• Exclusives

    2020 Season Preview: With Fingers Crossed, We Arrive at an Opening Day Like No Other

    Editor’s Note: Braves Wire writer Bud L. Ellis has missed just two Atlanta Braves home openers in the past 40 years. To him, Opening Day and the start of baseball season is when “life begins again.” He shares a very personal, emotional take on the start of this unprecedented 2020 season, the night before the Braves begin their 60-game campaign against the Mets in an empty Citi Field.

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – I walked outside my house Wednesday evening, needing to clear my head. Thunder rumbled in the distance, the searing temperature lowered somewhat by the torrential rainstorm that had rolled through a half-hour earlier.

    I strolled toward the front of my subdivision, leaving behind four people in my house, the four people I love more than anything on this planet. Three of the four have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past week. My mother has experienced her two best days since her diagnosis last week after a rough stretch; my two teenage sons have been asymptomatic so far, thankfully.

    A beautiful rainbow, its vibrant colors arching from north to south, stretched across the sky. I took it as a sign that the guilt I’ve felt in recent days and weeks about being excited for the Braves season opener Friday was unnecessary, that in trying to steer myself and my family through a time I never could have imagined, a breather was acceptable. It’s alright to desire something fun, something … normal.

    That it’s OK to feel like I usually do when baseball season approaches.

    I sat down on the curb, and I cried.

    ***

    I’ve attended every Braves home opener the past four decades, save two: 2002 and 2006 (we lived on the Georgia coast at the time; my wife was pregnant in 2002 and had a doctor’s appointment the day of the home opener, and I covered a high school game in 2006). But truth be told, I don’t think I’ve worked a single Opening Day since leaving the newspaper business 13 years ago, even when the Braves start on the road.

    Baseball is in my blood, has been from the time my eyes first gazed the green grass of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on Sept. 9, 1979, when I joined my grandfather and 2,780 of our closest friends for a 4-1 loss to the Padres, the 87th loss of a 66-94 campaign. The next spring I attended my first home opener in person, a 4-1 defeat to the Reds on April 17 that dropped the Braves to 0-7. Ever since, the start of baseball season has defined my school plans, work plans, social plans.

    When the Braves open on the road, I treat it as its own holiday, an extra date to count down toward through the chilly nights and cloudy days of winter. But as we’ve all learned, the cold of December and January pales in comparison to what we all have experienced in 2020. The coronavirus has killed well more than 100,000 of our fellow citizens and left millions of our neighbors without jobs. For some, the physical strain of surviving the virus and the mental toll of enduring these past five months will resonate for years. We’re also living through a transformative time in our nation, having difficult and long-overdue conversations about social injustice.

    Against that backdrop, it would seem something as frivolous as baseball shouldn’t even be a second thought. Why should we care who the fifth starter is when we have so many more important things to address? I get it, I really do. I quietly have wrestled with that in the past few weeks, and it’s been heavy.

    Then I think about my grandfather, that man who shocked his 6-year-old grandson on that second September Sunday nearly 41 years ago, taking me to my first Braves game. He’s been gone for 21 years, but “Pops” told me plenty of stories about life during World War II, including how important it was for baseball to continue while so many – from Ted Williams to Warren Spahn and both my grandfathers – battled in theaters across the globe.

    I always thought sports were an important part of helping us overcome adversity, but the days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 resonated with 28-year-old me like no pass-down story or history lesson ever could. Sports came back after a week away, and when Mike Piazza homered in the first major-league game held in New York City after 9/11, for the Mets against the Braves no less, I cheered. It’s the only moment the Braves have played in my 47 years on this planet when my team lost and I didn’t care.

    New York needed that moment.

    America needed that moment.

    We all needed that moment.

    ***

    As we continue dealing with the virus, as our world spins on what feels like a warped axis, baseball coming back reminds us of a fundamental testament. When things really get bad – and it’s been bad for quite some time in 2020 – we do what we’ve always done. We pause. We weep. We mourn. We bow our heads. We catch our breath.

    And then, we move forward.

    Baseball is like that comfortable pair of jeans (although, after most of us have worked from home for months, those jeans probably don’t fit). It fills eight months of our annual 12-month journey around the sun, from guys showing up early in Florida and Arizona proclaiming they are in “the best shape of their lives,” to the daily cadence of the regular season, to the high drama and heart-stopping moments of October, until somebody lifts the World Series trophy. We follow the offseason news and, before you know it, mid-February arrives again. Players report to camp, the weather warms up soon thereafter, and the countdown toward Opening Day dwindles with each sunrise.

    The season begins and we fall into that regular rhythm like clockwork, turning on the TV or radio or firing up the stream come game time. The broadcasters for our favorite team are the soundtrack of our weekday evenings and weekend afternoons, always present whether we are sitting at home or out at the lake or attending a family reunion, excusing yourself from a conversation with Aunt Alice because it’s second and third with two outs in the eighth and a knock ties the game. It’s always-evolving fodder for your favorite publications, blogs, podcasts and talk shows.

    Baseball is the ultimate people sport. It’s a daily occurrence – 162 games in 187 days leads to a lot of conversations, be it on social media or through message boards or sitting together in the upper deck on a steamy July night. Some of those conversations lead to lifelong relationships; I know several married couples brought together not by blind dates or happenstance encounters or Tinder, but by baseball.

    ***

    It’s going to be different this season, but our world is a different place than it was just a few short months ago. I’ve attended around 80 Braves games the past two seasons, including three games at Wrigley Field, and five postseason games. I’ve lost track of the number of people I’ve met at games, ended up hanging out with, with whom I’ve developed relationships. I’m thankful for each one of you and I miss seeing you in Lot 29, in The Battery, on the concourses and in the stands. Through baseball, I’ve met some of my closest friends in the world. After everything we’ve been through and will have to go through moving forward, I love and cherish every single one of you more than ever.

    In the perfect illustration of how different this season will be, while writing the initial draft of this post – a mere three hours after seeing the rainbow that brought tears to my eyes – my phone buzzed. My photo submission for a cardboard cutout to be placed at Truist Park this season was accepted, and my credit card was charged.

    I couldn’t help but laugh. In a crazy way, it made me feel just a little bit better about starting this season. In the past couple of days, I’ve realized it’s OK to feel heavy about playing a baseball season in a pandemic. It’s OK to question if we should be doing this. It’s OK to worry we won’t make it to the end of the season before something happens that shuts down baseball again.

    And now, after a mentally draining 10 days or so, I realize it’s OK to embrace this. It’s OK to get invested, to take those three hours a night to unplug from the real world and get lost in something that means so much to so many of us. Get upset with a blown lead in the eighth. Jump off your couch when a game-winning hit happens. Respectfully debate bullpen management and lineup construction on social media.

    To do what we always have done: ride the ebb and flow of a baseball season, regardless if it’s 60 games or 162.

    There will be plenty of moments when we will have to embrace the weird because, heck, what else are we going to do? While baseball is timeliness, each season is its own interesting microcosm. Some years, your team wins 72 when it should have won 81. Some years, your team wins 91 when it should have won 82. That’s baseball.

    And it’s back.

    When the 2018 Braves stunningly roared to the NL East title, the team’s marketing folks rolled out a social media hashtag for the NLDS against the Dodgers: #ForEachOther. It fits now more than ever. We wondered if we would get to this point, but here we are: live, regular season Major League Baseball is on my TV, and the Braves play a meaningful game in less than 24 hours.

    I’m ready for life to begin again. It’s Opening Day. After all we’ve been through, there’s just one thing left to say:

    Play ball.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

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