The boys first met on an all-star team when they were 12 and quickly bonded over their two first loves, baseball and the Atlanta Braves. Often they sat in the stands at Braves games and hoped that one day it would be them playing on that field. For Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur, nothing was more fun than going to Braves games -- except playing in their own Little League games. Nothing could top that. They were both stars at that level and soon they were much better than the other boys.
"You could always tell he had such a sweet swing," Francoeur, 21, said of McCann.
On Thursday, that sweet swing lined a Roger Clemens fastball over the right field fence for a three-run home run that tied the National League Division Series against the Houston Astros at one game apiece and invigorated a team and a city. These young Braves, many of them from Georgia, seem likely to continue the team's dominance in the National League East. Perhaps they are also stirring up souls who had become bored by their Braves.
"I think it changed the atmosphere in this city a little bit," Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox said. "We've always had good clubs, not always veterans. We've always had young kids but nothing to this extent during my tenure. Some of those kids are from the area. It really caught on. It energized the town, and created a tremendous amount of interest in the team. You know, they were kind of the underdog kids, and people root for that."
McCann, 21, one of the "Baby Braves," as Cox has dubbed them, has received phone calls and e-mails about his Game 2 exploits from 30 to 40 friends in the area, by the catcher's own estimation. "Did you realize what you just did?" they asked.
It was in the mid- to late-1990s when Atlanta General Manager John Schuerholz noticed a hotbed of baseball talent had sprung up right in his own town. The best part was that hardly anybody realized it and the cost-conscious Braves didn't have to spend much money to find any of these players. It was their secret.
"We saw it happening and we made an effort to mine this talent we had in the area," Schuerholz said.
By the end of this season, six young players brought up from the minors were from Georgia -- five from Atlanta -- and each made important contributions.
"A lot of us wanted to play for the Braves," Francoeur said. "It's great to be a part of it now and be part of the tradition."
The city adopted them and soon the stands were full of their friends and families. And amazingly, as soon as these young players were called up, the Braves started winning.
"That's really sort of the unique aspect of it," Schuerholz said. "I don't think them being from Atlanta affected us winning, but it just makes the story a little more compelling. It's a wonderful story. And our fans have really taken to them."
Some have theorized that it was the Braves' success in the 1990s that has spawned so much major league talent in the Atlanta area. Kids grew up watching a winning team and many of them played baseball because of it. McCann had a poster of pitcher John Smoltz -- now his teammate -- taped up to his wall.
"Now that makes me feel a little different," Smoltz said.
Smoltz is the only remaining player from the Braves team that started the string of 14 consecutive division titles in 1991.
"Hopefully, I can turn the baton over to them," Smoltz said.
The kids have done a good job so far. Aside from McCann's home run, which was the first time a Brave had homered in his first postseason at-bat, rookie outfielder Ryan Langerhans is 2 for 5 and Francoeur is 3 for 7 in this best-of-five NL Division Series.
Francoeur, also an outfielder, was the first to greet McCann at home plate after his home run on Thursday. The two hugged and celebrated, much like they had done as kids. Francoeur then slapped McCann on the head and the young catcher roared in excitement.
"You couldn't write a better script," McCann said, "for any of this."