When the visiting team calls for a relief pitcher at SunTrust Park, the stadium lights dim.
The fans hold their phones aloft with their flashes illuminated, and a rhythmic chanting and pounding begins that’s meant to be evocative of the culture of the people who inhabited Georgia both before it became a colony and then a state. They move their arms rhythmically up and down to mimic the action of a tomahawk.
In Atlanta, it’s called “the chop,” and it’s a part of the baseball tradition here that has detractors and supporters on both sides. It is part of the fan experience, and so the fans are unlikely to notice when their pantomiming replicates the history of the pitcher running to the mound.
St. Louis Cardinals reliever Ryan Helsley was born, raised, and went to school in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. He’s a member of the Cherokee Nation who attended Cherokee schools and speaks the Cherokee language. His ancestors were marched from Georgia to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears.
“It just kind of devalues our Cherokee heritage and the Native American history,” Helsley said Friday. “Us, as Cherokee native people, went through a lot in this country.”
“It’s more of a disappointment type thing. It doesn’t, like, make me mad or anything, it’s just kind of like a disrespect thing. It shows less respect for the people.”
Helsley spent the majority of his rookie season bouncing back and forth between the Cardinals and Triple-A Memphis. In the majors, he served largely as the backup for starter Michael Wacha before transitioning into shorter and higher leverage outings down the stretch. His 2.95 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 36 2/3 innings were strong enough to convince the Cardinals to imbue him with trust, and he entered Game 1 of the NLDS in a tie game in the eighth inning.
He allowed a single and a groundout before being replaced by Carlos Martínez, who would finish off a Cardinals victory. No part of his entrance or exit may have been remarkable to most observers, but Helsley took in the environment and its meaning while trying to stay dialed in.
“You know, but you can’t let that stuff bother you,” Helsley said. “Your job is to go out there and get outs. You try to focus and stay focused with (catcher Yadier Molina), so I didn’t really think about it too much.”
The 1830 Indian Removal Act set into motion a sequence of events that saw the Cherokee dislodged from their ancestral land in 1838. After many Cherokee resisted calls to leave voluntarily, the U.S. government under president Andrew Jackson dislodged them by force. Approximately 13,000 Cherokee were forced to march through the winter, and the conditions were so brutal that Congress issued financial reparations as early as 1905.
Neither the history nor the symbolism is lost on Helsley, whose deep appreciation for his background has led him to volunteer at a Cherokee language elementary school in Tahlequah during the winter months.
“This is where our bloodlines come from is in this area,” he said. “To still have some pro teams and stuff like that to keep hold of Native American mascots is kind of disappointing.”
Northeastern State University, where Helsley attended college before becoming a 5th round pick of the Cardinals in the 2015 Amateur Draft, tweeted its pride in Helsley on Thursday night. “History made tonight” was the message delivered from the Northeastern State Athletics Twitter account.
Helsley is the only player from the school ever to reach the Major Leagues.
His high school mascot is the Sequoyah Indians. While Helsley said that he understands that some people could see hypocrisy, he quickly pointed out that the makeup of its student body makes a huge difference.
Those in his home town who have followed every pitch he’s thrown and who see him as an avatar for success in a community that actively seeks both role models and support have been thrilled to see him blaze his own trail in the big leagues, but they’ve also witnessed the traditions at Atlanta’s ballpark.
The history and traditions here – symbolized by the red foam tomahawk given out at every seat – have a much different context when applied to the people in Helsley’s hometown. Their excitement has been blunted, and it shouldn’t be.
“I talked to some people from back home and they’re kind of on the same page,” Helsley said. “Nothing that infuriates you. Just a disappointment.”
Braves issue statement on ‘the chop’
The Atlanta Braves issued the below statement in response to Helsley’s reaction to the “the chop” chant.
“We appreciate and take seriously the concerns of Mr. Helsley and have worked to honor and respect the Native American community through the years. Our organization has sought to embrace all people and highlight the many cultures in Braves Country. We will continue to evaluate how we activate elements of our brand, as well as the in-game experience, and look forward to a continued dialogue with those in the Native American community once the season comes to an end.”