Monday, December 29, 2008

A summer love, gone forever

Macon, Ga. -- Passed by Turner Field last Saturday morning on my way to Bibb County.

It was like seeing your first love years after the fact -- awkward, bittersweet, wistful -- her appearance changed, no longer the girl you once knew.

I found the Atlanta Braves in the 1980s, back when they were awful, back when they showed up every night from April until September on WTBS. You could count on it. Dale Murphy, Bob Horner, Gene Garber and Glenn Hubbard.

Then 1991 happened and we danced in the streets. At least until Jack Morris broke our hearts in Game 7 of the Series -- but what a battle of wits between Morris and John Smoltz!

And, back then, you could count on Skip Caray, Pete Van Wieren (and, for a long while, Ernie Johnson) to keep you company during the game. Seven thirty-five p.m. Eastern, just after "Andy Griffith."

Skip was your favorite because he made you laugh. This was essential when Atlanta was losing 90 games a year. But you loved Pete, too, because he had such a rich voice and vast knowledge of the game. They called him "The Professor."

This beautiful romance lasted through the 1990s and into the 2000s. The Braves kept winning (1995 was the moment of magic) and Skip and Pete were there for all of it.

Warning signs began five years ago. Turner socked it to Caray and Van Wieren, relegated them to regional TV on Turner South, a cold-hearted slap in the face. I was furious. So were others. Ratings dropped. Skip and Pete were back by mid-year.

Then the Braves started losing and this time around it didn't seem so much fun. Dale Murphy wasn't playing right field. Fewer games were broadcast on TBS. I wasn't a kid anymore.

TBS aired its last game last fall. Skip and son Chip brought me one last moment in the sun, the date when you know you and she have drifted apart. Skip said goodbye and teared up. I did too.

I had met him that summer. He said he liked my Braves Hawaiian shirt. I told him he'd made me laugh for 23 years. He said he was glad to hear it.

He was with us a few times on something called Peachtree TV earlier this year. I laughed at the old jokes ("The bases are loaded and Dusty Baker wishes he was.") I missed -- or chose to miss -- the exhaustion in Skip's voice.

Then he died. John Martin Ramsey broke the news, on a sweltering Sunday night, as I was coming home from a Robinella show. I don't remember the drive from North Knoxville to Black Oak Ridge. I was in shock. I had lost a good friend.

I forwent the TV telecast the following night to listen to Pete on the radio. He told Skip stories and fought back tears himself. "At least I still have Pete," I said.

Then Pete retired.

I had met Pete, too, earlier in the year. He was sitting alone at his and Skip's barbecue joint in the stadium. I told him how much I missed him on TBS, how long I'd been a fan, how he and Skip had lifted my spirits the summer the Black Dog nearly nipped me for good.

He smiled, said "Wow," and shook my hand.

Now he, too, is gone. And my romance with the Braves is over.

I had began watching the Detroit Tigers anyway when I bought a satellite dish from Dewayne Lawson's uncle, Clarence Lowe. They became my "rebound" lover. But, it will never be the same. You never quite forget your first love.

I won't watch the Braves this year. I can't do it without Skip and Pete. I don't see the point.

But they and the Braves brought me pure, innocent, child-like joy for 24 years. I'll never forget it.

Somewhere in my memory, it will forever be the dog days of summer, 7:35 p.m. Eastern, Skip and Pete, Greg Maddux on the mound, a "chopper to Chipper."

You'll have to excuse me now. I must go wipe whatever this watery stuff is out of my eyes.

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