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When it comes to baseball, I agree with NFL Hall of Famer Howie Long, who said in his induction speech: “In my opinion, baseball is America’s pastime, but football is truly America’s passion.”
I grew up in the American South, where football is an identifier and religion all rolled into one. You choose – or more likely, are born into – a team and it forever defines you. Some are luckier than others. I’m looking at you, University of Alabama fans.
My cathedrals are Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the Superdome in New Orleans, where I have been blessed with some amazing experiences. Notably, I attended the post-Hurricane Katrina re-opening of the Superdome on Sept. 25, 2006. A friend Chip Duncan was generous enough to give me two tickets to sit in an endzone box suite for that game against hated rivals the Atlanta Falcons, and I brought my sister Nicolle with me. We had no idea that would be the night of “Rebirth,” when Steve Gleason blocked a punt that was recovered for a touchdown in the first series of the game. It set off a collective roar and emotion the likes of which I had never before or since experienced. We mostly cried tears of relief and joy – New Orleans was back after devastation, and it was now a winner!
Sports has an amazing way of lifting our spirits, uniting us and inspiring us. I was reminded of that when my sister Nicolle, brother-in-law Chris and nephews Michael and Andrew visited me in Atlanta in late May.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I haven’t been home or seen my family in more than a year. It’s the longest I’ve gone without being home with them, which weighed heavily on my heart during the lockdown. So, I leapt at the chance to spend some time with them, and they didn’t have to twist my arm when they asked if we could visit the College Football Hall of Fame and go to an Atlanta Braves game.
As a New Orleanian who grew up without a baseball franchise, I’m mostly ambivalent about the Braves. I frequently watched the Chicago Cubs on cable TV as a teen, and that was the closest I ever got to being a fan of a baseball team. Heading to the Braves game, I was more excited to enjoy time with my family, savor a cool spring evening with them and have a few beers. I wasn’t prepared for the emotions that would come.
In The Battery – the entertainment district that surrounds Truist Park – before the game, an endless sea of unmasked people drank, ate and socialized. Just like we all used to when things were “normal.” Vaccinations have apparently brought us closer to normal. Seeing people’s uncovered faces, hearing the natural hum of a large crowd and random music blasting from bars, and feeling free was a shock to the system. As the sun began to dip in the West, the pinkish-orange hue fit the happy mood of a crowd that seemed grateful to forget about the pandemic and ready to socialize.
Once seated in the stadium’s upper deck, little epiphanies struck me moment by moment. I forgot how much I enjoyed the crack of the bat on a nice hit, a great catch made, and an impossibly long and on-target throw for an out. I forgot about the happy organ music playing those classic ballpark themes, the Braves fans tomahawk-chopping, and how a hot dog and a beer just taste infinitely better at the ballgame. I forgot about people dancing in the stands, kids jockeying for position to catch a foul ball and the goofy games on the jumbotron between innings.
But I wasn’t prepared for the emotion I’d feel in the seventh-inning stretch. By this point, the Braves had hit a grand slam and were about to hit another on the way to an historic 20-1 rout of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The fans were in fine spirits – and if they weren’t, drinking at the Battery and the ballpark surely had them loosened up. The organ cranked up that familiar and most American of tunes: “Take me out to the ballgame, take me out to the crowd…”
I surveyed the stands and saw the masses of people singing while swaying to and for with arms around each other. And I swear when it they got to “take me out to the crowd,” it sounded a bit louder, like a defiant shout at the pandemic and that dreadful 2020. I felt the simple joy of a communal experience, and enjoyed the rest of the song with its iconic American imagery – peanuts and crackerjacks; root, root, root for the home team; one, two, three strikes you’re out!
Normal life returned. I saw people of all varieties again having fun, the booze flowed and we were all in it together once again for the home team. The pandemic felt like a distant memory as we reclaimed our sacred ritual around the baseball diamond.
Maybe Howie Long was wrong?
Jacques Couret is senior editorial manager of the Marketing Innovation Team and works out of Allison+Partners’ Atlanta office, where he boasts the company’s best collection of Star Wars desk toys.