ATLANTA -- When Jason Heyward took a fastball to the chin the other day, all of Atlanta instantly felt the pain in another area, a bit further south, just beneath the navel, in a place that has become a convenient target for The Most Depressed Sports Town In America.
The Braves are rolling through the National League, putting all of baseball on October alert, and Heyward was a big part of the push once he was elevated to leadoff hitter. There has been a civic sense that this Could Be The Year, and now Heyward gets plunked and could miss the next six weeks, and suddenly the jittery folks around here are rightly wondering if this smells like yet another set-up.
Yes, for a city that wears one solitary championship ring, is a kick in the other jewels coming?
The Braves are almost a lock to win the division and make the playoffs. Heyward should return to the lineup by then, and perhaps they will justify their double-digit divisional lead with an October to match. And the Falcons, who were on the verge of reaching the Super Bowl last year before getting Kaepernicked at the doorstep, are certainly ripe enough to go two victories further. It's not beyond the realm of realistic possibility that, come next February, Atlanta could own the two biggest trophies in professional team sports, doubling its career total.
Or maybe Atlanta will once again be left holding that other trophy, the one it simply cannot let go, the one representing championship misery, the one shaped like a billy goat.
"That's not the reputation we want to have," said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez.
There's a lot to like about this city, where sophistication meets southern charm, where the reward for sweltering July and August is glorious golf weather for 10 straight months, where waitresses still call you "honey" and where Delta is ready when you are. You can get a good plate of shrimp and grits and a four-bedroom house for about the same price. Headquarters to the sugary drink capital of the world, people around here have a Coke and a smile, and that is not an endorsement, just a lifestyle.
But there's a tradeoff for such splendid bliss, and it comes in the form of outright sports agony and a study in chokeology. In layman's terms: Atlanta has an overgrown peach stuck in its throat. Out of 160 total professional sports seasons, Atlanta has a lone championship team, the '95 Braves, which is the worst percentage in America. The city has actually held a pair of victory parades, but one was for Evander Holyfield after he beat Mike Tyson (postscript: A street was also named after the champ but Evander Holyfield no longer lives on Evander Holyfield Drive. He lost his mansion to foreclosure). The sports teams will find a way to raise hopes with very good regular seasons and then see them crushed like Hank Aaron did Al Downing for No. 715 when the postseason arrives. It is simply taken for granted now that somehow and some way, the swift kick will be delivered aggressively and accurately for a battered city that can't cry uncle enough.
The only question now is, how will that blow be delivered? The Heyward injury was likely a grim forecast. The Braves already lost pitcher Tim Hudson to a broken ankle. Their commanding division lead notwithstanding, they aren't necessarily the hottest team in the NL, either. The rejuvenated Dodgers could ambush them in the postseason. Or maybe they could run into the Cardinals, a sobering thought for the Braves, who blew a 2-0 lead to St. Louis last fall at home in the winner-take-all wild card.
Then there are the Falcons. The Mike Smith-Thomas Dimitroff tandem has rescued the club from the Michael Vick mess. They are strong at the skill positions and good enough everywhere else. They're a Super Bowl contender, easily. But will a kick sail wide right, or a defender get beat deep, or Matt Ryan throw a pick, or does Smith go for it again on fourth-and-inches in a big spot and get nothing?
Atlanta doesn't own the market on traditionally crummy sports teams. That would be Cleveland. Atlanta's teams are bad because they gag. They steal dreams and spread despair, either by their own doing or by being in the wrong place, wrong time. Like: Kirby Puckett's Game 6 walk-off homer in '91. Or Dominique Wilkins getting out-dueled by Larry Bird in a sensational one-on-one playoff shootout. Those are events that were probably destined to happen, if only because of the greats who pulled them off. They weren't a fluke, unlike the event that sent Atlanta on the fast track to full-fledged funkdom. The city owes its futility to the Curse Of Leyritz.
Following that lone championship in '95, the Braves returned to the World Series and were up 2-0 on the Yankees with three games at home and though they dropped the next game, they led 6-0 in Game 4. At that very precise moment, under a cool, crisp October sky, Atlanta was feeling frisky.
The Summer Olympics were held there. The Georgia Dome was built for the Falcons and the Braves would play in a reconfigured Olympic Stadium. The local population tripled almost overnight, flooding the area with refugees escaping the cold and taxes from up north and bringing their passion and sensibilities for sports. The Hawks were transitioning from the Dominique years and ready to move into a new arena. The Braves were heavy with Hall of Fame pitchers, had a monopoly in the NL East in the '90s and were just two wins away from sending George Steinbrenner on a rampage.
The official slogan of Atlanta, "The City Too Busy To Hate" was about to be tweaked to "Too Busy Winning Championships And Crushing Your Team's Soul To Hate."
And then Jim Leyritz crushed that pitch.
In the eighth inning, when the ball sailed off the bat of a backup catcher and over the fence to tie a game the Yankees would later win along with the Series, Atlanta effectively burned for the second time in 150 years. Nothing has been the same since. It's been nothing but scorched earth.
The Braves ran their streak of division titles to 14 but never won another Series, thereby conducting the longest striptease in history.
Just two years ago, the Braves held an 8½ game lead going into September and collapsed and missed the postseason altogether. That peach in the throat became a grapefruit.
The Falcons went 14-2 in 1998 and then Eugene Robinson, the night before the Super Bowl, went on a late-night creep, got busted for solicitation, then was beaten deep for a touchdown in a game Atlanta lost, proving him to be the dirtiest of Birds.
The Hawks passed on Chris Paul and Deron Williams in the draft. That's why a Tuesday night at Philips Arena, when the Hawks are playing, is the loneliest place in town.
Atlanta lost an NHL team for the second time, which was news to some locals who didn't even know Atlanta had a hockey team.
The Olympics were an embarrassment, filled with transportation and organizational quirks (Atlanta's fault) and also a bombing (not Atlanta's fault) that convinced Juan Antonio Samaranch to break tradition and not to give Atlanta the "best ever" Olympics nod in his closing remarks.
It has been a free-fall for a city that also gave Brett Favre to Green Bay for some bratwurst. Atlanta is 1-5 in championship games and 6-11 in semifinals and has no team that identifies with being a lovable loser.
It's interesting, then, that despite this horrific existence, and in the face of all odds, people still believe. Look no further than Tony Gonzalez, the proud old tight end who decided to return for one more season with the Falcons before he heads to the Hall of Fame because "I think we can win it all."
After the Falcons lost to the Niners in the NFC Championship Game, Gonzalez almost hung it up. Correction: "I did retire," he said. But once the Falcons threw in some goodies, like a reduced training camp, Gonzalez followed his heart (football) and his gut, which told him he will finally get that elusive ring if he returns for an encore.
He says the Falcons have what it takes, and you must like Ryan and the addition of running back Steven Jackson and the motivation that comes with coming so close yet coming up short a year ago.
But the Falcons aren't without weaknesses, and same for the Braves, whose bats can turn into balsa wood without warning and who are still dealing with the stigma of swooning the last two autumns.
If it feels like a setup, and looks like a setup, then is that what it is? Should Atlanta brace for depression once again? With two teams seemingly in the hunt for a title, there is an unmistakable smell in the air and a sense in the gut that a collapse is coming. All Atlanta wants, for a change, is a reason to get choked-up from victory instead of defeat.