Posts Tagged ‘Atlanta Braves’

The End of the Era

Saturday, December 20th, 2014

It’s my blog. I can vent if I feel the need.

On October 21, 1983, the Atlanta Braves’ effort to become a serious team ended for almost a decade. On that day, the Braves completed a trade for Cleveland Indians pitcher Len Barker. Going to the Indians was Brook Jacoby, a young third baseman who would nail down the hot corner in Cleveland for a decade, go to a couple of allstar games and tally over a thousand hits and a hundred home runs. In their defense, the Braves thought they had third base nailed down in Bob Horner, who had already smashed 158 home runs through age 25 and looked like a future Hall of Famer. There was no way to know that Horner would be out of baseball by 30 due to injuries.

But the real prize for the Indians was Brett Butler, Atlanta’s excellent and popular center fielder. Butler was a strong leadoff man who put up a .344 OBP and swiped 39 bases. He would go on to become on of the best leadoff men in history, a borderline HOF candidate who smashed 2375 hits, stole 558 bases and had a lifetime .377 OBP. He was a great player. It was obvious to everyone that he would at least become a good player and score a tons of runs hitting in front of Dale Murphy and Bob Horner. But the Braves traded him for Len Barker because … I guess … Barker had thrown a perfect game. Barker would go 10-20 in 232.1 innings with a 4.64 ERA. That was over three years, not one. He would be out of baseball within four years.

The Barker-Butler trade is well-known as one of the worst in history. But it was more than just a bad trade. For the Braves, it was the end of an era. In 1982, the Braves had one of their best seasons, winning 89 games to take the division, then losing the NLCS to the Cardinals. In 1983, they won 88 games but a late-season collapse let the Dodgers win the division. With Joe Torre at the helm and a team that included Dale Murphy, Brett Butler, Bob Horner, Glenn Hubbard, Phil Niekro — all great players — and some young pitching, they looked poised to turn around “Loserville” as Atlanta was known (and, to some extent, still is). They looked like they would become the first team from Atlanta, in any sport, to become a serious presence.

But the next year, they fell to 80 wins. Then Horner got hurt and went to Japan. Torre got fired. Niekro got traded. Brad Komminsk flopped. The farm system imploded. And the Braves returned to being one of the worst teams in baseball.

This was why 1991 was not only a miracle year, it was on the great miracle years in sports. The Braves didn’t just go worst-to-first and come within a Lonnie Smith hesitation of a championship. They went from a truly terrible team, a nothing on the sports radar, to a dynasty. They were good, they were young and they were run by two great men who knew what they were doing.

And the result was one of the great runs in sports history: 14 straight division titles, five pennants and a championship. An average of 98 wins per season. Four players — Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz — are in the Hall of Fame or soon will be. A few more — Fred McGriff, Javy Lopez — have borderline cases. Still more were just great damned players. Their manager is in the Hall of Fame and you could make an argument for their General Manager and their Pitching Coach. It was an amazing time to be a Braves fan. You turned on the TV and knew you were watching a great team that would usually win. If they fell behind in the standings, you knew it was only a matter of time until they would catch up. It was a joy to turn on TBS and watch them dominate.

The thing is that the Braves weren’t just a great team, they were a smart team. They developed great prospects (Lopez, Klesko, Marcus Giles, Rafael Furcal, Chipper Jones, Ryan Klesko, Andruw Jones, David Justice), they traded for great players (Fred McGriff especially), they signed impact free agents (Greg Maddux, Andres Galarraga). They had a great major league team and a great farm system. If someone got injured or left to free agency, they had the depth to replace them. Year after year, everything they touched was gold.

That era has long been over, as exemplified by this summer’s capstone — the induction of Maddux, Glavine and Cox into the Hall of Fame. But now we see we are back to the bad old days. It turns out that capstone was also a gravestone:

Here Lieth the Braves Dynasty: 1991-2005

Last year, I thought maybe the good days were back after almost a decade of middling shuffling semi-contention. They won 96 games, took the division and looked like a team poised for a multi-year run. True, they had albatross contracts in Dan Uggla and BJ Upton. But they had a slew of great young players — Freddie Freeman, Evan Gattis, Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Andrelton Simmons, Julio Teheran, Craig Kimbrel, Mike Minor, Kris Medlen. They’d signed a number of them to long-term contracts.

But it was more than just that. The Braves were fun to watch again. I looked forward to every game and would watch them on mlb.tv while messaging my brother. It felt like 1991 all over again, like we were returning to the good old days.

What a difference a year makes. The Braves had a lousy 2014 season, with the bats completely collapsing and several of their young pitchers getting hurt. They finished under .500 and looked terrible the last few months. I couldn’t watch them, it was so maddening.

But as disappointing as the season was, there were still reasons for optimism. They had one of the best pitching staffs in the league. Their defense was very good. They still had the young core that had looked so promising a year earlier. A change of hitting coach (or maybe manager) and they looked good to bounce back in 2015 and fulfill their destiny as the next Braves dynasty.

Well, that apparently wasn’t good enough. A month ago, they traded away Jason Heyward — a 24 y/o Atlanta native and one of the best players on the team — for a disappointing pitcher from the Cardinals. They traded Tommy La Stella, one of their few prospects who could get on base, for an oft-injured former pitching prospect. Yesterday, they traded Justin Upton, their second best player, for some minor league prospects, the best of which is a disappointing first-round pitcher coming off arm surgery. The rumor is that they’re accumulating capital to make some major plays in the international market. I’m dubious. I don’t see Liberty Media — the cheapskates owners who wrecked the dynasty — shelling out for the top-tier talent.

It was the Heyward trade was the watershed for me — an awful echo of the Len Barker trade. The Braves traded away their most popular player — a young talent who is still years away from his prime — for the ultimate bag of magic beans: a young pitcher. And the language surrounding the trade was even more disheartening. The Braves talked about “years of control” — i.e., how many more years they have before the players reach free agency. They talked about how they’re building for 2017, when their stadium opens. They talked about how they were trying to get out from under some bad contracts.

I understand the theory behind all that. The problem is that these are the things said by loser organizations. Loser organizations are always rebuilding, always aiming to contend a few years from now, always worried about years-of-control and payroll implications. Smart teams worry about those things too but they also know how to hold onto their best players and how to build a team that will contend, full stop, not just in some nebulous future window. They don’t trade away almost all of their on-base skills for minor league scraps and pitchers with injury risks. They don’t trade away talented young players and sign older less-talented players to replace them. They don’t look at the team that kept runs off the board better than almost anyone last year but couldn’t string three hits together and think their real need is mawr pitching.

The Braves aren’t some ancient team at the end of a great run trading away their aging stars. They were one of the youngest teams in the majors with some of their best players locked up long term. This isn’t the Red Sox rebuilding when their stars all aged overnight. This is like the Royals tearing up their young team two years before those players took them to the World Series.

(And it’s made worse by the signing of Nick Markakis to a 4-year deal. Markakis is six years older than Heyward. He’s four years older than Upton. And he’s not nearly as good as either of them. The Braves outfield has gotten older while shedding all of its on-base skills, all of its power and all of its defense. This is not how you build a team that will contend three years from now. This is how you become the Marlins.)

Looking at the destruction of a good team, the trading away of good young players for scraps, the obsession over payroll (for an organization awash in money), I can’t help but think of the bad old days when the Braves would trade away Brett Butler and sign Ken Oberkfell, when they’d break Pascual Perez and trade for Danny Heep, when they talked excitedly about potentially signing the remnants of an aging Jim Rice. Yesterday’s Upton trade simply confirmed my suspicions. The Braves are no longer a serious organization. They had a team that could have contended when they opened their new stadium. Now they don’t.

I’m probably being overly bitter and pessimistic. But I’m dubious that this team will contend anytime in the next five years and I’m certain they will not approach anything like a dynasty as long as Liberty Media are in charge. They’re simply too cheap and too stupid to build the kind of powerhouse they used to be known for.

No, we’re heading back to the bad old days when the Braves were the joke of the National League. And with the Hawks still unserious and the Falcons “contending” at 5-9, I fear that the days of Loserville have returned.

Addendum: Braves’ apologists are saying this team couldn’t afford to keep Upton and Heyward. This is garbage. Uggla’s contract comes off the books next year. And the Braves’ organization has a revenue stream of $253 million. They could easily pay those two outfielders $40 million a year and not break a sweat. This is just an excuse from a cheapskate owner.

The Agony of Atlanta

Friday, October 4th, 2013

The most miserable sports town in America is, without a doubt, Cleveland*. The Indians have not won a world series since 1948 and the city had a great team in the late 90′s that fell just shy (in heart-breaking fashion in 1997). Only the Cubs have a longer world series drought. The Cleveland Browns have not won a championship since 1964, although they have a lot more company in their misery than the Tribe do (for all the NFL’s talk of competitive balance, they are far more dominated by franchises than baseball). The Browns also had heart-breaking losses in the 1980′s. The Cleveland Cavaliers have not won a title in any of their 43 seasons. During the last decade, they had one of the best players in league history but couldn’t win a title. He then ran off to Miami, where he’s won two.

That’s 157 years of misery for Cleveland fans and 49 years since they could claim to be champions. They have it the worst. There are 20 cities in North America that have at least three major sports teams. The second longest drought is Minnesota at 22 years (and Washington, but the Ravens have won twice since then). And Clevelanders have born this burden with about 6% of the whining with which Boston fans endured the Red Sox drought while their Celtics were dominating the universe.

However, I would argue that Atlanta comes in second in sports agony**. Consider:

  • The Atlanta Braves have won one title in almost half a century of play. They were an awful team for their first 25 years — Lewis Grizzard once joked that Michael Jackson and the Atlanta Braves had one thing in common: they both wore one glove for no apparent reason. They then turned into one of the best franchises in sports. They have had two losing season in the last 23 years and went to the post-season 14 straight times. But they only won one title, including heart-breaking loses in 1991 and 1996. In recent years, they have flamed out every year and seem well on their way this year. The last time they even won a post-season series was 2001. Throughout the 90′s they lost on freak events, such as horrific umpiring in ’96 series. Last year, they lost on a fluke bad call.
  • The Atlanta Falcons have also gone nearly half a century without a title. They were also awful for a long time but have recently been one of the better franchises in the NFL, with five straight winning seasons. They have flamed out in the playoffs every time, only making one Super Bowl during their existence. Last year, they lost on a batted down fourth and goal pass that would have won the game.
  • The Hawks have not won a title since moving to Atlanta in 1968. During that time, they have made the playoffs 29 times and had the best conference record 4 times. They have not made an NBA final. They have not even made the conference final since 1970.
  • For good measure, the Atlanta flames played eight years and made the playoffs six times. The Atlanta Thrashers played eleven years and made the playoffs once. Neither team even made it to a semi-final.
  • The Georgia Bulldogs won a national championship in 1980. They lost the championship the next two years. Since then, Georgia has not made a title game. Over the last few years, they have been an SEC powerhouse but can’t put together a championship season. Last year, they lost the SEC title and a possible trip to the BCS title game when a pass was deflected and caught by a receiver, letting time run out inside Alabama’s five. Georgia Tech split a title in 1990 and have not done much since. That title, incidentally, should not have been split. It only was because of Colorado’s fifth down play.
  • Last year was particularly hideous for Atlanta sports fans. The Falcons, Dawgs and Braves all went down on fluke plays falling literally yards shy of a Super Bowl, a BCS title game and an NLDS appearance, respectively. And this year looks no better. The Falcons are already 1-3 and have lost three games because of an inability to punch it in from the red zone. The Dawgs lost a close game to Clemson and have looked shaky on defense. The Braves lost tonight and have looked hapless over the last few weeks.

    My brother thinks Georgia teams are cursed. I’m starting to believe him.

    (*After I posted this, the Great Posnanski posted similar thoughts.)

    (** Being me, I actually compiled a table for this. There are 20 metro areas that have three or more sports teams and six more that have had three at some point in the last 50 years. I compiled the number of championships and the number of years played since 1963. Some New Yorkers or Chicagoans may take offense at my math since I’m combining teams that play in the same city. Meh. I figure if you’re a Yankees fan and can’t get some small pleasure from the Mets winning a World Series, that’s your problem. A more meritorious gripe might be leveled at my merging of San Francisco and Oakland as well as Washington and Baltimore. But there is a lot of overlap between those fans.

    Anyway, every city has won at least one championship in the last fifty years. New York, LA, San Francisco-Oakland, Chicago, Boston and Pittsburgh have at least ten. New Yorkers, if you throw in the Islanders and Devils — and I will — have basically enjoyed a championship every other year. All good and decent sports fans should cheer against New York teams. I mean, unless they’re from New York. The other cities have enjoyed a title once every 2-5 years.

    The cities with only one title? Seattle, San Diego, Cleveland, Atlanta and Phoenix. If you divide the number of seasons by the number of titles, the most barren cities are Phoenix (1 title every 102 seasons), Cleveland (1 every 144), San Diego (1 every 115) and Kansas City (1 every 104).

    Atlanta, however, comes in at 1 championship in 158 seasons of sports. Now that’s misery.)

    PS: Some more facts that came to me this morning:

  • Up until 1995, the only championship any Atlanta team had ever won was the Atlanta Chiefs, who won the inaugural season of the North American Soccer League.
  • Before then, you have the minor league Atlanta Crackers. Seriously.
  • 1991 was the first time any major championship was played within 500 miles of Atlanta.