On February 7, 2018, USA Today predicted that the Atlanta Braves would finish in third place in the National League East. Even the hometown Journal-Constitution predicted no better than a tie for third place, forecasting a 76-86 record. There were a lot of people who didn’t have much hope.
A few months ago at the quarterly meeting of the Georgia Humanities Council, I heard about the recent completion of the Georgia’s Footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Trail. One of the stops on the trail is the bronze statute of Dr. King unveiled on the grounds of the State Capitol in August, 2017. Also on the Trail is the First African Baptist Church in Dublin. It was there that a 15-year-old Martin King gave his first public speech as the winner of the Colored Elks Club of Georgia oratory contest. The speech was titled “The Negro and the Constitution.” After delivering that speech, on the trip back to Atlanta, he was – for the first time – asked to relinquish his seat to a white passenger and step to the back of the bus.
I was sitting that morning next to Ira Jackson. He is tall and lean and could be mistaken for a baseball player. He has a James Earl Jones-type voice. At the end of the report on the Trail, Ira sat back in his chair, stretched out his long legs and began to speak.
“When I was growing up in Atlanta,” he said, “and I walked downtown, across the square of the State Capitol, I walked under the shadow of the statues of those other men,” ... he paused. “I could not imagine that the day would come when Dr. King would be among them. Hope,” he said is his soft, deep voice, “is hard.”
I felt my breath catch in my throat and I knew he was right. But I wasn’t sure why. Over the following weeks the phrase kept rolling over and over in my mind as I tried to figure out what it meant. Every time I heard someone say, “I hope this meeting doesn’t last long,” or “I hope it doesn’t rain for the party.”
That is the kind of hope, I decided, that gets relegated to wishing and longing, no more useful than letters to Santa Claus. But hope is supposed to be more than that. It is, in New Testament terms, an anchor for the soul, the tangible thing that holds the vessel steady in the calm and propels it through the storm. Hope isn’t bound by the past or by predictions.
On March 29, 2018, opening day, the Atlanta Braves began the season with a 25-man roster and hope. And a lot of unexpected things happened over the next six months. Like a 20-year-old rookie hitting lead-off homers in five straight games. Like a veteran player in his 13th season making his first All-Star team. Like a pitcher coming back after 3½ Tommy John surgeries.
And on September 22, 2018, with eight games still to play, the Atlanta Braves clinched the pennant.
I don’t know if Ira Jackson was watching that game. I was. And I couldn’t help thinking that the 2018 Braves and the fight for racial equality have something in common, as do every other thought, activity, and endeavor of the human experience. They have in common the undeniable truth that hope is hard, but it is equally hard to resist.
Invisible statues become tangible and underdog teams become champions when someone is willing to hope.