As you can tell by the title, this won’t be a pleasant article.
Atlanta sports has been a catalyst for pain and suffering for many many decades. The city’s major professional sports teams, the Falcons, Braves, Hawks and Thrashers, have induced a tortured existence of fandom for their fanbases.
I’m personally a huge fan of each of these Atlanta teams and have been for as long as I can remember, and I’m sure many of you are fans of each team as well. While I’m not old enough to have lived through every heartbreaking moment you’ll read on this list, I’ve suffered through most of them and am still waiting to see the first major professional Atlanta sports championship in my lifetime.
One of my favorite columnists, while he was still writing columns for ESPN and Grantland, is Bill Simmons. His columns in his early ESPN days were stellar, in my opinion. One of my favorite articles he’s ever written is the “Levels of Losing” work, detailing 16 different levels of sports heartbreak from least painful to most painful.
In reading the “Levels of Losing” a few times, I recalled heartbreaking moments in Atlanta sports history for nearly every detailed level. In doing so, I put those moments of heartbreaking history into an article, coinciding with Simmons’ work.
So why did I willingly choose to torture myself by re-living these moments and compiling them into an article of pure depression? That’s a good question. Maybe I’m just a masochist? But aren’t we all, if we willingly choose to suffer through these moments as Atlanta sports fans? As the Offspring once said in their hit song “Self Esteem,” the more you suffer, the more it shows you really care. I guess we care a lot then.
Maybe it’s for the preservation of history — putting every last drop of sorrow into one place to showcase how far this city’s sports fanbase has come, and how far its willing to go as far as loyalty is concerned.
If you’re not familiar with the history of Atlanta sports, particularly in big postseason moments, let me show you what this article will be, in a nutshell.
This has been the pinned tweet on my Twitter profile since July of 2016. That’s the description the Huffington Post had for Atlanta sports, and that was before Super Bowl 51 had even happened.
The format here is simple — I’ll write in Bill Simmons’ description for each level, and coincide that level with my own “Atlanta example” (some levels will have multiple examples). If you’re a big Atlanta sports fan and would rather not re-live these moments of sorrow, I suggest you don’t read any further.
Everything you see in a block-quote will be Simmons’ words, and the “Atlanta Example” will be my own words.
*Note, this will only include professional sports teams, no college teams. As a result, one of the levels, “the Drive-By Shooting,” won’t be featured as that’s specifically targeted toward college football scenarios, as stated by Simmons himself.
Level XVI: The Princeton Principle
Definition: When a Cinderella team hangs tough against a heavy favorite, but the favorite somehow prevails in the end (like Princeton almost toppling Georgetown in the ’89 NCAAs). … This one stings because you had low expectations, but those gritty underdogs raised your hopes. … Also works for boxing, especially in situations like Balboa-Creed I (“He doesn’t know it’s a damn show! He thinks it’s a damn fight!”). … The moment that always sucks you in: in college hoops, when they show shots of the bench scrubs leaping up and down and hugging each other during the “These guys won’t go away!” portion of the game, before the collapse at the end.
Atlanta Example - 2008 NBA Playoffs Round 1, Game 7: 8-seed Hawks lose to juggernaut Boston Celtics, who eventually won the NBA title.
The 2008 Atlanta Hawks, led by the likes of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Mike Bibby ended an eight-year playoff drought when they snuck into the 2008 playoffs as the 8-seed in the Eastern Conference, with a 37-45 record. Their opponent in that series was the juggernaut Boston Celtics, led by three future hall of famers in their prime -- Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. They finished the regular season with a 66-16 record: the best in the NBA.
The Celtics were supposed to handily sweep the overmatched Hawks and move on to more serious opponents, but the script didn’t work out that way. Atlanta was excited to see playoff basketball for the first time since 1999, and Phillips Arena was maybe the loudest venue in those playoffs. The Hawks fed off the crowd and won games 3, 4 and 6 in Atlanta. They had the city believing that they could topple Goliath at the TD Banknorth Garden in Boston in Game 7. The Hawks proceeded to get crushed, 99-65, as the clock strike midnight on their first-round cinderella story.
Level XV: The Achilles’ Heel
Definition: This defeat transcends the actual game, because it revealed something larger about your team, a fatal flaw exposed for everyone to see. … Flare guns are fired, red flags are raised, doubt seeps into your team. … Usually the beginning of the end. (You don’t fully comprehend this until you’re reflecting back on it.)
Atlanta Example - 2012 Wild Card Round: Falcons score two points in loss to Giants
The 2011 version of the Atlanta Falcons solidified a Wild Card berth with a 10-6 record, and fans were feeling good about a trip to the Meadowlands to face a New York Giants team which boasted an inferior 9-7 record. The Falcons proceeded to score two total points in an embarrassing 24-2 defeat against an Eli Manning-led team which would eventually shock the world by winning a Super Bowl that season.
This is the game which, looking back on it, showed that Head Coach Mike Smith was not the man who could lead Atlanta to the promised land. The Falcons would win 13 games and make it to the NFC Championship game under Smith a season later, but they only managed a 1-4 playoff record under the head coach, and wouldn’t sniff the postseason in the two years which followed that NFCCG run. Smith was eventually fired following the 2014 season. This rendition of the Falcons matched that Giants squad talent wise, but they were thoroughly out-coached and let the G-Men have their way with them up and down the field on national television.
Level XIV: The Alpha Dog
Definition: It might have been a devastating loss, but at least you could take solace that a superior player made the difference in the end. … Unfortunately, he wasn’t playing for your team. … You feel more helpless here than anything. … For further reference, see any of MJ’s games in the NBA Finals against Utah (’97 and ’98).
Atlanta Example - 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 7: Larry Bird torches the Hawks.
Game 7s in Boston have not been kind to the Atlanta Hawks. The 1988 version of the Hawks, led by the greatest player in franchise history - Dominique Wilkins - was maybe the team’s best chance of possibly winning a championship. After winning Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead against the top-seeded Celtics, the Hawks lost a tight Game 6 in Atlanta and then had their heart ripped out of their chest by the great Larry Bird in the old Boston Garden in Game 7.
Wilkins and Bird basically played a game of glorified one-on-one in Game 7, putting their respective teams on their backs and matching each other shot for shot. Wilkins ended with a game-high 47 points, but Bird’s 34 points (including 20 in the fourth quarter) led the Celtics to the Conference Finals in a 118-116 victory. Who knows how the landscape of Hawks history might have changed with a victory in that game, but because of Larry Bird, all we can do is wonder.
Level XIII: The Rabbit’s Foot
Definition: Now we’re starting to get into “Outright Painful” territory. … This applies to those frustrating games and/or series in which every single break seemingly goes against your team. … Unbelievably frustrating. … You know that sinking, “Oh, God, I’ve been here before” feeling when something unfortunate happens, when your guard immediately goes shooting up? … Yeah, I’m wincing just writing about it.
Atlanta Example - 2010 NLDS, Game 3: The Brooks Conrad game
What can you say about Brooks Conrad and Game 3 of the 2010 NLDS against the San Francisco Giants? After an all-time classic Game 2 win in San Fran tied the series at 1-1 in a best-of-5 series, the Braves looked to take full control in Game 3, but were swallowed by Brooks Conrad’s errors at second base.
Conrad set an NLDS record with three errors in this game. His first error in the 1st inning: harmless. His second error in the 2nd inning resulted in a run and a 1-0 lead which the Giants would take into the 8th inning. Eric Hinske stepped up and hit a go-ahead pinch hit two-run home run in the bottom of that inning to give the Braves what seemed like a win at the time. Then, with the score tied at 2-2 in the 9th inning, Conrad let the ball go through his legs as the game-winning run came across home plate for the Giants.
The Braves lost that game 3-2, with two of the Giants’ runs coming off of Conrad errors. Instead of taking a 2-1 series lead with a chance to close things out at home, Atlanta went down 2-1 and were eliminated after losing Game 4. The Giants went on to win the World Series. Fair or not, Brooks Conrad will be remembered as our Bill Buckner.
Level XII: The Sudden Death
Definition: Is there another fan experience quite like overtime hockey, when every slap shot, breakaway and centering pass might spell doom, and losing feels 10 times worse than winning feels good (if that makes sense)? … There’s only one mitigating factor: When OT periods start piling up and you lose the capacity to care anymore, invariably you start rooting for the game to just end, just so you don’t suffer a heart attack.
Atlanta Example - 2007 NHL Playoffs Round 1, Game 2: Thrashers lose to the Rangers with four mins left in the 3rd period.
This wasn’t exactly overtime Hockey, but it might as well have been. The Thrashers spent 11 seasons in Atlanta after being founded as an expansion franchise in 1999, and were only relevant for one of those seasons — in 2006-07. That year, they won the Southeast Division title, and had home-ice advantage as the 3-seed in the Eastern Conference. They ended up getting swept by the New York Rangers in the first round.
After dropping Game 1, the Thrashers were in the middle of a must-win Game 2 at Phillips Arena. Thrasher great Ilya Kovalchuk tied the game at 1-1 early in the third period, but that just set the stage for Brendan Shannon of the Rangers to rip Atlanta’s heart out by scoring the game-winning goal with just four minutes remaining in the contest. It would be the last playoff game to ever be played in Atlanta, as the Thrashers would go on to lose the next two games in New York. They would never return to the playoffs while in Atlanta, and would eventually be sold and relocated to Winnipeg in 2011.
Level XI: Dead Man Walking
Definition: Applies to any playoff series in which your team remains “alive,” but they just suffered a loss so catastrophic and so harrowing that there’s no possible way they can bounce back. … Especially disheartening because you wave the white flag mentally, but there’s a tiny part of you still holding out hope for a miraculous momentum change. … So you’ve given up, but you’re still getting hurt, if that makes sense. … Just for the record, the 2002 Nets and 2005 Astros proved that you can fight off The Dead Man Walking Game, but it doesn’t happen often.
Atlanta Example - 2015 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 3: Hawks lose to the Cavaliers in overtime.
The 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks were the most successful team in franchise history (not counting the St. Louis days). They had a magical regular season, parlaying eventual coach of the year Mike Budenholzer’s system into a 60-win regular season, and were the subsequent number 1 seed in the Eastern Conference heading into the playoffs. They would get to the Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history. It was in that round where they ran into the brick wall of their generation — Lebron James.
Despite having home-court advantage, the Hawks were seemingly overmatched against James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in a war of attrition which resulted in major injuries for both teams. After dropping the first two games in Atlanta, the Hawks were staring an 0-3 deficit in the face. That was something no team in NBA history had ever overcome. Knowing this, they played inspired basketball in Game 3, and had a four-point lead with a minute and a half left to play in regulation. Atlanta couldn’t hang on, however, and would end up losing in overtime, 114-111.
When Shelvin Mack’s potential game-tying corner 3-point attempt at the buzzer clanked off the rim, this series was effectively over despite the fact that there was still Game 4 left to be played. The Hawks had their spirit crushed after failing to win this one, and were essentially a dead man walking going into that fourth game (they were blown out in that one). This game in a vacuum hurts enough, but it’s even more painful when you realize that the Hawks finally had their window of contention open for the first time in decades, and it was shut after just a few short months thanks to Lebron James.
Level X: The Monkey Wrench
Definition: Any situation in which either (A) the manager/coach of your team made an idiotic game decision or (B) a referee/umpire robbed your team of impending victory. … The Monkey Wrench Game gains steam as the days and months roll along.
Atlanta Example(s) - 2012 MLB Wild Card Game: Braves lose to the Cardinals after the infield fly rule destroys their momentum in a comeback attempt
2013 NLDS Game 4: Braves collapse against the Dodgers when Fredi Gonzalez doesn’t bring Craig Kimbrel into the game in the 8th inning.
This is a two-for-one in Braves heartbreak because why wouldn’t it be? The first scenario is the Braves having their comeback attempt against the St. Louis Cardinals in the Wild Card Game completely capitulate because of a truly horrendous call by the umpire; and the second scenario involves the Braves blowing a lead and getting eliminated in Game 4 of the NLDS because manager Fredi Gonzalez decided not to bring in his all-world closer, Craig Kimbrel, before the 9th inning.
Down 6-3 in the 8th inning of the 2012 one-game elimination Wild Card Round, the Braves managed to load the bases with just one out and were looking to mount a vicious comeback with momentum fully on their side… or so we thought. Despite the fact that Andrelton Simmons’ pop fly wasn’t caught, the umpiring crew called the infield fly rule, which immediately rules the batter out if the ball is popped up inside the infield where the infielder can catch the ball with “ordinary effort.” There was one problem, however — THE BALL LANDED IN THE OUTFIELD! Instead of having a chance to hit with the bases loaded and one out, the Braves now had runners on second and third base with two outs. They ended up going down with a whimper, losing 6-3, after not scoring in that inning. I’m not telling you that they would’ve made that comeback, but they deserved to have a chance at it — a chance which they were robbed of. Just the words “infield fly” are enough to infuriate a Braves fan to this day.
In 2013, the Braves were facing another elimination scenario — down 2-1 in the NLDS best-of-5 series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. A win would force a decisive Game 5 back in Atlanta, and the Dodgers had their ace, Clayton Kershaw, on the mound. The Braves chased Kershaw after six innings and led 3-2 going into the 8th inning. Atlanta had the best closer in the game at the time, Craig Kimbrel, ready to shut the door. Manager Fredi Gonzalez opted not to use him before the 9th inning, however. As Atlanta luck would have it, LA’s Juan Uribe blasted a go-ahead two-run home run to give the Dodgers a 4-3 lead. I still remember watching Kimbrel look on from the bullpen in disgust following that home run, knowing that he should’ve been in the game at that point. The lasting memory Braves fans have of Fredi Gonzalez’s failed tenure as the team’s manager is him leaving the game’s best closer in the ‘pen to adhere to his failing old-school baseball mentality. The Braves wouldn’t return to the playoffs for another five years, and would once again lose to the Dodgers in their next NLDS appearance, in 2018.
Level IX: The Full-Fledged Butt-Kicking
Definition: Sometimes you can tell right away when it isn’t your team’s day. … And that’s the worst part, not just the epiphany but everything that follows — every botched play; every turnover; every instance where someone on your team quits; every “deer in the headlights” look; every time an announcer says, “They can’t get anything going”; every shot of the opponents celebrating; every time you look at the score and think to yourself, “Well, if we score here and force a turnover, maybe we’ll get some momentum,” but you know it’s not going to happen, because you’re already 30 points down. … You just want it to end, and it won’t end. … But you can’t look away. … It’s the sports fan’s equivalent to a three-hour torture session.
Atlanta Example - 2011 Divisional Round Playoff: 1-seed Falcons get annihilated by the Packers.
The 2010 Atlanta Falcons gave the city hope for a Super Bowl title en route to the team’s most successful regular season since the NFC Championship winning year of 1998. Led by third-year QB Matt Ryan, the Falcons had finally figured everything out: they finished 13-3, had home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and were about to win it all for the city. Then, on that fateful January night, Aaron Rodgers came into the Georgia Dome for the Divisional Round and did unspeakable things to the Birds.
The Packers eviscerated the Falcons, 48-21, in that game. It all looked so promising at the start of the evening — Eric Weems broke a 7-7 tie with a kick return touchdown to give Atlanta the 14-7 lead before everything came crashing down. When Tramon Williams picked Matt Ryan off and took the interception back for a touchdown to give Green Bay a 28-14 lead right before the half, the game was over, but we still held out false hope that the Birds could possibly come back.
What Aaron Rodgers did to the Falcons that evening was a torture session. It was like watching someone you deeply cared about tied down to a bed, getting their limbs cut off one by one by an evil surgeon, and you can do nothing to stop it. Rodgers went for 366 passing yards and three touchdowns but with all of the timely throws and conversions, it felt like he had thrown for 600 yards (he actually could have probably thrown for 600 yards if he really needed to). The Packers out-gained the Falcons in total yards — 442-194. It felt like the ghost of William T. Sherman had marched into the Georgia Dome that night, wearing number 12 for Green Bay, and lit all of our hopes on fire.
Level VIII: The “This Can’t Be Happening”
Definition: The sibling of the Full-Fledged Butt-Kicking. … You’re supposed to win, you expect to win, the game is a mere formality. … Suddenly your team falls behind, your opponents are fired up, the clock is ticking and it dawns on you for the first time, “Oh, my God, this can’t be happening.”
Atlanta Example - 2018 Divisional Playoff Round: Falcons lose to Nick Foles and the Eagles.
Everything had come together for the 2017 Falcons to secure a repeat trip to the NFC Championship Game — the standings had shaken out so that they had to go through young Jared Goff, who would be making his first playoff start, and backup Nick Foles on their trip to the title game. This would be one of those rare instances where the Wild Card Game would be more difficult than the Divisional Round Game. After all, the Eagles would be no match for the Falcons without their perennial MVP candidate QB Carson Wentz. Or so we thought.
The plan had gotten off to a great start — Atlanta went to Los Angeles and disposed of the Rams. The game in Philly would be a mere formality before the real test of either going to Minnesota or New Orleans in the round after that. The Eagles, however, absolutely bullied the Falcons in the trenches on both sides of the ball, and succeeded in turning this into an ugly ground-and-pound football game.
The defense did everything asked of them, but the offensive struggles which plagued the team all season were too much to overcome. The Falcons only scored 10 points all afternoon, and failed to score what would have been the game-winning touchdown on a critical goal-to-go situation at the very end of the game. OC Steve Sarkisian made some downright awful offensive play calls (the shovel pass to Terron Ward; the rollout on 4th-and-goal), and Atlanta left Philly with a shocking loss. Looking at how awful Minnesota was a week later, it’s fair to assume that this loss is what kept the Falcons from making it back to the Super Bowl and getting their rematch against the Patriots.
Level VI: The Broken Axle
Definition: When the wheels come flying off in a big game, leading to a complete collapse down the stretch… You know when it’s happening because (A) the home crowd pushes their team to another level, and (B) the team that’s collapsing becomes afflicted with Deer-In-The-Headlitis. … It’s always fascinating to see how teams bounce back from The Broken Axle Game.
Atlanta Example(s) - 1980 Divisional Round: Falcons Collapse down the stretch against the Cowboys.
Super Bowl 33: Falcons capitulate against the Broncos
2013 NFC Championship: Falcons blow a 17-0 lead against the 49ers.
This is actually a THREE-for-one because there were more heartbreaking moments in Atlanta history than can fit on Simmons’ list. The initial collapse in 1980 when the Falcons were poised to win the Super Bowl still haunts those who were old enough to have witnessed it. The Falcons self-destructed in their first ever Super Bowl appearance in the 1998 season, and then blew a 17-0 lead against the 49ers 14 years later to cost themselves a chance to get back to the Super Bowl for only the second time in team history. Three good chances at hoisting the Lombardi, all painfully taken from us.
In 1980, the Falcons had a roster filled with Pro Bowlers. They statistically had a top five offense and a top five defense, and finished the regular season with the best record in the NFC. They were one of the heavy favorites to win the Super Bowl, but in the Divisional Round against the Dallas Cowboys they blew a 24-10 fourth quarter lead in a heartbreaking collapse. With a chance to effectively end the game late in the fourth quarter on a 3rd-and-short, and Dallas’ Ed “Too Tall” Jones in an offside position, Center Jeff Van Note didn’t snap the ball so that he wouldn’t risk breaking QB Steve Bartkowski’s finger as Bartkowski wasn’t ready for the snap. Van Note still expresses frustration over the decision while Bartkowski once told him: “Instead of breaking my fingers, you broke my heart (by not snapping it).”
The 1998 “Dirtybird” Falcons, led by All-Pro RB Jamal Anderson, shocked the football world by beating the unstoppable Minnesota Vikings in the 1999 NFC Championship Game (if there was a Minnesota version of the “Levels of Losing” I’m sure that game would be rated as the most painful in that city’s history). The Falcons ran into John Elway and the Broncos in the Super Bowl. It was just a one-score game in the second quarter when Elway hit Rod Smith for an 80-yard touchdown which mentally destroyed the Falcons. The wheels came flying off and the Broncos cruised to a 34-19 victory. Oh, and also the team’s Pro Bowl Safety and “man of the year,” Eugene Robinson, was arrested the night before that game for soliciting a prostitute.
The 2012 Falcons, much like the 2010 version of the team, went 13-3 in the regular season and clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They even won the Divisional Round Game against the Seattle Seahawks before meeting Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers at the Georgia Dome, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Atlanta used Julio Jones to blitz the niners early (figuratively speaking), jumping out to a 17-0 lead following two touchdown receptions by the Alabama product. When the 49ers decided to deliver a counter-punch instead of just lay down, Mike Smith and the Falcons had no idea of what to do. San Fran used TE Vernon Davis to annihilate Atlanta over the middle of the field and came roaring all the way back to win 28-24. Watching this game, I felt my heart rip out of its chest when Matt Ryan threw that incomplete pass targeting Roddy White on 4th-and-4 from San Francisco’s 10-yard line to effectively end the game. I’ll also never forgive Harry Douglas for tripping over his own two feet on what should have been a walk-in (game-winning) touchdown a few plays earlier.
Level V: The Role Reversal
Definition: Any rivalry in which one team dominated another team for an extended period of time, then the perennial loser improbably turned the tables. … Like when Beecher fought back against Schillinger in “Oz,” knocked him out and even pulled a Najeh Davenport on his face. For the fans of the vanquished team, the most crushing part of the “Role Reversal” isn’t the actual defeat as much as the loss of an ongoing edge over the fans from the other team. You lose the jokes, the arrogance and the unwavering confidence that the other team can’t beat you. There’s almost a karmic shift. You can feel it.
Atlanta Example - The Saints win Super Bowl 44.
Atlanta wasn’t directly involved in this moment, but there’s no fanbase which has suffered more as a result of the Saints winning the Super Bowl than the Falcons’.
There’s legitimately no rivalry in the NFL which induces more hate than Falcons vs. Saints: people who aren’t from the southeast can try to deny the legitimacy of this rivalry all they want, but they’re completely wrong if they do. The fanbases of these two teams despise each other, and things can get really nasty in their interactions with one another.
Overall, the Falcons have a lot of bragging rights over the Saints — as of this writing, they lead the all-time series 51-47 (Saints fans will bring up the record from 2006 on, thinking they can ignore the 40 years of history before that for some reason); they won the only playoff meeting between the two teams (1991, in the Louisiana Superdome); the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium is much nicer than New Orleans’ old and raggedy Superdome and Atlanta>New Orleans in general. However, that Super Bowl win by the Saints is the great equalizer in all of this. They’ve won the big one and the Falcons haven’t, and Saints fans will taken every opportunity to let us know about it.
Level IV: The Guillotine
Definition: This one combines the devastation of The Broken Axle Game with sweeping bitterness and hostility. … Your team’s hanging tough (hell, they might even be winning), but you can feel the inevitable breakdown coming, and you keep waiting for the guillotine to drop, and you just know it’s coming — you know it — and when it finally comes, you’re angry that it happened and you’re angry at yourself for contributing to the debilitating karma. … These are the games when people end up whipping their remote controls against a wall or breaking their hands while pounding a coffee table. … Too many of these and you’ll end up in prison.
Atlanta Example - 1991 World Series Game 6: Kirby Puckett Walkoff home run/Lonnie Smith’s base running error in Game 7
This is where the list gets into another stratosphere of depression. Up until their 1995 championship, the 1991 Braves had the greatest season in major professional Atlanta sports history — their worst-to-first run easily eclipsed anything the Falcons had done as a franchise up until that point, and anything the Hawks had done since moving to Atlanta. The city fell in love with that team, which was led by the likes of Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and NL MVP Terry Pendleton. When Smoltz threw a shutout to win Game 7 of the NLCS, the ‘91 Braves seemed like they were destined to win the World Series.
In those finals, they went up against another worst-to-first team — the Minnesota Twins — in what would become an instant classic. Atlanta went into Game 6, at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, up 3 games to 2, with three of those five contests decided in a team’s final at-bat. Game 6 went into extra innings, tied at 3-3. The Twins’ best player, Kirby Puckett, was up to bat to lead off the bottom of the 10th inning, and he sent Charlie Leibrandt’s 2-1 count pitch into the stands to tie the series up at 3 games apiece.
In Game 7, John Smoltz pitched an absolute masterpiece, but was matched pitch for pitch by Minnesota’s Jack Morris. Smoltz would go 7.1 innings, not giving up a run, but Morris shut the Braves out throughout all 10 innings. Gene Larkin would hit a walk-off single with the bases loaded to break Atlanta’s heart for the first of many times in the 90s. Braves fans will always remember that fateful eighth inning, however, when Lonnie Smith slowed up rounding second base after getting faked out by the Twins’ infielders. As a result, he failed to score what would’ve been the go-ahead run on Terry Pendleton’s double. He’d get stranded at third base and Atlanta would lose Games 6 and 7 of the World Series in extra innings.
Level III: The Stomach Punch
Definition: Now we’ve moved into rarefied territory, any roller-coaster game that ends with (A) an opponent making a pivotal (sometimes improbable) play or (B) one of your guys failing in the clutch. … Usually ends with fans filing out after the game in stunned disbelief, if they can even move at all. … Always haunting, sometimes scarring.
Atlanta Example - 1996 World Series, Game 4: Braves blow a 6-0 lead in the game, and also a 2-0 series lead, to eventually lose 4-2 to the Yankees.
Up until that game which you know will be number one on this list, Game 4 of the 1996 World Series was the single biggest collapse in Atlanta sports history, given the circumstances. The Braves were looking to repeat as World Champions after delivering the first (and only) major professional title to the city of Atlanta. At one point during that fateful October, that repeat seemed like a foregone conclusion. Then, everything melted down.
The New York Yankees had home-field advantage in the World Series, and the first two games were played in the Bronx. Behind the stifling heroics of John Smoltz and Greg Maddux, who gave up one run combined in their initial starts, the good guys found themselves coming back home to Atlanta with a 2-0 series lead. After losing Game 3, all seemed to be back on track in Game 4 when the Braves led 6-0 after five innings.
This is where I wish I could tell you that the Braves closed it out, and then went on to win Game 5 to celebrate another title in front of their home fans, but you and I both know that this city doesn’t have that type of good fortune when it comes to its sports teams. The Yankees would score three runs in the sixth inning, and then Jim Leyritz would hit a three-run home run to tie the game in the 8th inning with Andruw Jones seeing the ball go out of his reach after he climbed the fence for it. In that moment, everyone in Atlanta knew that that sequence was symbolic of the World Series trophy going just out of our reach.
The Yankees would end up scoring another two runs in the 10th inning to tie the series at 2-2, and to shatter Atlanta’s psyche. The Braves would go on to score just three more combined runs in games 5 and 6, as the Yankees’ four combined runs would be enough to eek out one-run victories in both of those games. Atlanta will be haunted by the second half of that Game 4 forever, as that majestic team of the 90s would end up winning just one World Series when it could/should have won at least three or four. It’s the story of our lives.
Level II: The Goose/Maverick Tailspin
Definition: Cruising happily through the baseball regular season, a potential playoff team suddenly and inexplicably goes into a tailspin, can’t bounce out of it and ends up crashing for the season. In “Top Gun,” the entire scene lasted for 30 seconds and we immediately moved to a couple of scenes in which Tom Cruise tried to make himself cry on camera but couldn’t quite pull it off. In sports, the Goose/Maverick Tailspin could last for two weeks, four weeks, maybe even two months, but as long as it’s happening, you feel like your entire world is collapsing. It’s like an ongoing Stomach Punch Game. And when it finally ends, you spend the rest of your life reliving it every time a TV network shows a montage of the worst collapses in sports history. Other than that, it’s no big deal.
Atlanta Example - 2011 Braves blow an 8.5 game September lead and miss out on the Wild Card.
I don’t personally consider this one to be more painful than some of the other moments on this list, but the scenario (dis)graces Simmons’ list at number two nonetheless. In 2011, Braves fans went from marking their calendar with October baseball to being in utter shock and disbelief by the end of September.
The 2011 Braves were unlucky to be sharing a division with arguably the most talented team in baseball in the Philadelphia Phillies (the only team in the majors to win over 100 games that year). Nonetheless, the Wild Card as a way into the postseason was not only up-for-grabs but also a foregone conclusion by the time September rolled around, with Atlanta finding itself 8.5 games ahead of the nearest challenger. Then, one of the greatest collapses in baseball history happened. The Braves all of a sudden forgot how to hit, and their lights-out bullpen which shortened the game to six innings completely burned out from overuse. Atlanta would lose 18 of its final 26 games, while the St. Louis Cardinals would come storming back in the standings.
There was still hope on the final day of the season to at least force a one-game playoff with the Cards for the rights to the Wild Card spot. On that final day, the Cardinals eviscerated the inferior Houston Astros while the Braves were hosting the formidable Phillies. Atlanta went into the 9th inning of that game up 3-2, but all-world closer Craig Kimbrel blew the save opportunity as Atlanta lost this one 4-3 in the 13th inning. Philly completed the sweep, and the Braves crashed out in historic fashion. Atlanta missed out on the playoffs by one game, while losing their final five games of the season.
The Cardinals would go on to win the World Series that year. It was the final season of the old Wild Card rules where just the best second placed team clinched a postseason spot as opposed to the two best second placed teams playing out a one-game playoff for the right to extended postseason baseball. The next season, Atlanta would be the best second placed team in the NL and would have gotten direct entrance into the playoffs had it not been for the new Wild Card rules being in place. Instead, they would face those same Cardinals in a one-game playoff, and would get knocked out by them again (see: Infield Fly).
Level I: That Game
Definition: One of a kind. … combines The Guillotine and The Stomach Punch.
Atlanta Example - Super Bowl 51: Falcons blow a 28-3 lead to the Patriots.
Everyone reading this (and I honestly have no idea how anyone still is reading this at this point) knew that this would come in at number one. This was easily the worst moment in Atlanta sports history, and one of the worst moments of my life.
We all know what happened in this game — the Falcons got out to a 28-3 lead in the third quarter of the Super Bowl and the champagne bottles were getting popped open throughout Atlanta. But, let’s be honest, nobody who’s been truly living and dying with this franchise was convinced that we had done it, not yet at least. The game seemed over to most, but all you had to do was look into the eyes of the truest die-hard Falcons fans throughout that third quarter, while the situation was oblivious to most, and those eyes would send you a telekinetic message of “No… This can’t be happening. Not like this.”
A team had never even blown a 10-point lead in Super Bowl history up to this point, and the Falcons somehow managed to blow a 25-point lead in this game. To be completely honest with you, I still have no idea how it happened. The Patriots needed a million different things to go exactly right for them to come back, and all of those things went exactly right for them. Had just one thing gone the other way — Freeman not missing the block, Matthews not holding while in FG range, Coleman not getting hurt, running the ball while in FG range on another drive, the overtime coin toss ect. — we’d be celebrating that 2016 season as the greatest ever.
To this day, I still can’t look at highlights of this game without it ruining my day. The worst part of it all is that the Robert Alford pic 6 and the Julio Jones sideline catch in the fourth quarter were supposed to be the greatest plays in franchise history, but instead they’ve turned into painful reminders that we blew it in a way no other team in NFL history has blown it before. Time may heal all wounds, but the scars from this one will always remain visible.
These teams represent Atlanta and, by extension, represent us. We’ll stand side by side with them, no matter how much pain we have to endure as a result, and no matter how far away the light at the end of the tunnel seems to be.
One day, Atlanta will take its turn at the top of the mountain, and we’ll experience a parade up and down Peachtree. It’s a parade that has populated my dreams like a welcomed and eagerly anticipated guest.
If I’m somewhere else at that point in my life, I will make it back home to Atlanta (God willing) so that I can experience that triumph. I will stand side by side next to all of you, as we exorcise the demons of this Kafka-esq cruelty. Until that day comes, however, we’ll stand side by side and do the only thing we can do at this point — hope,