Bradford Doolittle – ESPN Staff Writer
I WAS WATCHING the Braves play the New York Mets on my phone while cruising in mild traffic from Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta to Cobb County, Georgia, home of the Braves and a fantasy world of their own creation. My car was piloted by an amiable Jamaican woman, and we were discussing the dark storm clouds overhead when Charlie Culberson struck lightning.
Culberson’s two-run walk-off shot against Seth Lugo sent the big crowd at SunTrust Park into a frenzy, as Culberson’s teammates pounded him on the back and pulled on his jersey amid the group dance around home plate.
“Oh, did they win?” my driver asked. Her accent was sublime.
“Yep,” I said. “Game-winning home run.”
“Good for them,” she said. She pulled into the driveway of my hotel, located on the edge of The Battery, the still-sparkling, mixed-use development that the Braves moved into and have lorded over since last season. It sits in a pocket of land between two major freeways, some woods and busy Cobb County Parkway, about 12 miles from downtown Atlanta. I did not step foot outside of The Battery until I departed nearly a week later. The Braves developed all of it, some on their own, some with partners. It’s a self-contained village in a place that did not exist five years ago. Like I said, it’s their fantasy land.
The dramatic win kicked off the biggest homestand for the Braves in at least four years. Atlanta entered the eight-games-in-seven-days challenge in first place in the National League East. But the division rival New York Metswere in for four games, hitting Atlanta on a runaway locomotive destined for oblivion. After New York limped away, the perennial NL East favorite Washington Nationals arrived.
Chances were that by the end of the week, we would know a whole lot more about the group we’ve taken to calling the Baby Braves. Culberson’s unlikely blast got things rolling, though that night Atlanta dropped a rain-delayed second game that didn’t get started until after 10 p.m. Eastern Time.
Every season, teams emerge as contenders that we had not expected to emerge. That is a literal statement. During the divisional era, an average of 5.6 teams per season have added at least 10 wins to their total from the prior campaign. There is more than one team this season on track for such an improvement, but of those, perhaps the most compelling is the Atlanta Braves, who through Sunday were on pace for 92 wins. That would be a 20-game leap from last season. The last time Atlanta made a 20-game year-over-year jump was 1991, which kicked off one of the most successful eras any franchise has had in any sport.
The Baby Braves label is not a perfect fit. After all, not only is the current Atlanta roster a mix, but also much of its early success is due to breakout performances from players who have been around for a while. The Braves’ average team age (28.7 when weighted for playing time) ranks 13th in baseball. Still, youth fuels this team — of that there can be no doubt. At one point in May, the Braves had the three youngest players in the majors on their active roster. That, and its alliterative allure, made Baby Braves an acceptable enough moniker, even though the Baby Bombers label that has been hung on the New York Yankees strips it of any originality.
“All of [the veterans’] knowledge has been so good for us,” reliever Dan Winklersaid of the mix in the Atlanta clubhouse. “Then you bring guys like Ozzie [Albies] and [Ronald] Acuna, it’s just been a great mesh of guys.”
One of the not-Baby Braves is 39-year-old Australian reliever Peter Moylan, who returned to Atlanta this offseason. He broke into the majors with the Braves and played with the club until 2012 before departing as a free agent. He has had a firsthand look at either end of the rebuild.
“It was shocking to see,” Moylan said. “It was a completely different team from the time I left here and when I came back. You hear about young guys when they are coming through the system, but there is still an adjustment period when they get to the big leagues. I see the young talent we’ve got around this clubhouse, but there is a good group of older guys too. But these young guys we’ve got here are as good as I’ve seen.”
The Braves are a team that knows where it’s going, understands where it is and is all too cognizant of where it has been. The excitement in Cobb County is building. You can sense it in the air as you move through the pulsating Battery on a game day. You can also see it in Atlanta’s rising attendance numbers.
The thing is, if not for some forward thinking by an executive with one of baseball’s most glorious pasts, things might be very different. READ MORE>