Gone with the wind? Someone do something about the heat

aliATLANTA – The first thing one notices about Atlanta are the trees. They’re everywhere. In fact, from a certain vantage point the landscape is shrouded with green as far as the eye can see. They weave in and out of the office buildings, too, which is quite something. How many urban centers have this many trees?

And we aren’t just talking about the fact that every other road is called Peachtree. Apparently when the city was rebuilt after Sherman’s march to the sea, they planted tons and tons of trees and ran out of ideas for street names.

There are worse things one can say about a city, I suppose. I haven’t checked out the crime statistics or the murder rate or anything like that. However, it’s interesting to note that even though Georgia is a profoundly deep Red State, its biggest city’s most well known citizens in recent history are so-called “liberals.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., former president Jimmy Carter, Ted Turner and Andrew Young looked at things differently than the consensus in these parts, yet still have streets and buildings named after them.

Go figure.

A couple of those buildings (and streets) I will get to see during my visit here to catch the Phillies play the Braves. Strangely, the Phillies are in Atlanta for the first time this season even though the Braves have been to Philadelphia twice. That means the Phillies have two more trips here during a stage of the season where things really get tight, the games take on added significance and the weather is much more hotter than it is now.

It gets really freaking hot down here. Hotlanta? More like Humidapolis.

Anyway, at Turner Field yesterday the first thing I wanted to see was the configuration of the playing field. After all, the ballpark was originally built to be the Olympic Stadium for the centennial games back in 1996. All of the track and field games were held at what is now Turner Field as well as the finish for the marathons and the opening and closing ceremonies.

Turner Field is where Muhammad Ali, clad in white, dramatically and unforgettably appeared out of nowhere with an Olympic torch in his hands and lit the cauldron. Now I’m not one who gets all choked up or overly-sentimental at sporting events – that’s just not how I am, because it’s just a game – but imaging Ali atop that ramp that hot summer night still gives me chills.

Now I’m a track geek. More specifically, I am a distance running nerd. Between watching lots of baseball and distance running I’m a hoot at parties. Woo-hoo!

So it was with great interest that I attempted to see if there were any relics or pieces of the Olympics in ’96 still within the playing surface at Turner Field. For instance, the track was said to be notoriously hard, which led to blistering times in a bunch of the running events. Like, it was during those games where Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia beat Paul Tergat of Kenya in the 10,000-meter dream race where Geb solidified his legend with an Olympic record and a dramatic victory.

Standing in the visiting team’s dugout I looked out at the field and thought, “This is where Bob Kennedy tried to steal the 5,000-meter finals when he brazenly surged to the lead at the top of the curve of the last lap. It was a move that was so daring and unexpected that I shrieked (not smart since the race wasn’t aired until nearly midnight and woke up the entire house) and thought of what a bad-ass Kennedy was even though he faded to sixth place.

That was how Prefontaine must have done it, I thought.

The lasting image of those games, though (aside from Ali), was Michael Johnson coming off the curve in the 200-meter finals. Clad in those gold Nikes, Johnson was moving so fast that it seemed as if Johnson was going to burst onto flame or take off like a rocket ship into the soupy, humid air.

How can anyone forget the shock on Johnson’s face when he turned around to see the clock and saw that he had just moved faster than any human being on two feet? Remembering Johnson’s reaction as well as the reaction of everyone else in the stadium is part of the reason why Usain Bolt’s record-breaking 200-meters victory in last summer’s Beijing Games was so amazing. No one thought Johnson’s record would ever be broken, or no one thought it would ever been broken after just 12 years.

fulton_countyRegardless, if it were up to me, I’d have plaques placed on the spot where all of those memorable events occurred. Certainly the Braves have done a nice job preserving old Fulton County Stadium by keeping some of the outfield fence as a relic in the parking lot beyond the gates of the “new” place. It was in the so called “Launching Pad,” where Chief Noc-A-Homa stood guard and Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record in 1974.

Anyway, we’ll be back at Turner Field tonight to see how the Phillies respond to last night’s extra-inning loss. And for the record, the warning track that rings the playing surface is very hard… no plaques though.

Game 4: The Kid and The Hammer

MILWAUKEE – If the folks in Philadelphia are torn about making the choice between the Eagles against the Redskins or the Phillies in Game 4 of the NLDS, sports fans in Wisconsin are close to a meltdown. After all, just about the same time as the first pitch is thrown here at Miller Park at noon central time, the Packers will be teeing it up at Lambeau Field against the Falcons.

They love the Packers here in Milwaukee and all over the dairy state. In fact, when talking to folks around town this morning about “The Game,” we were quick to learn that it didn’t mean playoff baseball.

Still, they have a very significant baseball history here in Milwaukee. A scan of the retired numbers hanging from the roof of Miller Park proves as much. Paul Molitor and Rollie Fingers were as good as any designated hitter and closer in the history of the game. Molitor collected more than 3,300 hits during his career, was MVP of the 1993 World Series and guided the Brewers to the playoffs twice during his Hall-of-Fame career.

Fingers was one of the first closer specialists in the game and helped redefine the role. But more than just a one-inning trick pony, Fingers worked two or three innings in order to pick up a save. In 1981 Fingers won both the Cy Young Award and the MVP for the Brewers by posting a 1.04 ERA during the strike-shortened season.

But when one talks baseball in Milwaukee, the two names are Hank Aaron and Robin Yount. Aaron, of course, was one of the greatest players in the history of the game. He also played in Milwaukee for 14 of his 23 big-league season for both the Braves and Brewers. Better yet, Aaron led Milwaukee to its one and only World Series victory by clubbing three homers and batting .393 in 1957 against the Yankees. Aaron’s Braves got there again in ’58 but lost to the Yankees in seven games even though Hammerin’ Hank hit .333.

In 1975, the season after he broke Babe Ruth’s all-time, home-run record, Aaron returned to Milwaukee to play his final two seasons for the Brewers. But by then Aaron was in his 40s, winding down and hardly the same player he was when he came up more than two decades before.

However, one of his teammates was a young 19-year-old shortstop already in his second fulltime, big-league season. Eventually, Yount went on to play 20 seasons for the Brewers, won the AL MVP twice and took Milwaukee to its last World Series in 1982. He retired with over 3,100 hits and was an easy selection for the Hall of Fame in 1999.

But in 1975 the Brewers had the youngest player in the league with the teenaged Yount and the oldest with the 40-plus Aaron. Needless to say it was a curious dichotomy, but one that Yount, even at such a young age, understood completely.

“He was significant,” Yount said about Aaron as the Brewers took batting practice before Game 4 of the NLDS on Sunday morning. “Even though I was just 19 I could see how important he was and not just in baseball, either. He had already broken the record. I knew how big he was, but he didn’t come off that way in person. I mean he didn’t let it get to him. We knew all he had accomplished in this game, but like I said before, he acted just like anyone else.”

The humanness of the all-time home run king is what stood out the most more than 33 years after the kid and the vet joined the same team.

“He was great to me and being around him was a great experience for me. What I learned was what a normal guy the greatest home-run hitter of all time at that time can be,” Yount said. “You know that made a huge impression on me. Here I was a young kid, in his second year in the Major Leagues, trying to learn this business and found out that everyone is pretty much the same. You know… he treated me just like he would anyone else. He was great to me.”

Both were even better to the game and to Milwaukee.

The Phillies are mixing things up a bit with their languid offense.

11 – Rollins, ss
8 – Victorino, cf
26 – Utley, 2b
6 – Howard, 1b
5 – Burrell, lf
28 – Werth, rf
19 – Dobbs, 3b
51 – Ruiz, c
56 – Blanton, p

The Brewers lost Rickie Weeks for the rest of the playoffs with a sprained left knee suffered in Game 3.

25 – Cameron, cf
5 – Durham, 2b
8 – Braun, lf
28 – Fielder, 1b
7 – Hardy, ss
1 – Hart, rf
30 – Counsell, 3b
18 – Kendall, c
37 – Suppan, p