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    We haven’t lost just an announcer; we’ve lost Ol’ Ernie

    By Bud L. Ellis

    The news hit me like a punch to the gut as I walked into my Braves’ room late Friday after returning from what seemed to be a perfect night at Turner Field.

    Ernie Johnson Sr., the voice that helped form the background noise of my youth, is gone. The 87-year-old passed away Friday with his beloved wife Lois by his side.

    Longtime Braves player and broadcaster, Ernie Johnson Sr

    Normally, we use last names to refer to people we write about, but Ol’ Ernie isn’t just a broadcaster on which I’m writing a retrospective piece. No. Ol’ Ernie was part of my family, part of my family’s family, part of every family wherever Braves baseball was beamed for the better part of three decades.

    He was there in the booth at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in the late 1970s, when a young kid growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta started attending baseball games. His story was one my grandfather loved telling, a guy who pitched for a Braves’ team that won a World Series, albeit it in Milwaukee, some 670 miles northwest of where my favorite team was playing (and mostly losing).

    Ol’ Ernie helped to launch a phenomenon that would change sports broadcasting, even if he didn’t realize it at the time. The Braves’ owner, a maverick named Ted Turner, wanted to broadcast his team from coast to coast. And Ol’ Ernie was part of a motley crew of announcers who delivered the Braves from Atlanta to Alaska, from Crabapple (his suburban home north of Atlanta) to California.

    And through it all, the Braves became America’s Team. Not because the team won much on the field, save the brief flare-up in 1982 when Atlanta won the NL West, but because for many, the Braves were the only game they got on their TVs every night.

    Ol’ Ernie served as the maestro, smoothly merging the wit of Skip Caray and the analytics of Pete Van Wieren. My formative baseball years were spent hanging on their every word and worshiping the Braves, a team that usually found itself out of contention before Memorial Day.

    And still, I turned in. My family tuned in. Millions of us tuned in. And there was Ol’ Ernie, telling us we were “zipping right along,” even if the game was two hours old and in the fourth inning. There was Ol’ Ernie, telling us a Braves’ hurler had delivered a pitch, “right down Peachtree.” And on those rare occasions when the Braves actually won a game, Ol’ Ernie delivered a gem of a closing line: “And on this winning night …”

    Friday was one of those winning nights, but all of Braves Nation feels a tremendous sense of loss. Ol’ Ernie was called home, on Skip’s birthday, no less. I can only imagine the reunion happening in Heaven right now. It’s an image that I have, amid the tears of losing another piece of my youth and a piece of my baseball being.

    Rest in peace, Ol’ Ernie.

    —30—

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    Follow Bud L. Ellis on Twitter: @bud006 and @TheBravesWire


    As Wren works the phones, Braves face crucial stretch without McCann

    by Bud Ellis

    On a night where the surreal danced with the ridiculous into the wee hours, one moment may resonate loudest when the story of the 2011 Atlanta Braves is penned.
     
    And no, I’m not referring to Jerry Meals and his now infamous safe call at home plate in the bottom of the 19th inning Wednesday morning at Turner Field.

    Nine innings earlier, when it still was Tuesday night and the Braves were playing the first of what would eventually evolve into 10 extra frames, Atlanta lost its best player and most consistent hitter to an oblique injury that threatens to do more than shelve All-Star catcher Brian McCann for two weeks or more.

    More than Chipper Jones limping with a leg injury, more than Jordan Schafer getting drilled with a pitch on the same hand containing an injured finger, more than the futility of a string of zeros adorning the linescore in a game that nearly lasted seven hours, the sight of McCann gingerly walking off the field overshadowed everything exhilarating and agonizing from Atlanta’s marathon win.

    Memorable as Wednesday’s morning victory was, the bigger picture was substantially gloomier as the sun rose five hours after Meals signaled Julio Lugo safe on Scott Proctor’s fielder’s choice. At .306 with 18 homers and 55 RBIs, McCann isn’t just a MVP candidate. He’s been the rock-steady constant in an Atlanta offense that has been anything but consistent through the season’s first four months.

    A major injury to McCann is every Braves fan’s worst-case scenario. This is his team now, and his team needs a jolt of offense now more than ever. While the original prognosis is 15-to-20 days, in reality an oblique injury can nag and hinder for weeks, if not months, especially when the person suffering the injury finds himself playing the most demanding position on the diamond.

    McCann’s injury came just five days before baseball’s trade deadline, the annual benchmark where teams posture and fans speculate and the Internet and social media sites buzz like at no other time during the year. Already linked to some of the bigger hitters on the market as the deadline creeps near, Atlanta now almost looks destined to shoot for an impact hitter with McCann out until, at the earliest, the second week of August.

    For all its offensive struggles, the fact remains Atlanta left Turner Field in the middle of the night with the fourth-best record in baseball, six games behind Philadelphia in the NL East and 3 ½ games ahead of Arizona in the wild-card standings. A dynamic pitching staff has fueled the Braves’ surge toward postseason contention, but at some point, the offense has to start carrying the load.

    That time is now, with the dog days bearing down and the final third of the season commencing. Regardless of what move general manager Frank Wren makes before Sunday, the moment McCann reached for his side in the top of the 10th inning Tuesday night marks the beginning of the most crucial stretch of the season.

    –30–

    Follow Bud Ellis on Twitter: @bud006