Monday, October 18, 2021

Atlanta v. Los Angeles

Everyone has their own notions about the great rivalries of Major League Baseball, but if you were a Dodgers fan growing up in western Kentucky in the late 1970's and early 1980's, nothing can match the Dodgers and the Braves.

Atlanta didn't make it to the world of big-time sports until the 1960's, at which point both the NFL and the MLB decided that Atlanta was in the west.  So I grew up in a world where Atlanta spent a huge amount of time playing San Francisco and Los Angeles in both football and baseball.  Usually Atlanta lost, but occasionally the Braves or Falcons would have a good year.

But things didn't really change until 1991.  After winning the World Series in 1988, the Dodgers spent the next two years rebuilding -- they won 77 games in 1989 and 86 games in 1990.  But by 1991, they were ready to roll again.  Their big addition was Darryl Strawberry, who was 29 years old and who made the All-Star game for the eighth year in a row.  He had a pretty good year -- a .491 slugging percentage, 75 walks, 28 homers, and 99 RBI's.  By June 23, the Dodgers had a six-game lead in the NL West, and I thought for sure they were going back to the playoffs.  I was 25 years old that summer, I'd been watching the Dodgers since I was seven, and they'd never gone more than a few years without winning their division.

On July 28, the Dodgers still had a six-game lead, but the Reds -- who had won the 1990 World Series -- were now 8 1/2 games back.  The team six games behind was Atlanta.  In my life as a fan, Atlanta had only won the division one time (1982), and had then gone out quickly in the playoffs.  I had watched Atlanta for years on TBS -- we watched them so often and so repeatedly that my mother had become a big fan -- but it never occurred to me that they were a real threat to the Dodgers.  It would be a like Patriots fan today worrying about the Jets.

But Atlanta kept winning and winning, and it turned into a real pennant race.  Atlanta took the late in late August, but then the Dodgers retook it a few days later, and the two teams went back and forth until September 20, when the Braves came to Dodger Stadium for a three-game series.  The Dodgers lost the first game, but won the next two to go up by a game and a half with only ten games left.  The standings looked like this:

Los Angeles:  87-64
Atlanta:  85-65   1 1/2
San Diego:  77-74  10
Cincinnati:  71-79  15 1/2
San Francisco:  69-81  17 1/2
Houston:  61-89  25 1/2

All the Dodgers had to do was get past ten games against the Padres and Giants, and they'd be back in the playoffs.  Six games later, they still led by one game.  Then this happened:

Wednesday, October 2:
San Diego broke open a 3-3 game with six runs in the top of the 8th to beat the Dodgers 9-4, while Atlanta won 6-3 in Cincinnati.  All tied with three games left.

Thursday, October 3:
Home in Fulton County Stadium, the Braves beat the Astros 5-2.  Up at Candlestick Park, the Dodgers managed only one run on eight hits and lost to San Francisco 4-1.  Braves by one game with two games left.

Friday, October 4:
In Candlestick Park before 42,712, a 25-year-old pitcher named Trevor Wilson threw a complete game two-hit shutout to beat the Dodgers 4-0.  It was the third of only four shutouts Wilson would throw in his career.  In fact, he would only win 18 more games and would finish with a career record of 41-46.  Meanwhile, in Atlanta, a 24-year-old pitcher named John Smoltz threw his own complete game to beat the Astros 5-2, and clinch the NL West for Atlanta.

I was stunned but I thought it was just one of those things -- like how Ohio State occasionally loses to Purdue.  I figured the Dodgers would be back, and the Braves would go back down.  I was wrong.  Darryl Strawberry would never again be an All-Star -- in fact, he would never again play more than 43 games in a season for the Dodgers.  Tommy LaSorda would manage four and one-half more seasons, but never again win a playoff game.  In fact, the Dodgers would not return to the NLCS until 2008, and wouldn't return to the World Series until 2017.

Meanwhile, the Braves were at the beginning of their own new era.  Between 1991 and 1999, they would win five pennants and one World Series, and no one has ever looked down on them since.  It was a change in fortunes unlike almost anything I can remember in sports, and it had a huge effect on how everyone in the South thought about MLB.

Here's how the Braves and the Dodgers have done in the NLCS:

Atlanta (5-7):  1969, 1982, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2020, 2021

Lost Angeles (8-6):  1974, 1977, 1978, 1981, 1983, 1985, 1988, 2008, 2009, 2013, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2020, 2021


  1. The last time the NLCS featured the same teams two years in a row was in 2016 and 2017, when the Cubs and Dodgers met in back-to-back years.

  2. I was stunned when the Dale Murphy/Bob Horner/Rick Camp Braves started getting good in the 1980s. It actually kind of seemed rigged to me--like maybe everyone stood down and let the Braves get a bunch of good players because Ted Turner was putting baseball on national TV every day.