett could not have been more grateful for the free ticket to the game, so when the shot fell in, this was his reaction:  “Yeaaah! Yeaaah! (turns to me) Sorry. (turns back to the court) Yeaaah!”

Wyndham Championship, First Round, Sedgefield Country Club, Greensboro, N.C., August 18, 2015

Growing up in the Piedmont Triad, I attended the Wyndham Championship each year from 2007-09.  I saw the first PGA Tour wins of Brandt Snedeker (2007) and Ryan Moore (2009), as well as hometown favorite Carl Petterson’s lights-out round of 61 on his way to victory (2008).  We moved to South Carolina in late 2009, so I had not been back to Sedgefield since.

The week before the 2015 edition, with the Wyndham marking the last event of the PGA Tour’s “regular season” before the FedEx Cup Playoffs, I wondered if Tiger Woods, who was 187th in points, well below the playoff cutoff, may come to Greensboro for the first time in his career.  It seemed like a long shot, as under similar circumstances in 2011 he did not play in Greensboro and accepted his fate of his season being over.

And yet, the Friday night before the Wyndham, Woods committed to the event.  With one of the greatest athletes of all time coming to the Wyndham, which I still considered my “home event” on the PGA Tour, I bought a ticket for Thursday’s opening round within minutes of the announcement he was coming.  My non-golfing aunt, Terri, also decided to go and take in history–I don’t think she knew who any of the other 155 players in the field were, but she wanted to see Tiger Woods too.

We arrived at Sedgefield early enough to see Tiger warm up, then began following his group when he teed off.  I had seen Tiger at Quail Hollow in Charlotte in 2009, but this day would be much better.  Tiger teed off at 7:50 am, meaning Tiger’s gallery was smaller that day than any other day of the tournament, and seeing him in the Wyndham for the first time was a dream come true.  It became even more amazing when he played very well.

Tiger holed an incredible pitch shot for birdie on the 10th hole (his first hole), then bogeyed 11, leading me to think he had shown a glimmer of his old self before fading back into his struggles.  I was wrong, as he would birdie the 13th, 15th, and 18th holes for a 3-under-par 32 on the back nine, before birdieing the first, fourth, and fifth in a bogey-free front nine to shoot a round of 64.

This was (and still is) Tiger’s lowest round in competition since 2013.  Playing with Tiger were Hideki Matsuyama, who shot 65, and Brooks Koepka (who would eventually be a big part of last week’s U.S. Ryder Cup victory), who shot 67, but this was Tiger’s day.

Tiger, who needed to finish at least second to make the FedEx Cup Playoffs, would shoot a 65 the following day, and entered the weekend tied for the lead, and played well again on Saturday, entering the final round in a tie for second, before a triple-bogey on the 11th on Sunday ended his shot at victory and advancement.

Two weeks later, Tiger announced he had undergone more back surgery, and was out indefinitely.  Throughout 2016 he hinted at a comeback, but the 2015 Wyndham Championship is still his last start on the PGA Tour to date.

*Editor’s note:  to read more on my day following Tiger Woods at the Wyndham Championship, click here.


Bojangles’ Southern 500, Darlington Raceway, Darlington, S.C., September 6, 2015

Early in the 2015 NASCAR season, my friend Kevin told me he would very likely be able to get pit passes to Darlington for Southern 500 weekend.  I made sure he got us a third pit pass so Terri, the reason I am a racing fan to begin with, could come along.  She had never been to Darlington, but now would now, through the pit passes, get the greatest access in all of sports.

Kevin came in on Friday night, and him and I spent Saturday at the track for Cup Series qualifying and the XFinity Series event.  Kevin is friends with Harrison Rhodes, an NC State student by week and racecar driver by weekend, who was driving in the event.  As a result, we sat on his pit box for the entire time that he was in the race (he parked after 80 laps for his team’s financial reasons).  Denny Hamlin, Kevin’s favorite driver, won that Saturday event.

My favorite driver is Jeff Gordon, who was in his last season and was making what was supposed to be his final start at one of his best tracks (he ended up running Darlington again in 2016, filling in for the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr.).  The pit passes allowed me to get his autograph on Sunday, as well as many other drivers.  We watched cars go through technical inspection up close, then made our way to pit road for the race itself.

This was the first year Darlington hosted a “throwback weekend,” so many of the paint schemes were throwbacks to the legends of years past.  The track played 70’s music over the speakers in the hours leading up to the race, and Tanya Tucker sang the national anthem.

Multiple MRN Radio announcers called this the “race of the year,” as there were 24 lead changes among 11 drivers, and 18 caution flags over the 367 laps that make up 500 miles around the venerable egg-shaped oval.  As the race got late, Brad Keselowski appeared to have a strong grip on the race lead, as he led every lap from lap 304 to 356 (except during pit stops) before a late caution bunched up the field.

On the final restart, Carl Edwards took the lead away, and led the remaining laps to win his first Southern 500.  During the “cool-down lap,” as Edwards came back around to the frontstretch, Kevin and I took off running towards the center of pit road to get a view of Edwards’ famous backflip celebration, which was cool to see in person.

One takeaway from this race is how much I found it ironic that with pit passes, the best access a fan can get in any sport, you still ended up essentially watching the race on TV, as we watched the monitors on the back of each team’s pit box.


Racing Electronics 100, Bowman Gray Stadium, Winston-Salem, N.C., August 5, 2016

Bowman Gray Stadium is a bull-ring short track in eastern Winston-Salem, in a stadium that doubles as the home of Winston-Salem State University football.  The track is one of the longest-running short tracks in the country, and is known as “The Madhouse” after many of the wild events which have unfolded on the quarter-mile circuit.

I lived about 20 minutes from Bowman Gray Stadium growing up, but only went to a race there once before we moved to South Carolina.  This summer I lived in the area again, while interning for the Courier-Tribune in Asheboro, so one of the things I wanted to do during the summer was to go to a Bowman Gray race with Terri.  The schedule made it difficult, as the Asheboro Copperheads had a game nearly every Saturday night, but we looked at Bowman Gray’s schedule and saw a Friday night in early August when the Copperheads were away.

We got to the track early enough to see the famous modifieds make their qualifying runs, followed by preliminary races featuring cars called Bandoleros.  These were short races featuring pre-teen up-and-coming drivers in cars that were not very powerful, but could still put on a decent show.

The modifieds then came out for their 100-lapper, and were led to the green by local legend Burt Myers.  Tim Brown, another longtime Bowman Gray driver and multi-time track champion, started at the back after his engine misfired in qualifying.  While I watched the action at the front, I also kept an eye on Brown at the back, and early in the race he struggled to make headway trying to get through the field.

Cautions and restarts helped aide Brown, and eventually on a restart with about 25 to go he was second, on the outside of Myers, who had led from the outset.  On the restart, Brown passed Myers off of turn two on the outside, a hard feat in short-track racing, to take the lead for the first time.

Two laps later, while Myers was trying to chase Brown back down, the skies opened up and a heavy rainstorm hit Bowman Gray.  Brown was awarded the win in the rain-shortened race, a victory that was likely among his finest, considering how hard he had to work to get through the field.

Terri and I got back to my grandparents’ house, where I was spending the summer, in time to watch most of the parade of nations at the Rio Olympics.  I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the last race I attended with Terri before she unexpectedly passed away a month later.

 

Detroit Tigers at Atlanta Braves, Turner Field, Atlanta, Ga., October 2, 2016

Emotions are always higher when you are seeing something happen that will never happen again, and the same is true in sports.  Every MLB game I have ever attended was at Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves, and on this day I was fortunate enough to attend the final game in the venue’s history.  I got upper deck tickets for my dad and I for his birthday, knowing how much of an affection both of us have for the stadium.

Dad left home in Mullins before 5 a.m., and was in Anderson before 9, and we were on our way.  We took the MARTA train and bus to the stadium, and arrived shortly after the gates opened.

The Braves Museum and Hall of Fame was open to the public for free, so we walked through and explored the history of the Braves franchise through its years in Boston, Milwaukee, and Atlanta.  It was the first time since 2005 either of us had seen the museum.

We got to our seat about 45 minutes before the 3:10 p.m. first pitch, and took in the pregame ceremony, in which Braves legends including Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and Javy Lopez all took the field as part of the All-Turner Field Team.  That team also included “The Big Three” of Hall of Fame pitchers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz, who threw out ceremonial first pitches after being delivered baseballs by Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox.

The opponent for the final game was the Detroit Tigers, who were still playing for the possibility of a postseason bid, and needed a win over the Braves and some help to stay alive.  Given those circumstances, the Tigers sent ace Justin Verlander, one of the game’s best pitchers, to the mound, a nice parallel to my first game at Turner Field in 2001 when I saw Maddux pitch.  Julio Teheran, a solid pitcher in his own right, pitched for the Braves.

After Teheran struck out the side in the top of the first, Ender Inciarte and Adonis Garcia led off the bottom half with singles, before Freddie Freeman got his 91st and final RBI of a career year with a sacrifice fly to center, giving the Braves a 1-0 lead.

After the first, it was the pitcher’s duel you would expect from Teheran and Verlander, as the two pitchers put up matching zeros, including many 1-2-3 innings.  Each starter went seven innings, before Jose Ramirez (ATL) and Bruce Rondon (DET) each pitched a scoreless eighth.

Jim Johnson, whose two-year contract extension with the Braves had been announced that morning, came in to close it in the ninth.  After a 1-out single by Miguel Cabrera, Johnson struck out J.D. Martinez and former Brave Justin Upton for the final two outs at Turner Field.

After the game, Hank Aaron threw a ceremonial final pitch to Cox, before Aaron and Braves chairman Terry McGuirk transferred home plate from Turner Field to SunTrust Park, the Braves home starting in 2017, via police escort.  The closing ceremony also featured a “parade of Braves Country states,” a nod to Turner Field’s history as Centennial Olympic Stadium and the 1996 Olympic opening ceremony, before remarks from broadcaster Don Sutton, Cox, Smoltz, and Braves vice-chairman John Schuerholz, who led the crowd in one final rendition of the famous “tomahawk chop” chant.

No, this wasn’t the closing of Yankee Stadium, but this was the final game at a place where we watched our favorite team play for 20 years, and for my entire span of memory (I’m 21).  So many memories were made at Turner Field, and the final game there is one I won’t forget.

Five Best Events I’ve Covered

Coastal Plain League West Division Championship Series, Gastonia Grizzlies vs. Florence RedWolves, August 10-12, 2014

I interned for the Florence RedWolves, a collegiate summer baseball team, in the summers of 2014-15, staying at home and commuting 30 minutes to Sparrow Stadium on the campus of Francis Marion University.  In 2014, the RedWolves won the Coastal Plain League’s West Division in both the first and second half of the season, and had a good shot at winning the franchise’s first Petitt Cup title in the playoffs.

After dispatching the High Point-Thomasville HiToms in an opening round sweep, the West Division Championship Series featured the two teams who had clearly been the division’s best all season, the RedWolves and the Gastonia Grizzlies.  The three games that ensued are collectively on this list, as the drama of playoff baseball and the budding rivalry of the two teams produced the best back-to-back-to-back games I have ever seen, which can be included as events I “covered” as I wrote the postgame press releases for the final two games.

Game 1 at Gastonia:
Several of us interns drove up to the suberb west of Charlotte and Sims Legion Park, the Grizzlies’ home.  Gastonia took a 1-0 lead in the first, but the RedWolves had a 3-1 lead by the seventh inning stretch.  The Grizzlies tied it in the 7th on a 2-RBI single by Weston Lawing, but after that both bullpens were absolutely phenomenal as an extra-inning game ensued late into the night.

RedWolves reliever Jacob Condra-Bogan allowed two runs in the seventh, but none for four innings after, and CPL Pitcher of the Year, closer Michael Morrison (a 2016 College World Series hero at Coastal Carolina), was scoreless in 5.1 innings.  Gastonia hurlers Robert Lawhon and Jared Cheek were just as impressive.

The RedWolves finally took the lead in the 16th on an RBI single by Joe Bialkowski and an RBI double by Brandon Rawe, and got three outs to win 5-3 and take a 1-0 series lead, winning the longest playoff game in CPL history.

Game 2 at Florence:
Back at home, the RedWolves were trying to clinch the best-of-three series in what would be a back-and-forth affair with a lot of “small ball” in the notoriously large Sparrow Stadium.  The RedWolves led 1-0 after the second, trailed 2-1 in the third, and led 3-2 after the third.  Each side scored in the fourth, making it 4-3, before Gastonia tied it 4-4 in the fifth, and Florence retook the lead at 5-4 in the sixth.

The RedWolves kept the one-run lead until the ninth, before Gastonia exploded (and Florence imploded) in the ninth:  double, sacrifice bunt, RBI single, error, RBI single, RBI fielder’s choice (no out recorded), RBI fielder’s choice (no out recorded), strikeout, RBI single, 2-RBI triple, walk, flyout.  This may be the worst inning I have ever sat through, as the RedWolves went from two outs from winning the series to down 11-5 in a matter of minutes.  I didn’t bore you by listing each Gastonia player’s role in the inning, but I will add that Victor Zecca had the leadoff double and the 2-RBI triple.

But there was still a bottom of the ninth.  The RedWolves got the bases loaded with one out, before a Brandon Rawe sacrifice fly made it 11-6, and a wild pitch made it 11-7.  After loading the bases again, team RBI leader Conor Sullivan came to the plate representing the potential tying run.  It seemed like the potential perfect scenario for Florence, but Sullivan flied out to the warning track in straightaway center, the deepest part of a big ballpark, for the final out.

Game 3 at Florence:
The winner-take-all finale was more low-scoring than the first two games, but was just as entertaining.  The RedWolves took a 1-0 lead in the first, after CPL Hitter of the Year Gene Cone walked, was bunted to second, and scored when he stole third and the catcher threw the ball away.

Travis Burnette (FLO) and Sam Theole (GAS) were fantastic for both sides, matching zeroes and enduring a nearly one-hour rain delay mid-game.  Gastonia never had more than one baserunner in an inning through the first eight, meaning the 1-0 Florence lead had been as comfortable as such a lead can be in an elimination game.

In the ninth, Lawing was hit with a pitch, and Chris Robinson doubled with one out.  Morrison, running on fumes after his outing two nights before, came in and intentionally walked Sammy Taormina to load the bases with one out.  I was having flashbacks to the night before, but Morrison struck out Tyler Farmer and got Joe Koehler to ground out to second base, ending the threat and the game, giving the RedWolves a 1-0 win and a 2-1 series victory.

The emotional release of the final out led to me, as public address announcer, borrowing Yankees radio broadcaster John Sterling’s line of “Yankees win! Thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa Yankees wwwwwwin!” and exclaiming “RedWolves win! Thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa RedWolves wwwwwwin!”

The RedWolves moved on to the Petitt Cup Finals, where they won the opener over the Peninsula Pilots in Florence, before losing two heartbreaking games at Peninsula’s home in Hampton, Va.

(Box score and play-by-play for:  Game 1    Game 2    Game 3)

 

Westside at T.L. Hanna, T.L. Hanna Gymnasium, Anderson, S.C., January 16, 2015

I began covering high school sports for the Anderson Independent-Mail on a freelance basis in the fall of 2014, under prep editor Adam Regan.  He left at the end of the year, taking another job in Florida, leaving me to cover the lead games in the area while the paper looked for a replacement, leading to my best assignment to that point when I got to cover a basketball game between crosstown rivals T.L. Hanna and Westside.

For someone covering high school sports in Anderson County, T.L. Hanna and Westside games might as well be the Super Bowl.  The entire town turns out for these games, and it is loud as everyone cheers boisterously for their chosen team.

After the Westside girls team defeated T.L. Hanna 49-33, attention turned to the boys game.  There was honestly more tension in the building as the boys warmed up then there had been at any time during the girls game.

After an even first quarter, T.L. Hanna led 18-14, and they stretched that lead to 30-21 at halftime.  Hanna led by as many as 11 in the third, at 48-37, before Westside started to come back, using seven points in the final 52 seconds of the period to cut it to 53-46.

Westside’s momentum continued in the fourth, as a 10-2 run gave them a 56-55 lead, their first since 3-1.  Hanna tied it again at 57-57, but did not score again, with Westside leading 59-57 in the final minute before an Austin Walker driving shot with 0:31 left make it 61-57 Westside, and two free throws further sealed the win, as the Rams stunned the Yellow Jackets, 63-57.

I have seen a football game and a basketball game between the two schools since as a spectator (and both went to overtime), but this remains the only game in either of the two big high school sports that I have covered between the two (although I have covered many games featuring one or the other, as well as two softball games between the two).  Sitting courtside, and being a part of the game (at least in the sense of covering it) was a treat.

(Independent-Mail:  Westside boys, girls defeat T.L. Hanna)

 

Clemson at Anderson, Abney Athletic Center, Anderson, S.C., November 8, 2015

As an Anderson University student, this game had been circled on my calendar for months.  The Trojan women had won the regular-season conference title the year before, and were, even as a Division II team, getting the chance to host Division I Clemson from the ACC in a preseason exhibition.  A week or so before the game, Scott Adamson, who was Independent-Mail sports editor at the time, approached me about covering the game.  The writers who normally covered Clemson were focusing on the undefeated football team, and Scott, who normally covered Anderson games, would be busy working a Clemson soccer game, giving me the opportunity to cover a game I could literally have walked to.

The Anderson men had played Clemson 52 weeks before at Littlejohn Coliseum, and I had attended that game as a fan, but this game was even cooler to me because I thought Anderson had a shot to win.  The Trojan women were preseason favorites in the South Atlantic Conference, while Clemson was picked to finished last in the ACC.

A record crowd of 1,027 packed the Abney Athletic Center on a Sunday afternoon, with the student section doing a “blackout” of the section of seats across from the two benches.

The first half was back-and-forth throughout, with Anderson leading 34-31 at the break.  A 22-9 Trojans run gave Anderson a 54-40 in the third, before Clemson fought back to make it 56-48 at the end of the third, but from that point it was all Trojans, closing the game on a 23-7 run to win 79-55.

The game was better than the final score would indicate, but beyond that, this was the first (and so far only) collegiate game I covered for Independent-Mail, and featured my school beating our ACC neighbors.  I was thrilled with the outcome, although I was there in a professional capacity, so I did no cheering and probably did not even smile during the game.  I was there covering the game, not as a fan or student.

I kept that poker face through postgame interviews, and through the 90-second car ride back to my room, until I walked through the door.  Once I was in the privacy of my room, I finally let out a huge fist pump in celebration of the Trojans’ big win.

Anderson would win the SAC regular season title for the second straight year, while Clemson went winless in conference play to finish last in the ACC, with the results for both teams reflecting what had been foreshadowed in November at the Abney Athletic Center.

(Independent-Mail:  AU women demolish Clemson)


Florence RedWolves at Asheboro Copperheads, McCrary Park, Asheboro, N.C., July 16, 2016

For the summer of 2016, I interned with the Courier-Tribune in Asheboro.  My role was originally to cover American Legion baseball games and the Asheboro Copperheads, a team in the same league as the RedWolves, for the paper.  However, once sports editor Dennis Garcia, who was also the play-by-play broadcaster for the Copperheads on CPL Webpass, found out I had called a few games on Webpass for the RedWolves two years before, he invited me to do some games with him on Webpass.  I would end up broadcasting every Copperheads home game except one on Webpass, even doing some games solo when Dennis was stuck at the office finishing the layout of the sports section of the paper, including this one.

It was weird when the RedWolves, who I had spent the previous two summers interning for, came to Asheboro for games.  Before the July 16 contest, the two teams had already played in Asheboro on June 13 and July 13, and five times in all, but this game stands out as not just the best these two teams played that season, but the best game overall that I covered that season.

It didn’t look that way at first, as Florence scored six runs in the top of the first, on just three hits with two Asheboro errors, and two more in the second to make it 8-0.  In the bottom of the second, Connor Lind showed a small sign of the offensive onslaught that was to come for Asheboro with a solo homer, although at the time it just made the score 8-1.

In the fourth, T.J. Nichting singled, and Lind homered again, making it 8-3.  Colin Rosenbaum then walked, and Vito Friscia homered, making it 8-5.  Later in the inning, Zach Duff joined the home run party with a solo shot to make it 8-6.

After a Ryan Kent sacrifice fly for Florence in the fifth made it 9-6, Nichting led off the bottom half with a homer, before Rosenbaum singled and Friscia homered again, tying the game at 9-9.  Asheboro would then take a 10-9 lead in the sixth when Rosenbaum doubled to score Lind, before holding that lead until the ninth.

Bryan Blanton, who had been a CPL All-Star but was beginning a set of struggles that would haunt both he and the Copperheads in the second half, came in in the ninth, and even after three walks in the inning was an out away from getting out of the jam, before CPL All-Star Zach Files singled, scoring two to give the RedWolves an 11-10 lead.  The Copperheads threatened in the ninth when RedWolves closer Tom Colletti walked a pair, but could not score, and the RedWolves had a wild 11-10 victory.

The Copperheads, who had won the CPL West first half title, continued to struggle through the rest of the second half after this game, and eventually lost at Savannah in the first round of the playoffs on a walkoff hit.  Florence, who had finished seventh out of eight in the first half, had a much better second half and missed the second half title, and therefore the playoffs, by one game.

(Box score and play-by-play)

 

Greenwood at T.L. Hanna, Jim Fraser Field, Anderson, S.C., September 23, 2016

This was my first trip to T.L. Hanna in the 2016 season, and it seemed like just a run-of-the-mill game at first.  It was homecoming for the Yellow Jackets, who had lost to Greenwood 18 straight seasons before ending the streak last year.  What seemed like an ordinary game would become the greatest football game I’ve ever covered.

After a scoreless first quarter, Greenwood and Hanna both scored on long touchdown passes, then both kicked field goals in the final 1:04 of the half, making it 10-10 at the break.

Greenwood started the second half with a 15-play scoring drive of 65 yards, before Hanna went 65 yards themselves in one play, an Alex Meredith-to-A.J. Bryant connection to tie the score at 17-17.  This remained the score into the early stages of the fourth, before Greenwood scored on another lengthy drive on a Dre Yarbough touchdown pass to highly touted receiver Sam Pinckney, but the Eagles missed the extra point, keeping it 23-17.

Braylon Peterson returned the ensuing kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown, as Hanna provided another answer and took a 24-23 lead.  Greenwood had their own answer, an 11-play scoring drive culminating in another Yarbough-to-Pinckney touchdown, and a two-point conversion to make it 31-24 with 2:03 to play.

Hanna calmly marched down the field in five plays, scoring to tie the game at 31-31 with 1:06 to go when Meredith found Reel Wise from 35 yards, sending the game to overtime.

In the extra session, Greenwood scored when Yarbough found Pinckney again from 10 yards on the first play of overtime (high school overtime in South Carolina gives each team a possession from the 10-yard line).  The Yellow Jackets answered again, when Meredith turned a broken play into a 9-yard touchdown run to tie the score at 38-38.

In double overtime, Hanna went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, as Jaydon McKinney scored for the 45-38 lead.  On the first play of Greenwood’s possession, they ran the same play they scored on in the first overtime, and Hanna LB Shai Thomas jumped the route and intercepted Yarbough to end the game and give Hanna a 45-38 win.

I finished postgame interviews about 10:55, and the Independent-Mail has an 11:00 deadline, but one which is stretchable.  Prep editor Lake Morris said it could be stretched to 11:40 at the latest, and I finished writing about 11:35; I was glad to make sure the story of this crazy game got in the next morning’s paper.

(Independent-Mail:  Thomas INT leads Hanna over Eagles)

 

Honorable Mention:
Pickens at Belton-Honea Path,  April 22, 2016
The game itself was nothing spectacular, as B.H.P. took an early lead before putting the game away with a 8-run sixth inning to win 10-0, but it was historic as, on Senior Night, Bears coach Steve Williams won his 500th game.  His postgame interview is the only time an interview subject of mine was moved to the point of tears, as Williams was humbled and grateful for his accomplishment, and how many former players came back to witness the milestone game.  I got lucky on this one–I was scheduled to cover a different game until late that afternoon when weather changed the Independent-Mail‘s plans.

(Independent-Mail:  Williams wins No. 500 as Bears top Pickens)
***Editor’s Note:  This game was one of the five in the original draft of this post, which was written before the Greenwood-T.L. Hanna game occurred, so I felt it appropriate to include it as an honorable mention.

Column: Braves Make Only Logical Choice, Hire Snitker

The Braves have hired interim manager Brian Snitker as their full-time manager for 2017, making a decision that I believe was the only logical choice in their search for a manager.

Snitker became the interim skipper when Fredi Gonzalez was fired on May 17 after the Braves’ 9-28 start to the season.  Under Snitker the Braves were 59-65, on their way to a 68-93 finish, with a 37-35 record after the All-Star Break.  This includes the team going 30-25 after the acquisition of Matt Kemp, 20-10 in their final 30 games, and 12-2 in their final 14.

Snitker, 61, said his formal interview was the first job interview he had ever had, although he felt his job as the interim served as somewhat of a four-and-a-half month interview, one which he nailed.

“I did all I could do,” Snitker told 680 The Fan on Tuesday.  “I didn’t change, I felt comfortable and very proud of how we finished and what we accomplished along the way.”

When the club hired him as interim, they had no intentions of hiring Snitker, a 40-year veteran of the Braves organization as both a major league coach and a minor league manager, but president of baseball operations John Hart said the team’s results down the stretch made Snitker a strong candidate, resulting in the team giving Snitker a contract to manage the 2017 season, with a team option for 2018.

“Quite frankly we didn’t (expect to hire Snitker),” Hart told 680 The Fan on Tuesday.  “We came in with the idea to hire what we felt was the right guy for this job, and we felt we were going to go outside (the organization).

“But we kept our eyes open, watched results of the club, the masterful job that he did with the club, the way they played, and he created such a great environment and atmosphere, so as we went through the last six to eight weeks we started talking about it.  It was tough, because we had some great candidates, but usually when you bring in a new manager it’s because you’re not happy with what has been happening, but we were.”

But in addition to the strong play of Snitker’s team on the field over the final 124 games, another reason Snitker was the best fit for the job was a relatively weak managerial market this offseason, including no one who would fit the Braves as well as Snitker.

Bud Black and Ron Washington were reportedly the two outside candidates who interviewed for the job.  Black, a 59-year old former major league pitcher with ties to both Hart and Braves chairman John Schuerholz, managed the Padres from 2007-15, but never had a team who made the playoffs, and finished with an overall record of 649-713 (.477 winning percentage).  Some say Black did all he could with the players he had, but at some point a manager needs to take the next step, and he never did in San Diego.

Washington, a 64-year old former major league shortstop, has a better managerial record than Black, after guiding the Texas Rangers to the World Series in 2010-11, and to within one strike of the title in 2011 before the St. Louis Cardinals’ famous Game 6 comeback.  Washington went 664-611 (.521) with the Rangers, but resigned in late 2014 after an extramarital affair.  In this decade, Washington has been accused of sexual assault, and has tested positive for cocaine use.  While the Braves did not pick Washington as their manager, they did hire him to be on Snitker’s staff as third-base coach.

Black and Washington appear to be the best candidates across the board in an unusually weak managerial market for MLB teams searching for a leader this offseason.

The Braves also interviewed internal candidates Terry Pendleton (bench coach), Eddie Perez (first-base coach) and Bo Porter (third-base coach, former Astros manager), but through the process admitted that, even while each of the three had a solid interview, it would be “difficult” to hire one of these three as manager given the terrific job Snitker had done as interim.  Pendleton and Perez will remain in their current roles, although Perez is expected to interview for the Colorado Rockies’ managerial position, while Porter will move to the front office in an advisory role.

With this field of candidates, the Braves made the best choice, and in my eyes the only logical choice, in hiring Snitker as skipper for the 2017 season, the inaugural season at SunTrust Park.

The Braves also announced the balance of their coaching staff, including retaining Kevin Seitzer as hitting coach and Marty Reed as bullpen coach, hiring Washington, and promoting minor league pitching coordinator Chuck Hernandez to become Snitker’s pitching coach, replacing Roger McDowell, who parted ways with the Braves last week.

Hernandez, 56, has previous stints as a major league pitching coach with the Angels (1992-96), Rays (2004-05), Tigers (2006-08) and Marlins (2013-15).  Considering those stints include the early-career development of Justin Verlander and Jose Fernandez, and considering the Braves were looking for someone with a strong track record developing young pitching given the wealth of talent they have stockpiled in the minor leagues, this is also a good hire.

But today is Snitker’s day, as after managing thousands of minor league games in the Braves system and guiding the big league team through a long, tough season, he has been given the keys to the longest continuously-running franchise in professional baseball.

Snitker is known as a “player’s manager,” and many of the Braves players fought for him to be the permanent manager as the possibility became clear in the final weeks of the season.  Braves broadcaster Don Sutton even compared Snitker to Hall of Fame Dodgers manager Walter Alston.  Several players publicly voiced their approval on Tuesday at the news that Snitker had, in fact, been hired.

“Really happy to hear that Snit is coming back,” center fielder Ender Inciarte told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday. “He deserves this opportunity and we are all excited to play for him!”

Snitker is humbled by easily the highlight of his baseball career, as he can finally say he is one of 30 men on the planet who currently manage a Major League Baseball franchise.

“I’m very blessed, fortunate, and honored to be able to take on this job,” Snitker said.

I’m glad Snitker has been given this opportunity.  Because he earned it.

Column: A Sentimental Sunday of Baseball

On Sundays in October, the focus in the sports world is typically on the NFL.  NASCAR in The Chase, its version of playoffs, and today is also the final day of the Ryder Cup.

But even with everything else going on, today is baseball’s day, as it will be one of the most historic days of regular season play in the game’s history.

The final day of the regular season is often frantic as the final playoff spots are up for grabs, and this year is no different.  While each division race has already been decided, both the NL and AL Wild Card races are coming down to the final day.  In the NL Wild Card race, the Giants lead the Cardinals by one game for the final spot (the Mets clinched their spot Saturday), while in the AL Wild Card, the Orioles and Blue Jays currently hold the spots, but the Tigers can make it interesting with a win on Sunday (Detroit also has a potential makeup game on Monday, and needs help from Baltimore and/or Toronto).  To learn what would happen in the event of a three-way tie (which is a very real possibility), click here.

All games are scheduled for 3 p.m. ET, so the games with postseason implications will all play out at the same time (L.A. Dodgers at San Francisco, Pittsburgh at St. Louis, Baltimore at N.Y. Yankees, Toronto at Boston, Detroit at Atlanta).

But in addition to the jostling for playoff berths and positioning, there will be three farewells within the game taking place this afternoon.

David Ortiz

David Ortiz will be playing his final regular season game, as his Boston Red Sox host the Toronto Blue Jays.  In over 2,400 games, the 10-time All-Star is a career .286 hitter, and has hit 541 home runs, which is 17th all-time.  He has won three World Series titles in 14 seasons with the Red Sox, including winning World Series MVP in 2013, after playing his first six seasons with the Minnesota Twins.

Big Papi has had an exceptional final season, with 38 HR and 127 RBI, while leading the league in doubles (48), slugging percentage (.625), and OPS (1.027).  This strong season has left Ortiz as a contender for his first MVP award, as he could become the first player to win an MVP in his final season, and would be the oldest MVP in history (40). Ortiz has led the Red Sox to an AL East Division title in 2016, and his farewell will continue into the postseason, beginning Thursday against the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS.

Other players who have already announced their retirement after the season include Yankees 1B Mark Teixeira and Cubs C David Ross, although Ross’s Cubs will continue into the postseason after the regular season ends.

Vin Scully

Sunday also marks the final game of the incomparable career of legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully.  Scully will make his final broadcast this afternoon when the Dodgers take on the Giants in San Francisco.

Scully already had one fantastic farewell at his final home game at Dodger Stadium last Sunday, calling Charlie Culbertson’s walkoff homer to clinch the NL West Division title for the Dodgers, before the team played a beautiful recording of Scully singing “Wind Beneath My Wings” for Dodger fans after the game.  While the Dodgers are headed for an NLDS matchup with the Washington Nationals, Scully will not be working any playoff games.

Scully’s final game is the 88-year old’s 10,640th game with the Dodgers over his 67 years with the team, since starting in the 1950 season when the team was still in Brooklyn.  The game will be the 1,216th game Scully has called in the Dodgers-Giants rivalry, one of the most heated in the game, and Scully has covered 975 Dodgers players.

Baseball’s greatest storyteller has captivated audiences since the days of Jackie Robinson with his grand and elegant style, one that will never be duplicated.

Turner Field

Lastly, I will be in attendance for the final game at Turner Field in Atlanta, as the Braves bid farewell to “The Ted” before moving into SunTrust Park in northern Atlanta in 2017.

Turner Field was built as Centennial Olympic Stadium for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, then retro-fitted and downsized into a baseball stadium for the Braves, who played across the street at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium from 1966-96.  The Braves beat the Cubs, 5-4, in the first game at Turner Field on April 4, 1997.

In 20 seasons at Turner Field, the Braves have won 10 division titles (including the final eight of the team’s record 14 consecutive from 1991-2005), and appeared in 12 postseasons.  Turner Field has hosted 39 playoff games, including two games in the 1999 World Series, and the first ever National League Wild Card Game in 2012, which was the final game in the career of sure-fire future Hall-of-Famer Chipper Jones.

Turner Field also hosted the 2000 MLB All-Star Game and was site of Diamondbacks LHP Randy Johnson’s 2004 perfect game and manager Bobby Cox’s 2000th win later that year, as well as Braves RHP John Smoltz’s 3000th strikeout in 2008.

Sunday’s final game at Turner Field is against the Detroit Tigers who, as previously mentioned, are fighting for their postseason lives.  There will be a pregame ceremony featuring Braves alumni who played at Turner Field, and a ceremonial first pitch, and a postgame ceremony that will include a ceremonial final pitch and the transfer of home plate to SunTrust Park.  Braves ace pitcher Julio Teheran will be facing Tigers ace Justin Verlander in the finale.

This day is not a normal final day of the regular season in Major League Baseball.  Instead, it is a historic and sentimental Sunday, as one of the games most popular players, its greatest broadcaster, and the home ballpark of its longest continuously operated franchise all bid farewell.

 

 

MLB Races

AL Wild Card
1. Toronto 88-73, 0 games ahead (at Boston)
2. Baltimore 88-73 (at N.Y. Yankees)
3. Detroit 86-74, 1.5 games back (at Atlanta)

NL Wild Card
1. N.Y. Mets 87-74, 1 game ahead (at Philadelphia)
2. San Francisco 86-75 (vs. L.A. Dodgers)
3. St. Louis 85-76, 1 game back (vs. Pittsburgh)