• Ryan Helsley

    When it Comes to Chopping, Less Indeed is More

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – At the risk of dating myself (and revealing this scribe is old enough to be your father, or that crazy uncle who sneaks you beer and lets you stay up till 3 a.m.), let me take you back nearly three decades to one of the greatest years of my life: 1991.

    I graduated high school that June. I started college that September. I began my second year of covering high school football for my hometown newspaper. There are a variety of other personal reasons I could share that since have lost significance with the passage of time. But there were things I couldn’t dare dream that happened that year.

    They were all tied to my favorite baseball team and my hometown. I’ll never forget any of it. One example (of many):

    I sat in my 1979 Silverado on a two-lane road in northern Douglas County (about 25 miles west of Atlanta) one mid-October afternoon, in front of a subdivision, waiting for the kids who lived there to exit the school bus. There were several parents waiting at the neighborhood’s entrance, as they did every day. It was an unremarkable moment, just another day, until the kids on the back of the bus took notice of the view out the rear windows.

    First one of them, then two, then several, pushed against the glass, waving their right arms up and down. The kids getting off the bus noticed, and started doing that same chopping motion. I looked, and there were the parents, chopping and cheering. The bus driver extended her arm out the window and started waving it in the same manner.

    A lone foam tomahawk, sitting on the front dashboard of my old truck, firing up a fanbase that had no reason to believe until this year, my 18th on the planet, the single-greatest baseball season I’ve ever experienced.

    You see, being a baseball fan in Atlanta was not for the faint of heart in the 1970s and 80s, not until the first great rebuild in our city’s baseball history bore fruit that exceeded our wildest fantasies in 1991. And along the way, the chop was born: started as a tip of the cap to Falcons cornerback and Florida State product Deion Sanders, who became just one of a zillion “can you believe this?” storylines during the Braves historic worst-to-first surge from the bottom of the National League West to extra innings in the seventh game of the World Series in six dizzying months.

    I’ve lived just about every single moment of Braves baseball since the 1980s dawned. I remember Chief Noc-A-Homa delivering the game ball to home plate, breathing fire with a hand-held torch on the pitcher’s mound, then retreating to his teepee in the left-field bleachers of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. I remember the outcry when owner Ted Turner removed the teepee during the 1982 NL West race to sell more tickets (at about the same time Atlanta embarked on a 2-19 swoon that nearly cost it the division title).

    Of the million things that make me smile when I think about 1991, the tomahawk chop is near the top of the list. I worked part-time for a cardboard and packaging manufacturer that made a variety of materials, including foam cutouts designed to secure parts for shipping items for federal government clients. The summer before, those orders spiked with the onset of the Crisis in the Persian Gulf and subsequent U.S. military buildup.

    By late summer 1991, there were tomahawks being cranked out of that Cherokee County warehouse like crazy.

    See, the tomahawk chop engulfed the city. I hate to be the “you had to be here” dude, but truly, you had to be here that summer. It never was (and still isn’t) about making fun of any one group. It’s not mocking the heritage or history of an important part of our nation’s history. It merely was an innocent, organic expression of fandom that exploded in a fashion not quantifiable by any metric.

    It didn’t matter where you lived in Atlanta, be it the projects off Hightower or the mansions in Buckhead, be it out in the sticks of Douglasville or the progressive northside. It didn’t matter if you worked in a warehouse on Fulton Industrial Boulevard or a high rise off Peachtree Street downtown or drove a tractor in South Georgia. The Braves were winning. They had captured the heart of the city, the state, the region, and we all were united behind that one simple arm motion.

    Its beauty lied in the chop’s organic nature. Sometimes, it took just a few keys from the stadium organist. Often, even that wasn’t necessary. By the time the eyes of the sports world cast its gaze upon Atlanta for the NL Championship Series and the World Series that followed, the fans simply seized the moment to begin chopping and chanting with no prompting. There were no manufactured moments from stadium ops or the gameday staff. There certainly weren’t any flashing lights or scoreboard messages nudging fans to get ready.

    We simply chopped. We chanted. We cheered.

    Things change as the years go by. The chop is no different. It long ago became worn out, overplayed, sterile, manufactured, contrived, devoid of the emotion that fueled its inception. It’s sad, but it’s understandable. Something as organic and grassroots as the chop was in its early years never is sustainable. Truth be told, this lifelong Braves fan is surprised it’s lasted this long.

    I’ll never legislate how any person or group feels, no more than I would want them to legislate feelings I possess. Yes, there were protests outside Atlanta Stadium during the ’91 postseason. Being the cynical teenager I was at the time, I dismissed them with a simple, “where were they last season, when we sucked?” But the passage of time changes perspectives. I guess I’ve changed mine now, to a certain extent.

    I don’t blame Cardinals reliever Ryan Helsley for stating what he did about the chop during last season’s NL Division Series. He was asked a question and he provided an answer. I do have a problem with the Braves organization – which have placed foam tomahawks in every seat for every home playoff game for as long as I can remember (including Games 1 and 2 of last October’s series) – deciding in a knee-jerk reaction to not do so for Game 5.

    The Braves said in October they wanted to open dialogue with Native American groups to discuss ways to hear concerns. If that hasn’t happened, as per published reports (subscription required), then that’s disappointing. It goes back to a simple tenant: you do as you say you will do. As a fan and partial season-ticket holder, that’s not a good look, if true.

    But that’s not my point here. As someone who was a Braves fan before 1991, when a pennant winner and the accompanying chop descended upon us like something from outer space, and as someone who will be a Braves fan long after my time here is done, I now know it’s time.

    Let the chop live on, but only in its original, organic state. No more screaming over the loudspeakers for fans to get on their feet and chop for introduction of the first three hitters in the bottom of the first inning. No more forced drumbeats when Atlanta gets a runner on second base in the third inning of a game the second Wednesday night in June.

    If fans want to do it at those moments, that’s fine. If it’s a big moment late in a game, and the fans want to stand up and start chopping and chanting, I see no problem with that. If it’s a big game down the stretch, and a sellout crowd at Truist Park feels the need to rise and start the chop, there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t see how that should spark outrage – again, I have no problem with it.

    The Braves are not going to, nor should they, change their name. Nor should they remove the tomahawk from their logo. But when it comes to trying to manufacture chopping and chanting 10 times a game, 81 times a year, that shouldn’t happen.

    Let it be organic. Let the fans do it as they see fit, when they see fit, in the moments when the crowd feels it matters most. That is the spirit with which all of this started, and should be the only spirit in which it lives moving forward.

    —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.