Sunday in the upstate New York hamlet of Cooperstown we will be made fully aware of just how sweet we had it in Atlanta when the postseason was a rite of autumn and the box-score pitching lines read like poetry.
Bobby Cox, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux await their enshrinement into the Baseball Hall of Fame. And while the well-traveled Maddux has chosen to go in without team insignia, as neutral as Switzerland, we all wink and know that he and the other two represent the best of the Braves’ halcyon days.
Others, too, are getting their everlasting due. A Chicago masher who grew up and up in Columbus, Frank Thomas. And two other managers with Braves ties — Joe Torre (he of the first regular-season home run at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium) and Tony La Russa (he of seven lifetime at-bats for the Braves in 1971). Both, however, are far better known around Atlanta as antagonists of the fall.
But enough about them.
It is Cox, Glavine and Maddux we have come to bronze. They worked the heart of the 14 consecutive division championships and the single world championship that continues to keep Atlanta fed in her long sporting famine.
A piece of them will settle forever in Cooperstown, the village founded by the father of author James Fenimore Cooper.
It was J.F. Cooper, in fact, in “The Last of the Mohicans,” who wrote: “History, like love, is so apt to surround her heroes with an atmosphere of imaginary brightness.”
But in this case, history requires no invention. The brightness is quite real, there for all to see. It is there in the numbers and victories and awards that flocked to these three baseball men.
Actually, this time history serves to shed needed light on accomplishment that became the norm, on beautiful performances that were so regular they dared to seem common.
Of course, we took it a little bit for granted. You can’t quite grasp the greatness while it is being lathed. Not until it is finished can you hold it, study it, appreciate it.
Paired with the late, great Skip Caray during the best of years, Braves broadcaster Joe Simpson took many of his partner’s words to heart. None more than those Caray reserved for some of his favorite pitchers.
Remembered Simpson: “Skip reminded us all the time — and it was a great reminder — when he said, ‘Folks, this doesn’t come along very often. You better enjoy it, come out here and watch a master at work.’”
Even the masters themselves did not revel as much as they could.
“We appreciated winning every year, even though we only got one ring,” Maddux said. “We enjoyed the individual success, the team success, we enjoyed all that while we were going through it. I don’t think we strayed too far from our next start, though. Which was probably one of the reasons we had so much success. We were pretty good about just trying to win today.”
Day to day, Cox was the keel, the instrument of balance. He was the fellow who could pave over a season of extremes and make it seem as humdrum as I-16. He wrapped an almost paternal blanket of support around his players and demanded only that they be on time, play hard and keep the boom boxes out of the clubhouse. And we quibbled that he won “only” one World Series, the hollowest kind of complaint coming from an otherwise untitled town.
Maddux was the pitcher who held himself to a diamond-cutter’s margin of error. He could throw a baseball through a keyhole from 60 feet, with enough movement to unlock the door. So smart yet so coarse and unpretentious, he was a savant wrapped in the plainest kind of wrapper.
Glavine worked the margins of the strike zone — he loved playing to the fringes more than a radical politician. If an umpire would give him a zone as wide as Alaska, he would start nibbling the corners of the Canadian Yukon. Glavine was the union guy, the one who brought a briefcase to the clubhouse, the font of all that passed for serious in baseball. And on the field while others showed off their fastballs, he perfected the oxymoron pitch: the killer change-up.
As these three go into the Hall, the joy partially belongs to all those who watched them work and perhaps neglected to fully value those days. Here is the chance savor again.
The many feats of Cox, Maddux and Glavine will be enumerated on a stage in upstate New York on Sunday, and back in Atlanta we can shake our heads and wonder: Did we really ever experience such high old times?