Every now and then, a very special baseball team comes along and produces a very special season.
As the team spends the summer finding itself and growing on us day-by-day, we come to appreciate its virtues and bemoan its shortcomings. We savor the highlights and suffer the losses.
By the time the air turns crisp, we’ve come to feel as though we’re a part of such a team. We hang on every pitch, every play, as though it’s a matter of the gravest importance.
Sometimes such a team falls short, and leaves us full of despair, benumbed by what might have been, perplexed by the little things that went wrong and diverted success.
But sometimes that special team comes through, delivering ultimate elation, unrestrained joy, euphoria.
Just such a team is the 2010 Braves.
They don’t possess the best roster. Not even the best in their own division. They don’t play the best baseball, either. If the standings were based upon fielding percentage, the Braves would reside in the nether regions with the Pirates and Nationals.
They’re not the best at moving runners over, hitting with runners in scoring position, or driving in runs from third with less than two out. Yet these foibles seem to endear them to us all the more. They’re human. They make mistakes. They’re not the
Yankees, paid-and expected-to perform flawlessly.
They have to work hard to overcome their deficiencies. And that’s exactly what they do. I’m hard pressed to recall a baseball team that pulled harder for each other, tried harder as a team, or genuinely seemed to enjoy playing together as much as this one.
“There’s no quit in these guys,” pitcher Tim Hudson told Mark Bowman of mlb.com after allowing the Phillies only two hits in Sunday’s playoff-clinching win. “We go out there and we play hard. Even though it might not look great for us at times, we somehow find a way to pull it out.
“We were in great position coming into the weekend, up two games with three to play. Then there we were today, all tied up. We just go out there and try to do the best we can.”
The final weekend played out just like the entire season. These Braves never did things the easy way. They couldn’t win Friday or Saturday. They let Sunday’s six run lead dwindle down to a single run.
What else would you expect from a team that led the majors with 25 wins in their final at bat? Or the team that racked up 45 come-from-behind wins? Think about that one: the Braves trailed at some point in half of their victories. Stats like those require a team effort.
“Guys have stepped up,” closer Billy Wagner told Bowman. “That’s what it means to me, because there’s not one hero on this team. You look at the guys who have battled, and a lot of them are guys that stats don’t say how great they are.”
Wagner’s stats say he had a great year, especially for a guy threatening retirement. A career low 1.43 era with 37 saves and a 7-2 record. Yet there was Wagner riding to the rescue on Sunday. In the eighth inning. Recording his first four-out save of the entire season.
“We always answer the bell,” catcher Brian McCann told Bowman. “Every time our backs have been against the wall, we’ve come through and gotten a win. A lot of guys stepped up today. I’m so proud of everybody in here.”
Everybody. You can run through the Braves roster and vividly recall important contributions made by every member of the team. Even Nate McLouth had that walk-off home run against the Phillies back in April.
Again, Sunday proved typical. Rick Ankiel, who’s supplied strikeouts but not much else since coming over from Kansas City, singled and scored the Braves first run. Truer to form, he struck out in the next inning with one out and the go-ahead run at third. Then, it was Hudson, of all people, who promptly picked him up with a single. Omar Infante followed with a two-run double, the same Infante who finished third in the league in batting but didn’t become an everyday player until the end of July.
All of which added up to the perfect send-off for manager Bobby Cox. Hard to believe that in such a fantastic, Hall of Fame career, Cox could save the best till last.
“This never gets old, no matter how many times you do it!” Cox told Bowman. “And this one is very special.
“We try hard. This team is the hardest-working, hardest-trying we’ve ever had here. It’s easy to say they never quit. There was no quit in them in April. It’s a great group of guys, and they’re fun to manage.
So now this very special team heads into the playoffs, with a chance to become even more special. They’ll be underdogs, of course, and they’ll be facing teams with more talent.
But they won’t face a team with more heart.