It was a year to remember for the Braves in 2010. A team, a fan base, a city and a sport said good-bye to one of the all-time greats, as it was an end of an era. It was also the beginning of an era in right field, as the Braves welcomed a prospect with more hype than they had ever seen before. The Braves returned to the postseason for the first time in five years, and once there they gave us all near-death experiences on a nightly basis. Before the heartbreaking performance by a certain infielder in the postseason, that player provided the team with one of the biggest hits in recent memory to cap one of the biggest comebacks in team history. The Braves also welcomed a new addition at skipper for the first time in 20 years.
1. Bobby Cox Says Good-Bye
Bobby Cox joined the Braves in the role of manager in 1990 after a brief stint as general manager, and it was the second time he had been manager of the Braves. In the front office, Cox had laid the initial groundwork for what would become 14 straight division titles, and he was in the dugout for all 14. Cox stayed on five more years after the run ended, and it was only fitting that he returned to the playoffs in his final season.
The love and admiration for Cox was seen on a daily basis throughout the 2010 season, as he received gifts from (nearly) all of the organizations he faced. It was common for Cox to receive loud ovations from even the rival team's parks, and there was no shortage of dedications to him, such as fan groups and donations to his pet charity. Cox was extremely well-loved throughout baseball.
As was probably the case with most Braves fans, Cox's final good-bye following the eliminating loss against the Giants in the Division Series was tough to watch due to emotions, yet it was memorable. All of Braves nation shared a tear with him during that moment, and it is something no Braves fan will ever forget. It will be tough not hearing Cox's loud cheers for his players from the dugout, or his famous ejections as he stood up for his players. It was truly the end of an era in 2010.
2. Jason Heyward's Rookie Year
No other player in Braves history has ever entered his rookie season with such anticipation and hype surrounding him as Jason Heyward did in 2010. It was common for Heyward's name to appear at the top of prospect lists as the number one player in all of minor league baseball following the 2009 season, and expectations ran high for the Georgia native on Opening Day.
A best-selling author could not have scripted Heyward's Opening Day any better. Facing Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano, Heyward completely mashed a fastball on his first career at bat deep into the right field bullpen, answering the sold out crowd's chants of "Jason, Heyward" during the at bat. He sprinted around the bases as Turner Field erupted in what many would consider the loudest ovation ever heard in the park. Heyward's presence, and Heyward's blast breathed life back into a team and fan base unlike the city of Atlanta had seen since the 1990s.
Heyward carried the team at times through the season, and impacted the team's success so much he could easily be deemed worthy of team MVP. He was also more worthy of National League Rookie of the Year than many would give him credit for, but that is now in the past. Heyward will be counted on to lead the team offensively, as well as the organization as a whole, for years to come. And yes, I still have goosebumps from watching Heyward's Opening Day blast, or even just from thinking about it.
3. The Braves Return to the Playoffs
Behind a strong core of veterans, one of the best pitching staffs in baseball and a rookie right fielder, the Braves returned to the postseason for the first time since 2005. The race for a playoff spot went down to the final day, as the Braves clinched the Wild Card and the Giants clinched the NL West. The two faced off in the Division Series, and it proved to be the most exciting series of the playoffs.
The Braves ran into the train that was Tim Lincecum in the series opener, as they lost 1-0 behind one of the best performances of the postseason. The second game was a rollercoaster, as the Braves went behind early but came back and tied it late. After a game-saving double play started by the unlikely Troy Glaus at third in the 10th inning, Rick Ankiel launched a bomb into the bay in the 11th to even the series.
Game three also caused many near heart attacks, except this one did not end well for the Braves. A homer by Eric Hinske put the Braves ahead in the eighth inning, which at the time was one of the biggest in recent memory and caused one of the loudest ovations of the year. However, an epic meltdown by Brooks Conrad helped lead to the Giants taking the lead back in the ninth, and they won. The Braves would lose the next game to end the series, as all four games played were decided by one run in each. Conrad's four errors, and three in game three, were the story of the postseason, unfortunately.
Despite the outcome, the fans had Turner Field rocking in the two games played in Atlanta, including 53,000 in attendance for game three. The foam tomahawks that became famous during the run of the 1990s returned, and seeing them being chopped in unison by 53,000 people is something that I will never forget, nor will I forget how I felt as I watched Hinske's homer sail down the line and saw him sprint the bases. More goosebumps.
4. Brooks Conrad Hits an Epic Grand Slam
Despite the jokes and criticism that surrounded Conrad following his meltdown in the playoffs, Braves fans will still remember his walk-off grand slam during the season as one of the biggest home runs in years. The game on May 20 against the Reds was one of the best wins of the season.
The Reds were up by as much as eight runs in the fifth inning, and they led by six entering the ninth. However, four straight singles, a walk and an error led to a three-run deficit with the bases loaded for Conrad, who hit a fly ball that carried to the top of the left center field wall and bounced over for a game-winning grand slam. Conrad didn't even realize the ball had left the park and turned around to leave the base path, but the team rushing on the field signaled to him otherwise.
It was one of several great moments for Conrad during the season, as he became known as the master of clutch hits and homers, giving the Braves several wins with late hits. It was a season of extreme highs and lows for Conrad.
5. Fredi Gonzalez Fills Some Big Shoes
Before Cox was even out the door, the fans and media pondered the question of who would replace the legend as manager of the Braves. It isn't exactly everyday that someone new is hired for the role, and it was quite the attention grabber. However, as is often the case with such situations, the position was filled "in house" with somebody well known in the organization.
Fredi Gonzalez is a student of Cox, having served as his third base coach for a few years before taking the role as manager of the Marlins. After an unsuccessful stint in Florida due to several factors, Gonzalez had the position promised to him shortly after, and the unsurprising announcement was made soon after the season ended.
However, even though most could see the move coming, it was still big news for an organization that had only known one manager for the last 20 years. Gonzalez quickly reassured the team and fans that not much would change from the Cox days, as he often implements the moves he learned from Cox. Even so, it will be interesting to see how he handles the pressure that will come with the role. It's not like he has much to live up to.