Let's begin with an uncontroversial statement: Otis Nixon is the best Atlanta Braves player of all time. Not just the fastest, or the ugliest, or the coke-doingest, but the all-around greatest.
You beg to differ, eh? Well, were you there when The Big O stole six bases in a game in 1991? Or when he made The Catch in 1992, climbing the outfield fence to rob the sinister Pirate Andy Van Slyke of a home run? Were you in elementary school when he showed up (his step-son, your friend — whose real dad was Sugar Ray Leonard — went there) and signed your Swingster Braves jacket, which you still have in your closet, along with the giant commemorative pin signed by Greg Olson and the dusty ball signed by Mark Wohlers, and the Larry Wayne "Chipper" Jones rookie card which you almost sold last year, but — partly because it's not that valuable ($4), but mostly because it's too damn sentimental — held onto?
I didn't think so.
Sports artifacts and memories and allegiances are personal and idiosyncratic and thus open to endless heartfelt debate. But if you were a 10- to 14-year-old in Atlanta from 1991 to 1995, as I was, you have your own version of my list. That last season, which happened to coincide with a couple other firsts for me, was the one I'll always remember. (The 2011 season is the one I'll always try to forget, just like that playground "French kiss" with a precocious young lady named Danica, who seemed much more than a grade ahead.)
What else do I remember from that era? I remember my father, who isn't a big baseball fan, developing a passionate dislike for the small, hairy, but otherwise steady second baseman Mark Lemke — for little apparent reason. (Dad now says it was because The Lemmer was "just along for the ride.")
I remember my mother getting us two season tickets — split with another family — for Christmas, and practically having a seizure from excitement. My brother and I soon realized that one of the two tickets would always go to a legal driver.
I remember my friend's mom expressing a degree of enthusiasm for Ron Gant that was scary, swerving the car across the yellow line once when he hit a game-winning home run.
I remember David Justice's dimple, and Sid Bream's limp.
I remember my hippie art teacher installing a Greg Olson shrine above the rubber cement shelf. The vaporous memories make me light-headed again.
I remember breaking my nose the same day Steve Avery threw a complete-game shutout while playing "touch" football on the playground. I remember believing one had something to do with the other, and thinking that I'd have to keep injuring myself for the rest of the season.
I remember trying and failing to get out of school to go to the parade in 1995 celebrating the Braves only world championship. And I remember — no, I feel — the regret at not having done so. I won't miss another Atlanta sports parade, should one ever again occur.
I've never followed a team like I did in those prepubescent years, before Atlanta had the Olympics, or Flip Burger, or beer buying on Sundays. I've started to scrutinize the box scores, though, lately. Maybe it's beginning again.
I actually spoke to Otis last year, while reporting a magazine story on the least-liked Brave of all time, the real Kenny Powers. (Now a real estate developer, John Rocker has mellowed some, but he retained the steroid biceps and frightening, close-eyed stare.) Otis had his problems, too, in the '90s — I think the cocaine thing made him more human to me, somehow — but he seems to have put that stuff behind him. He's a preacher now. And really nice on the phone.
We talked for about half an hour. I told him about the autographed jacket in my closet, and that I remembered playing tetherball with his stepson. He told me about Jesus, and his gospel-singing wife. And he stuck up for Rocker, too, despite what the pitcher said to Sports Illustrated about people of color, among other kinds. I like to think that, in doing so, The Big O is proving my 12-year-old self right. He's a good dude. Maybe even the best.
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