The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is presenting a series of columns from our staff detailing the five most memorable events they have covered in their careers.
At the moment, all of the games I’ve covered feel like they were a long time ago.
That includes even the most recent one: March 8, 2020, a Braves-Yankees exhibition game in Tampa.
It was the last day of a week-long spring-training trip for me, and the world still seemed pretty normal, far different than now. There was a capacity crowd, a congested press box, long lines at the concession stands and interviews before and after the game with Braves manager Brian Snitker, who spent time signing autographs for a group of kids.
The biggest difference from any other day at a spring-training ballpark through the years was the extra hand sanitizers.
As I left George M. Steinbrenner Field late that Sunday afternoon, I turned around and snapped a few photos of the place. I’m not sure why. Certainly, I didn’t know I was documenting the last time I would attend a game for, well, who-knows-how-long.
I flew back to Atlanta the next morning with a long list of stories to work on in advance of the Final Four, which was to be played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in early April. But within a few days, the college basketball season and the baseball season and the rest of the sports world shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And that brings us to this exercise: To help fill the void left by the lack of live sports, the AJC’s sports editor, Chris Vivlamore, asked each of us on the staff to write about the five most memorable events we’ve covered over the years. With apologies to the many worthy candidates left off this list, here are the five I chose:
5. April 7, 1979: Astros 6, Braves 0. I was 22 years old, starting my first season on the Braves beat for The Atlanta Journal, and frankly I was amazed to find myself in Houston’s famous Astrodome. It was a Saturday night, the second game of the Braves’ 1979 season. But it was my first regular-season game on the beat because, in those days, The Atlanta Constitution’s beat reporter wrote the stories on Fridays (for the combined Saturday paper) and the Journal beat reporter handled the Saturday games (for the Sunday paper).
I might have forgotten my beat “debut” decades ago except for what happened: A veteran Astros pitcher named Ken Forsch threw a no-hitter against the Braves, at the time the earliest-in-the-year no-hitter in MLB history.
I think I remember the beloved Braves broadcaster Ernie Johnson Sr. saying to me after the game: “Welcome to the beat, kid.”
The Braves’ batting order of third baseman Jerry Royster (subbing for the injured Bob Horner), second baseman Glenn Hubbard, right fielder Gary Matthews, left fielder Jeff Burroughs, first baseman Mike Lum, catcher Dale Murphy (whose days behind the plate would end for good later that season), center fielder Barry Bonnell, shortstop Pepe Frias and starting pitcher Larry McWilliams, plus a couple of pinch-hitters, went hitless against Forsch. The Braves were almost as bad in the field as they were at bat, committing three errors.
I suppose that game provided a pretty good hint of what was to come with the first Braves team I covered. The Braves went 66-94 that season and finished last in the National League West. That team also birthed my career-long belief that there are at least as many compelling stories on losing teams as on winning teams.
4. April 10-13, 1997: Tiger wins the Masters. I haven’t covered a lot of golf over the years, but I have enjoyed covering the Masters a few times, including the first of five won by Tiger Woods.
He was 21 years old, playing his first Masters as a professional in 1997, and he dominated both the course and the field in staggering fashion.
After a front-nine 40 in the first round, Woods announced his arrival with a back-nine 30. He set a Masters record with a four-day total of 18-under-par 270, a record matched by Jordan Spieth in 2015. Woods became the youngest player to win the Masters, and he did so by 12 shots, the widest margin in the event’s history.
It was an Augusta National performance for the ages. Glad I was there.
3. Feb. 5, 2017: Patriots 34, Falcons 28 (OT). It’s rare that you look around a press box and see sheer disbelief on all of your colleagues’ faces. But that was the case at Houston’s NRG Stadium late in Super Bowl LI.
Blowing a 25-point lead held with 17 minutes and seven seconds left in regulation? Unthinkable. But it happened, making for the biggest come-from-ahead loss in Super Bowl history.
The Falcons led 28-3 late in the third quarter. The New England Patriots then scored 31 consecutive points and won in overtime. I’ll spare you yet another recitation of what went wrong for the Falcons. Suffice to say: Everything.
And it’s as mind-boggling now as it was in February 2017.
2. Jan. 1, 1981: Georgia 17, Notre Dame 10. As I recall, I hadn’t covered any game of Georgia’s extraordinary 1980 football season until this one. While the Bulldogs went 11-0 during the regular season, I was covering the final month of the Braves season, the MLB postseason (including a Phillies-Astros National League Championship Series and a Phillies-Royals World Series) and the baseball offseason (free agency was still a novelty back then). But I joined most of my Atlanta sportswriting colleagues in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl.
Georgia entered the game ranked No. 1 and positioned to clinch the national championship with a win over Notre Dame, which was favored despite being ranked No. 7. It won’t surprise you to read that UGA fans showed up in red-and-black droves in New Orleans.
Freshman Herschel Walker had 150 yards rushing on 36 carries in that game, a mind-boggling performance considering that he dislocated his left shoulder on Georgia’s second offensive play. “I didn’t come all the way down here not to play,” he famously said.
Georgia intercepted three passes and recovered a fumble while committing no turnovers. A kickoff misplayed by Notre Dame led to a Georgia touchdown. Leading 17-10 with just over two minutes to play, the Bulldogs faced a key third-and-7 play. Quarterback Buck Belue completed a 7-yard pass to Amp Arnold, producing a first down that enabled Georgia to run out the clock. It was Belue’s only completion out of 12 passes in that game.
“That was the only one we needed,” coach Vince Dooley said.
At the end, Georgia fans stormed onto the field. Players carried Dooley off the field. It was pandemonium.
The massive headline in the next day’s Atlanta Journal blared: “Unbeaten, untied and unbelievable!”
The Associated Press and coaches’ polls made it official: Georgia was the undisputed national champion. Almost 40 years later, the Bulldogs still haven’t won another national title.
1. Oct. 28, 1995: Braves 1, Indians 0. Big-league sports came to Atlanta in 1966, but not until this chilly Saturday night at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium had there been a championship season to write about here. The Falcons had never won a Super Bowl. Still haven’t. The Atlanta-era Hawks had never won an NBA title. Still haven’t. And the Atlanta-era Braves had never won a World Series. Until this night.
The Braves, leading the 1995 World Series three games to two, sent Tom Glavine to the mound to start Game 6. He had a no-hitter through five innings and allowed just one hit through eight. In the dugout during the middle innings, with the game still scoreless, he challenged his teammates to score a run because, he assured them, the high-powered Cleveland Indians offense wasn’t going to get any against him.
A few weeks ago, I asked Glavine to retell the story of that dugout challenge, just to make sure it wasn’t a myth that had grown through the years.
“I did it. I said it. It was one of those moments that I knew I was pitching well, knew I was on my game, and I think more than anything else I was just trying to fire our guys up and get a reaction,” Glavine, now 54, said. “Truth be told, it’s not like that’s the one and only time I ever did that in my career. From time to time as a pitcher, you’re feeling your oats a little bit and will say something like that: ‘Hey, just get me one because they’re not gonna (score).’
“But it’s one thing to do that on a Sunday afternoon in August. It’s another to do it in Game 6 of a World Series. But I felt it.
“Fortunately, one guy was listening. David went out and hit a home run. So it worked out pretty good.”
David Justice, who the day before had criticized Atlanta fans for not being loud enough, homered over the right-field fence in the sixth inning. That was the only run the Braves would get, and the only run they would need, in this game. Closer Mark Wohlers pitched a perfect ninth inning to wrap up Atlanta’s first big-league championship.
It’s hard to believe that was 25 years ago. It’s hard to believe the Braves haven’t won another World Series since then and haven’t won a playoff series in more than 18 years. But the story of Oct. 28, 1995, never gets old.
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