Defending their title, losing their biggest hero to a rival faction, the return of their biggest remaining star from injury … this sure does sounds like a Pro Wrestling storyline.
Classic Professional Wrestling – or Sports Entertainment, if you prefer – when done best is based on several straight-forward premises:
- Tell an engaging story in which the audience can get emotionally invested;
- Have one participant(s) in the story the audience wants to boo (the heel) and one participant(s) that the audience wants to cheer (the babyface); and
- Eventually have the story end when good overcomes evil and the babyface(s) defeat the heel(s) (the pay-off) – even if evil gets retribution after defeat.
This is the same storyline that makes most epic stories, well, epic.
Star Wars, anyone?
Within these stories there can be a moment that creates a monumental shift in the long-term tale. The zenith of this is when the babyface – at their peak of all that is good and pure – turns evil. The wrestling, this is know as the heel-turn. At its best, it changes the way a character is perceived forever.
Good storytelling is simple. Great storytelling weaves in the complexities of telling multiple stories at once.
What does any of this have to do with Atlanta Braves baseball, you ask?
Ten years ago – 2012 – was the final season of Hall of Famer Chipper Jones’ career. The Braves were good (they won 94 games) with some established stars (Jones, Brian McCann, Tim Hudson) and even more young stars (Jason Heyward, Andrelton Simmons, Craig Kimbrel). It also had Freddie Freeman.
That Braves season ended in the first-ever National League Wild Card game. It was the legendary Infield Fly Game.
I was there.
Before the game, I was chatting with a certain Braves beat writer who will remain nameless. We were discussing what to expect in this winner-take-all game. There was a lot of unknowns, we agreed, but what I was most interested in was how the crowd would react to this “Game 7” atmosphere.
I shouldn’t have to explain what happened. IYKYK.
What I was most proud of during that game was the crowd reaction. I don’t condone throwing items on the field – especially items that could injury innocent fans – but what I did condone was the gusto with which Atlanta fans unleashed their displeasure.
Atlanta fans – up until then (and even now) – get a lot of flack for being docile. There was a whole narrative about how fans don’t support their teams or how Atlanta will never be a Pro Sports town because they only care about College Football.
That narrative was simplistic – and while it wasn’t totally off-base – it wasn’t correct. Yes, Atlanta fans were not as bombastic as other fanbases, but in the history of the city, the fans didn’t have a a lot of cheer for outside of the Braves run in the 1990s, and even then, there was a lot of heartbreak.
The Infield Fly Game was the start of the breaking of the mold. What Atlanta fans did that day was start a slow storyline turn.
I left that game with a lot of pride in Atlanta fans – and a decade later I still have it. Since then the team as cheers – and boos – with more vigor and verve than ever before. And while they aren’t Philly fans (and I say that with great respect for their propensity for vocal outpouring), they stuck up for themselves, showed pride and did so in a way that had a little bit of heel in it.
The biggest babyface on that team was Freeman. He was all that was good about the Atlanta Braves. A great guy, a big smile, a guy who single handedly made hugging other guys in the dugout the coolest thing to do. And he literally had a babyface in 2012.
He was an All Star, then a dad, then an MVP and then goes out and hits a home run and has the final put-out in the final game of the World Series. He’s a champion. Everyone loves Freddie.
Atlanta fans loved Freddie the most.
A love story gone array. The team of your heroes banding together after defeating the evil empires of the Dodgers and the Astros once again rallying together to fight their evil foes in an upcoming seven-month-long story.
This season’s story wasn’t one of redemption – that happened last year – but one of greatness; of becoming the empire that you either love or you hate. To be a team of legends.
But something happened that was unexpected. Their biggest hero – the person who most epitomized all that was good, all that was brave, he lingered on the sidelines. And when our team of heroes couldn’t wait any longer they sprung into action bringing in a mercenary to re-enforce their ranks.
Their biggest hero would not return.
Not only that, he then signed with the team who most wants to be an evil empire (even if, in reality, they haven’t been able to get the job done most of the time … sort of like a team we know and love from the 1990s).
Freddie Freeman. Heel?
In wresting, about 25 years ago, the simple story of good vs. evil changed. Audiences started to root for evil and sour on good. The heels became the babyfaces and the babyfaces became the heels – but not because of a storyline.
Audiences liked the rebellious nature of the heels and were agnostic, at best, for babyfaces who would rather play by the rules that win at all costs.
It was cool to be the bad guy.
And the good guy? The good guy started getting booed even through he/she/they didn’t do anything wrong.
Freddie Freeman didn’t do anything wrong. But this past off-season’s story sure sounds like when a babyface wrestler aligns himself with a manager that did he didn’t see as a heel manager, but turned out to be one.
That’s some real old-school wrestling storytelling, for sure.
Freddie Freeman. Unexpected heel? Really? Really.
So here we are, April 2022, the Atlanta Braves are the reigning and defending World Series Champions. They will be cheered at home and booed on the road – as it should be.
Their players – including their biggest star in Ronald Acuna, Jr. – are polarizing due to their often ostentatious displays of enthusiasm.
Atlanta Braves. Heels?
Atlanta Braves. Babyfaces?
Who cares! This is going to be a great story.
Hopefully this story will culminate in late October with the Dodgers and Braves facing each other in the National League Championship Series for the third consecutive year.
But before then, when Atlanta’s former hero returns for a mid-season series, how will the fans react?
What I hope – because this would be the best story – is that Freddie Freeman comes out to a rousing standing ovation that lasts for several minutes. Knowing Freddie as we do, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few tears welling up. As he waves to the crowd for the second or third time, saying thank you to a fanbase that embraced him as much as any player of his generation, it happens.
That moment, the crowd slowing comes back to reality.
Their former hero – the babyface of all babyfaces – is now the enemy. By his second at-bat, the cheers are replaced with a firestorm of boos raining down from all corners of the ballpark.
And henceforth, the boos for Freeman are louder than for any other opponent. Bryce Harper? Nope. Freddie Freeman.
This this was predetermined sports entertainment, imagine this ultimate roller-coaster of emotions in that first return to Cobb County:
Cheers. A standing ovation. A weak ground-out to first. Another standing ovation. Then a mixed reaction. A Freeman homerun. Boos raining down. A Braves late-inning rally. Cheers. An Olsen homerun give the Braves a lead. A standing ovation for the new good guy.
Good god almighty what a slobber-knocker!
Who ulitimently is the heel in this story? Is it Atlanta and its fans? Is it Freeman?
That all depend on your perspective.
Me? I’m all about the BOOM!
I’m rooting for the best story, bay-bay.