Rites of postseason return to Turner Field

The postseason returns Sunday to Turner Field after five years in the wilderness -- an old friend to many, a mysterious stranger to the youngest Braves fans.

Baseball doesn’t do homecoming games, but this is close.

The pennants that decorate the left-field facade mark a run of 14 consecutive playoff appearances from 1991 to 2005. They define an era when high-stakes October ball came to roost in Atlanta as reliably as a sparrow in Capistrano.

Welcome home, ol’ son, where you been?

Saturday, field director Ed Mangan and his crew painted the National League Division Championship logos on the Turner Field grass for the first time in five years. “Seems like a long time, but we remember how,” Mangan said.

“It’s great. It’s what you work for,” said the man who has tended Turner Field for 20 years.

Fans expect an idyllic setting for this game -- blue skies, mild temperature, a raucous full house -- the perfect confluence of elements welcoming Atlanta back to the postseason baseball business.

Todd Ferguson for one grew up here, coming of age with the mostly dreadful Braves of the 1980s, and shared with his father the team’s rise in the 1990s. Today, the music teacher at Archer High School in Lawrenceville will take his three boys to their first playoff game -- the youngest just 6 months old, too young to comprehend. And another generation will be blended into the tradition.

There is a feeling around this postseason reminiscent of those vintage series nearly two decades ago, a sort of rediscovered joy and wonder. “I’ve felt it throughout the season,” Ferguson said, “the energy in the stadium has been much better than the last few years.”

That vibe struck home with him during one game this summer when his oldest son, 6-year-old Miles, took off his Jason Heyward jersey and, shirtless, began happily waving it over his head during a Braves rally.

One of the more significant stats of the first playoff game at Turner Field since John Smoltz out-pitched Houston’s Roger Clemens in ’05 is the attendance number. The place is supposed to be stuffed today, standing room only.

That hasn’t always been the case. As the Braves' long run slopped over into another century, the passion for these games seemed to wane. The nation’s press began to pay notice to the lack of sellouts for the playoffs and chided Atlanta for being spoiled and blasé. During an infamous NLDS against Chicago in 2003, thousands of Cubs fans filled the seats that should have been occupied by Braves people, turning the place into Wrigley South.

The scene is expected to be decidedly Braves-centric Sunday.

“Those last three days [of the regular season] against Philadelphia was as good of a postseason-type atmosphere as you could have,” said Braves manager Bobby Cox. “This will top that, probably.”

“It is going to be loud and exciting,” said Ron Gant, the former Braves outfielder (1987-93) who lived some of the best times with the team as a player and now dissects these high times on TV postgame shows.

“From what I hear being around fans is how excited they are about this team, especially with this being Bobby’s last season. That was magnified all the more by [Friday] night’s win,” he said.

In re-stoking the fire, these Braves have made the dramatic last at-bat victory their trademark this season. A beaten-up and offensively challenged underdog, they nonetheless pulled off another one late Friday/early Saturday in San Francisco to tie the best-of-five NLDS at one apiece. So magical was that 5-4 extra-inning victory that it overnight turned Troy Glaus, Rick Ankiel and Kyle Farnsworth from peasants into princes.

When asked on David O’Brien’s ajc.com Braves blog to relay their feelings about the team returning to the postseason, fans from across the country responded in waves. They displayed a palette of emotions befitting a season that may rank it among the more memorable.

Even if they can’t be at Turner Field on Sunday, they will share many of the thoughts of those who are.

David Wagner, who grew up in Roswell but lives in New York, wrote: “It had been suggested that what the city and the fan base needed was for the Braves to miss the playoffs for a few years, let the fans come back down to earth a bit. I thought fans who suggested that should have their tomahawks ripped off their chest. Nevertheless, here we are after a few years of missing the playoffs, and the city seems re-energized. It’s rejuvenating.”

In Mobile, Trey Bolling will watch the game with his grandfather, Frank, a former Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves second baseman. “The last five years have been miserable. ... Trust me, neither my grandfather nor myself will be taking this playoff series for granted.”

Five years gone from the postseason, the Braves also will welcome a new group of young fans who didn’t live through Sid’s slide in 1992 or Grissom’s catch that closed out the 1995 World Series. Their postseason scrapbook really begins with today.

For the Ferguson family, there will be a ritual to follow Sunday, as with any regular season. First, they will visit the commemorative brick in the fan plaza, near the Phil Niekro statue. The one that reads “Ferguson Family, 3 Generations.”

One generation -- Todd’s father Jeff -- will not be with them. He died of early-onset Alzheimer’s in June, three days after his 60th birthday.

Todd and his family will then find their seats near the left-field foul pole, near the section where they always sat with Jeff, a place that had become a comforting sanctuary as his mind began to slip.

The game will begin, and the various agonies and ecstasies of Braves postseason baseball will be bequeathed to Todd’s sons and Jeff’s grandsons.

“I will miss Dad immeasurably,” Todd said, looking forward to the moment.

“But I’ll take pride in knowing that I’m doing what he would want me to do: sharing the joys and disappointments of baseball and life with my sons.”