By: Jeffrey Newholm
In biblical times, the prophet Isiah observed that his people had an attitude of “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!” While there may not be much chance of any of us dying tomorrow, it’s certainly good advice to enjoy the good times while they last, because adversity always rears its ugly head before too long. Sadly some sports fans become so habituated to success that they take their team’s wins for granted. One UCLA fan told coach Wooden after his last title in 1975 that he was glad the fans weren’t “let down” like they were the previous year. Well by those standards every Bruins season since save one has been a letdown. A more contemporary example is the startling rise of the Atlanta Braves dynasty in the ’90s. No other fan base has gone from indifference, to passionate support, back to indifference so completely than that of the Braves’.
From 1988-1990 the Braves finished dead last in the NL in attendance, not even drawing a million fans. And certainly it’s understandable that people don’t want to pay to see a last place team. But in 1991 the Braves completed an unprecedented turnaround to win the pennant, and attendance doubled. By ’92, three million fans came through the turnstiles at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, the leading figure in the league. Behind the trio of aces in Gregg Maddux, John Smoltz and and Tom Glavine, the team romped to an unthinkable and unprecedented 14 straight division crowns. Soaring attendance figures led to the building of a new ballpark, Turner Field. But there was trouble in paradise. The trouble was the fans got jaded. Yes the team won the world’s title in 1995, but disappointment soon became the norm. Between ’96 and ’99, the team won 96 or more games, but couldn’t win the title. A championship buys goodwill for a team for a while, but once the honeymoon wears off, fans demand a repeat performance. A similar fate befell the Braves in their time in Milwaukee: the team was viewed as heroes through the 1957 title, but fans saw them as merely human after a collapse in the ’58 Series. Eventually fan support dried up to such an extent that the Braves moved away. After the 1999 season, history repeated itself. That year the Braves averaged 40,000 fans a game, good for second in the league. Attendance then declined five years in a row until the Braves were only 10th in the NL. Even when the team won more than 100 games, fans still lost interest. Some sports dynasties, like Paul Brown’s original Browns, were so dynamic that they were just too good for their own good. But the Braves were something sadder. Once the fans tasted the steak-a title-a burger (losing in divisional round) just wasn’t appetizing. Of course, the team had made the playoffs just twice in its first quarter-century in Atlanta. But by the turn on the millennium, fans had forgotten what it was like root for a losing franchise. Sadly, all good things must come to an end, whether we appreciated the good times or not.
This year, right off the bat, the team tanked. The Braves lost their first nine games and are now 25 games below .500. Attendance is barely half of its Atlanta peak and is ahead of only the equally hapless Reds. A new stadium is already in the works after just 20 years of Turner Field. Granted, the average Joe fan can’t be blamed for a dynasty inevitably running out of gas. But the rise and decline of Atlanta baseball is a cautionary tale for people in every walk of life. Life and success are both very fragile, and it all can shatter with one doctor’s visit or pink slip. Already I see Braves fans’ entitlement being duplicated by Packer fans, and it fills me with shame. One Packer fan even tweeted “If the Packers don’t win the Super Bowl, nothing short of that will satisfy me”. It seems fans everywhere forget that they’re just along for the ride-they’re certainly not entitled to success they really haven’t earned. One thing is for sure: your team, no matter how good, will someday be bad again. But if we appreciate our teams’ successes while it happens, we can look back on the good times with a smile. Perpetual complainers, I fear, will soon have ample more to complain about.
You can follow me on Twitter @JeffreyNewholm and our blog @NutsAndBoltsSP.