We’ve entered the Year of Goodbye. The Braves and Falcons are set to depart their respective homes after their respective 2016 seasons. The Hawks may soon seek temporary housing while Philips Arena is reconfigured. Atlanta hasn’t been very good at winning championships, but we lead the world in stadium-building.
We’ve been here before with all three teams, and not that long ago. Today we examine how, in chronological order, how the first round of facility farewells went.
Dec. 15, 1991: The Falcons win their final game in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. This was a happy parting. A team that hadn’t made the playoffs since 1982 clinched a wild-card berth in its last bow at the stadium it had occupied since the franchise came into being in 1966. The Falcons beat Seattle 26-13. Brian Jordan, now part of the Braves TV crew but then a strong safety, opened the scoring by tackling Seahawks quarterback Kelly Stouffer for a safety.
Then matters got … strange. Seated next to one another in the back row of the press box were MC Hammer, whose “2 Legit 2 Quit” was one of many theme songs for Jerry Glanville’s angry Birds, and Wayne Newton, whose “Danke Schoen” manifestly was not. In the third quarter, Deion Sanders intercepted a pass and fled. Flouting the no-cheering-in-the-press-box rule, Hammer rose and shouted: “Put a move on him!”
Among his other powers, Prime Time might well have super hearing. As instructed by Mr. 2 Legit, he evaded the final two Seahawks to score the touchdown that made it 19-0. Everyone in the press box — I include myself — was howling. Newton was gawking at Hammer and grinning to beat the band. I was never a Glanville fan, but following his team had entertainment value.
Postscript: The Falcons won at New Orleans in the wild-card round and lost in Washington to the NFL-champ-to-be. It was their only postseason run under Glanville. The Georgia Dome opened in 1992. It has been the site of five playoff games.
Oct. 22-24, 1996: The Braves lose Games 3-5 of the World Series at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. This infamous final act undid one of the great surges in postseason history. Down 3-1 to the Cardinals in the NLCS, the defending champs won Games 5-7 and took Games 1 and 2 of the Fall Classic in Yankee Stadium. Aggregate score of those five games: Braves 48, Opponents 2. One of the two opposing runs came on a wild pitch.
After Game 2 in the Bronx, these fingers typed this for Page 1 of the ol’ AJC: “The final game at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium will be played this week. A champagne reception may follow.” (Elsewhere in that paper, I mentioned the 1996 Braves in a sentence with the Gas House Gang, the Big Red Machine and the 1927 Yankees. I hear about that to this day.)
Surprising perhaps themselves, the Yankees won Game 3. The Braves seized a 6-0 lead in Game 4. Denny Neagle gave back three runs in the sixth. Bobby Cox summoned Mark Wohlers for a two-inning save. Rafael Belliard, inserted for defense, flubbed a double-play ball. Wohlers threw a slider to Jim Leyritz. In the 10th, Steve Avery walked Wade Boggs with the bases loaded.
It was as bad a loss as a great team ever suffers. A hangover ensued. The Braves lost Game 5 to Andy Pettitte 1-0. John Smoltz didn’t yield an earned run. Marquis Grissom, who’d gloved the final out of the 1995 World Series, and Jermaine Dye contrived to let Charlie Hayes’ fly ball fall untouched. The Braves were no longer on the cusp of consecutive titles. They were facing elimination.
Postscript: The Yankees clinched at home two nights later. The Braves haven’t won a World Series game since moving to Turner Field, which they’re about to vacate.
May 10 and 11, 1997: The Hawks lose Games 3 and 4 of a Round 2 series to Chicago at the Omni. For one shining moment, Lenny Wilkens’ team appeared a match for the imperial Bulls during Year 2 of their second threepeat. The Hawks outplayed Chicago in Game 1 but lost on a Scottie Pippen 3-pointer. They won Game 2. The series shifted here. The Hawks took a 10-point lead in Game 3. They lost by 20.
In Game 4, they trailed by 22 before cutting the lead to three. The Bulls won 89-80. What became the final basket in the building that opened in 1972 was scored by Michael Jordan, who stole a Henry James pass and dunked. Asked afterward if the Omni was officially closed for basketball, Jordan offered this: “I would say so, yes.”
Postscript: The Hawks lost Game 5 in Chicago and were eliminated. They split the next two seasons between the Dome and Alexander Memorial Coliseum. Not until 2015, their 15th year in Philips, would the Hawks advance to the Eastern Conference finals.
Lessons learned: Don’t throw the ball to Michael Jordan. Don’t throw a slider to Jim Leyritz. Do invite MC Hammer and Wayne Newton to the same party. Never compare any team to the ’27 Yankees.
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