Teams tend to play one of two types of baseball, long ball or small ball. The rise of of analytics has shown sacrificing an out to advance a runner is not in a team’s best interest. Teams are shying away from small ball because, as Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine so eloquently put it, “Chicks dig the long ball.” The roar of the crowd is much different for a Home Run than a Sacrifice Hit, Sacrifice Bunt. Instant offense versus a building block towards a potential Run.
Baseball has changed since the small ball era of the early 20th Century. The small ball era helped produce Eddie Collins and his 512 career Sacrifice, 120 ahead of second place. Clayton Kershaw is the active leader with 108, 334th all time. Small ball produced Ray Chapman’s 1917 single season record of 67 Sacrifices. Bert Campaneris’ 40 Sacrifices in 1977 are the most since 1929. Home Runs have replaced the Sacrifice. Teams swing for the fences. They no longer get them on, get them over, get them in.
A slugger’s value comes from hitting a baseball over the fence, not tapping it in the infield. The top ten Home Run hitters of all time have hit 6,680 Home Runs. Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Alex Rodriguez, Willie Mays, Albert Pujols, Ken Griffey Jr., Jim Thome, Sammy Sosa, and Frank Robinson have played a combined 213 Major League seasons. Only Pujols is active, with two seasons left before Free Agency or retirement. Occasionally these long ball titans sacrifice themselves for the team.
In 22 seasons, Barry Bonds hit 762 Home Runs and laid down 4 Sacrifices. Hank Aaron played 23 seasons, hit 755 Home Runs with 21 Sacrifices. Babe Ruth hit 714 Home Runs in 22 seasons and laid down 113 Sacrifices, more than the rest of this elite group combined. Alex Rodriguez Sacrificed 16 times in 22 seasons, while hitting 696 Home Runs. Willie Mays played 22 seasons, hit 660 Home Runs, and dropped 13 Sacrifices. Albert Pujols has played 19 seasons, hit 656 Home Runs with 1 Sacrifice. Ken Griffey Jr. hit 630 Home Runs over 22 seasons and Sacrificed 8 times. Jim Thome and his 612 Home Runs laid down 1 Sacrifice in 22 seasons. Sammy Sosa had 17 Sacrifices in 18 seasons while blasting 609 Home Runs. Frank Robinson dropped 17 Sacrifices in 21 seasons, with 586 Home Runs. Even the greatest sluggers of all time Sacrifice.
Babe Ruth revolutionized baseball with his power, yet he still played in an era where players were expected to bunt to help their team win. (www.captainsblog.info)
In 213 combined seasons, the greatest Home Run hitters laid down 211 Sacrifices. In an average season they hit 31.36 Home Runs with 0.99 Sacrifices. Their average career was 668 Home Runs and 21.1 Sacrifices, 30.2 Home Runs per Sacrifice. Even ardent believers in small ball know these players should swing the bat.
Jim Thome and Albert Pujols each have just 1 career Sacrifice. Thome and Pujols are not Rickey Henderson. They have hit a 32 triples, 16 each, and stolen 133 bases, combined. Only Pujol’s 114 steals break to top 1,000. Both sluggers were designed to trot around the bases, not sprint.
On July 3, 1994, Indians Manager Mike Hargrove looked to extend Cleveland’s 2.5 game over the Chicago White Sox in the American League Central. In the Bottom of the 7th, in a 7-7 tie against the Minnesota Twins, Eddie Murray laced the third pitch to Right for a lead off single. Hargrove signaled his young Third Baseman to Sacrifice. After taking a strike from Mark Guthrie, the 23 year old Jim Thome bunted, moving Murray to Second. Thome reached on an error by Third Baseman Chip Hale. Twins Manager Tom Kelly then replaced Guthrie with Carl Willis. Sandy Alomar Jr. greeted Willis with a swinging bunt down, loading the bases. Paul Sorrento followed with an RBI Single to Right, driving in Murray. Wayne Kirby fouled out to Third. One out. Kenny Lofton hit a Sacrifice Fly to Center, scoring Thome with Alomar advancing to Third. Two outs. Omar Vizquel flied out to Center. Three outs. 9-7 Cleveland. Thome and the Indians won 10-9 in 11 Innings, sending the Jacobs Field crowd home happy.
Jim Thome hit baseballs a long way, his talents were not best used bunting. (www.cooperstowncred.com)
The importance of the game, and Thome’s Sacrifice, were lost as the 1994 season stopped on August 12th. Cleveland was 1 game behind Chicago when the Strike began. The Strike claimed the rest of the 1994.
The St. Louis Cardinals hosted the Chicago White Sox on June 16, 2001. The Chicago Cubs led the Cardinals by 6 games in the National League Central. In the Bottom of the 7th, White Sox pitcher Sean Lowe walked Placido Polanco on four pitches. J. D. Drew then Singled to Right. Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa looked to stretch the 6-3 lead. He signaled his Cleanup Hitter to bunt. In his 67th career game, Albert Pujols bunted the first pitch foul. On the second pitch, Pujols bunted the ball back to Lowe who threw to Second Baseman Ray Durham covering First. Polanco moved to Third and Drew to second. One out. Pujols has not Sacrificed again. Bobby Bonilla was Intentionally Walked to load the bases and replaced by Pinch Runner Jim Edmonds. Craig Paquette Singled to Right, scoring Polanco. Drew scored on an error by the Shortstop, Tony Graffanino. Edmonds stopped at Second. Edgar Renteria struck out looking as Edmonds stole Third and Paquette stole Second. Two outs. Mike Matheny grounded out to First. Three outs. St. Louis won 8-3.
Albert Pujols is one of the greatest right hand power hitters of all time, bunting is not his most dangerous weapon. (Dilip Vishwanat/ Getty Images)
The Cardinals lost to the Houston Astros on the final day of the Regular Season. Both teams finished 93-69. Houston was crowned Division champions by winning the season series 9 games to 7. St. Louis was the Wild Card. The Cardinals lost to the eventual World Series champion Arizona Diamondbacks in a decisive Game 5 in the Divisional Series.
Baseball is a team game played by individuals. Players field ground balls, pitch, and bat alone. No one can help you succeed, but you can help others succeed. Backing up throws, turning Double Plays, executing a relay all help a team win. And yes, occasionally even the greatest Home Run hitters Sacrifice for the team.
As baseball changes, Sacrifices by players capable of putting a baseball into orbit inches towards extinction. The Sacrifice is becoming a lost art as light hitting pitchers in the National League dominate and the Designated Hitter in the American League decimates the Sacrifice. A slugger bunting is now more rare than a Perfect Game. This generation’s greatest sluggers have Sacrificed just twice. If Mike Trout ever lays down a Sacrifice, soak in the moment. It will be the first of his career, and possibly the last time an all time great Home Run hitter Sacrifices himself.
Chipper Jones was the face of the Atlanta Braves during their run of consecutive Division titles in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. The pitching trio of Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine were equally important, but Chipper was on the field everyday. If the Braves needed a big hit, Chipper was the guy they wanted, especially against the Mets.
Chipper Jones’ memoir Ballplayer written with Carroll Rogers Walton rewinds the Hall of Fame career of one of the greatest switch hitters to ever step on a baseball field. Hard work meant never settling for good, it meant understanding the results would come after listening to his coaches, putting in the work, and preparing for success. The highs and the lows of his career are laid out for everyone to inspect. Chipper does not sugar coat anything. This refreshing take, even in addressing his much publicized infidelity, only adds to the respect he earned during his career. He could have avoided discussing the financial woes he faced as a young player. He explains the physical toll of playing for so long. Readers come to understand injuries robbed Chipper of long stretches of time and some of his abilities on the field, even after he recovered. There are no excuses in the book, just the facts and an understanding that life is not always perfect.
Ballplayer gives an honest look inside Chipper Jones’ Hall of Fame career. (Penguin Books)
While his play on the diamond may have looked natural, Ballplayer shows you the hours, days, and years of practice it takes for even the most gifted athlete to make it in the Major Leagues. Players are too often viewed as robotic until they make a mistake. Baseball and the life playing in the Major Leagues requires is stressful. The constant travel, few days off, missed family time, and the physical and emotional strain of the game is too much for most people. Baseball players have the same issues we do, except they live under a microscope. Baseball is a hard game played by hard people, this should never be forgotten.
The loyalty Chipper gave to the Braves was reciprocal. He never chased more money through free agency, instead staying with the team that believed in him as a high schooler in Jacksonville. Loyalty to the game, respecting his teammates and opponents, striving to make himself and others better is what separates those who play the game and those who have an impact. Baseball gives you back what you put in, and Chipper Jones gave a lot of himself to the game.
Ballplayer is an excellent read for anyone who loves baseball. Chipper lets you inside his Hall of Fame career, on and off the field. He tells it like it is, never trying to make himself look better. The honesty is obvious as you read. Those who watched the Braves’ dominance will be flooded with memories of Chipper charging a ground ball and flipping it to first, his toe tap as a fastball screams towards the plate, the beginning of Crazy Train as he walks to the plate. Chipper Jones is among the greatest players to ever play baseball, and yet his memoir shows the humility necessary to successfully play a game filled with so much failure.
Growing up around Atlanta in the 1990’s there was plenty of great baseball games and players to watch. Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Chipper Jones were all Hall of Fame players. Andruw Jones, Otis Nixon, Javy Lopez, and so many more were great players to watch. These riches on the diamond were amazing, but as time has gone by the realization of how great it was to watch these players night after night has set in. Fans across the country might only have a few chances each season to see these players and they understood that you should take the time to slow down and appreciate them.
The understanding that I need to slow down and watch when a great player passes through town has sunk in more as I get older. Appreciating the greatest of a player goes beyond the highlight reel plays. It is watching how they approach each pitch throughout a game, both at the plate and in the field. There are only a select few players in baseball that can capture my attention even when they are not making great plays. Players who make me stop and watch just in case they do something amazing.
These stop what you are doing and watch players are the elite few. Some I have had the pleasure of watching in person, others I missed my opportunity to watch their greatness. When I was living in New York for graduate school and the few years after, I was lucky enough to see Derek Jeter play on a few occasions. Jeter was never the best hitter, but he was good one. He did not have the most power, the biggest arm, or greatest fielding range, but he commanded everything inside Yankee Stadium. While only getting to see Jeter in the later part of his career, it was still special to see one of the few players who was respected across baseball without exception. It takes a special player to be respected by Red Sox fans even though he was a lifelong Yankee that broke Boston’s heart on so many occasions. Watching Jeter play consumed a majority of my time at Yankee Stadium. I watched how he moved with every pitch and how he was the man on the field and yet everyone knew in their heart that he was never the most talented. Derek Jeter could do everything on a baseball diamond, but it was what did not show up in the box score, which set him apart from everyone else.
I usually went to Mets games simply because the tickets were cheaper, however when I did venture up to the Bronx and Yankee Stadium it was special. Even inside the new Yankee Stadium the history of the Yankees resonates. Watching two players who will and should be first ballot Hall of Famers, Jeter and Ichiro, plus my favorite player in Andruw Jones meant the 2012 Yankees were the best for me. Watching Jones patrol the outfield with the Braves growing up spoiled me. If it was catchable, he seemed to always catch it. The 2012 Yankees meant I got to relieve a bit of my childhood with Andruw Jones, watch the coolest man in baseball in Derek Jeter, and watch one of the greatest pure hitters of all time in Ichiro.
The beauty of Ichiro’s swing and his athleticism at the plate are what always caught my eye. He seemed, and still seems, like a magician at the plate. He never seems to be fooled on a pitch; he might swing and miss but never look awful in doing it. Ichiro is to me what a baseball player ought to be. He can beat you with power, though he rarely displays it. He can put the ball in play and then beat you with his speed. Then on defense, he can chase down fly balls with the best of them. If runners are on base they advance at their own risk, as Ichiro is blessed with a cannon for an arm. Ichiro has all five tools, though he keeps his power hidden until it is absolutely necessary. Watching Ichiro hit is the closest I will ever come to watching a hitter on the same level like a Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, or Honus Wagner. Watching Ichiro and Jeter play were and are a return to my childhood. A return to when baseball was simple and the players were larger than life; the baseball that was and forever will be my first love.
I have not gotten to see every player I wanted to see play in person, though I did on television. The two biggest players that I did not get to see play in person that I will forever be sad about are Ken Griffey Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero. Yes, I saw both players on television, but not in person. There is a big difference in appreciating how great a player is when you see them not through a camera lens, but with your own eyes.
The two most obvious reasons I never saw Ken Griffey Jr. play in person are that he played in Seattle and Cincinnati and I lived in Atlanta. This meant at best his team would come to Atlanta once a year. Interleague play did not start until 1997. This meant seven seasons of Griffey’s 22-year career were already gone. Then there were the last three years in Seattle before he moved on to the Cincinnati Reds. There were some opportunities to see Griffey play in Atlanta during interleague at some point with the Mariners, but I went to only two or three games a year growing up. So not great odds, plus we usually went to the less popular games with the slightly cheaper tickets and the smaller crowds. I loved going to games, but looking back, I wish I had seen Griffey. His time with the Reds meant he only came to town one time a season, and sadly there were several lost seasons in Cincinnati due to injuries. Griffey was, and remains, the prototype for what it means to be cool on a baseball field. Jeter was New York cool, suave. Griffey was fun, exciting, and electric. His wiggling batting stance is still mimicked by people today, though admittedly no one else, even in softball leagues can ever hope to hit a ball like he did. Griffey could amaze you and do things that just did not make sense for a player his size. You expected Frank Thomas and Albert Belle to hit the ball a mile, but Griffey at worst hit the ball as far as they did, plus he could run like the wind. Ken Griffey Jr. was a once every few generations type player and I missed him. As great as his highlight reel is, I can only imagine how great it would have been to see him play in person.
Missing several opportunities to see Ken Griffey Jr. makes sense, not seeing Vladimir Guerrero play does not. Guerrero spent 8 of his 16 seasons with the Montreal Expos. Playing in the National League East with the Braves meant I had plenty of opportunities to watch him play, but for whatever reason I never did. It was not from a lack of interest, I just never seemed to go to Turner Field when the Expos were in town. Not sure why, just the way it worked out. Guerrero was a lot like Andruw Jones, great power and speed and a howitzer for an arm. The main difference between Guerrero and Jones was that Guerrero was a more complete hitter and Jones played for Atlanta, not against them. Vladimir Guerrero never met a pitch he could not hit. It reminded me of playing baseball in the street with my brother and friends. If it was within reach, you swung, partly so you did not have to go pick it up and partly because it may be the best pitch you will see. Guerrero never seemed to care if the pitch was a foot outside and head high, he could serve it into the outfield. He could also bloop a ball into short left field after the pitch bounced in front of the plate. Ichiro is a magician in the batter’s box in the sense that he can almost place where he hits the ball. Guerrero is a difference sort of magician as he can hit nearly everything thrown towards the plate, and hit it well. The other thing I missed was seeing Guerrero unleash his arm. There are few players with arms that stop the opponent from even attempting to take an extra base; Rick Ankiel and Jeff Francoeur are the players in recent years that come to mind regarding the fear their arms put into the minds of opposing base runners. Perhaps Vladimir Guerrero was not the best player in terms of doing the conventional things on a diamond the best, though he did them extremely well. What I missed the most in not seeing Guerrero play in person is his ability to leave fans speechless. He could hit or throw a baseball a mile, or single on a pitch that most players could not even reach. Vladimir Guerrero took the sort of baseball that I grew up playing to the Major Leagues and still made it look as amazing as it felt.
The opportunity to see something unique and amazing at a baseball game exists every time the gates open. You could see Matt Cain throw a Perfect Game (as Jesse did in San Francisco), watch the final game at old Yankee Stadium (as John, Jesse, and I did in 2008), or just see a fun game like I have on so many occasions. Baseball is a team sport played by individuals. These individuals are what make the game great. Players of all size can find success on a baseball diamond, whether they are Jose Altuve at 5’6”, Randy Johnson at 6’10”, or Jonathan Broxton at 300 lbs. Great players come in every physical form possible and they are all capable to doing something amazing. Most of us do not have the financial ability to go to every game, but we should all make the time when these elite, once in a generation type players come to town. Continuing to put off going to see Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, Aroldis Chapman, and others will be a sad memory. There is no guarantee they will do something amazing at the game you attend, but you will still be able to say you saw them play. No one cares if the one game you saw Sandy Koufax pitch he did not win the game, you still got to see Koufax pitch. Do not miss your opportunity to see great players in person. We can all watch highlight reels, but watching in person is always special and you will remember it better than any video.
The Playoffs began yesterday for ten teams, but for the other 20 teams today is the first day of the off-season. It is time for some teams to make changes, while others stay the course. The Astros, Rangers, Twins, and Diamondbacks have said good-bye to their managers. The Diamondbacks and Braves have fired their General Managers. Firing season has begun. One firing in particular stands out; the firing of Braves General Manager Frank Wren.
Wren’s dismissal did not come as a surprise to anyone considering his track record. Wren took over as GM with John Schuerholz promoted to Team President in October 2007. Following in the steps of a legendary figure is never easy, but this was Wren’s task. During Wren’s tenure as GM for the Braves the team compiled a 604-523 record, a .535 winning percentage. The Braves won the National League East in 2013 and were Wild Card teams twice, in 2010 and 2012. The team never advanced beyond the Divisional Series in the play offs. The lack of post season success however was not Wren’s undoing. Rather his track record with signing or trading for free agents. The four major moves during Wren’s reign were, all individually to say the least, disappointing. Collectively they were disastrous, and eventually cost him his job.
On the mound, Wren signed Japanese pitcher Kenshin Kawakami to a three year, $23 million contract before the 2009 season. During Kawakami’s two seasons in Atlanta he posted the following line:
Kawakami spent his final season of his contract in the minors pitching in Rookie ball, for the Gulf Coast League Braves, and in AA, for the Mississippi Braves. Kawakami never lived up the expectations Wren set after signing him from the Chunichi Dragons of the Nippon Professional Baseball league. After his contract ended, Kawakami returned to Japan and to the Chunichi Dragons.
After the third year of the contract, Lowe was traded to the Cleveland Indians with cash for minor leaguer Chris Jones, who is currently pitching at AAA Norfolk Tides in the Baltimore Orioles system. While a serviceable starter in Atlanta, Lowe was unable to sustain the success he had had with the Red Sox and the Dodgers. Lowe had become an overpriced luxury the Braves could not afford. The Braves were willing to pay for Lowe to leave and took Jones to get something as a return on their investment in Lowe.
Starting in the 2010 offseason Wren attempted to bolster the Braves offense through trade and signings. Wren pulled off a trade with the Florida Marlins which sent Mike Dunn and Omar Infante to Florida in exchange for Second Baseman Dan Uggla. Uggla and the Braves then agreed to a five year, $62 million contract. The trade and contract were a disaster. Uggla spent three and a half seasons with the Braves, seeing his production and playing time dwindled to almost nothing before he was released. He was able to post a line of:
One of the few bright spots during his tenure with the Braves was his 33 game hitting streak in 2011. Despite the hitting streak Uggla hit .233, which would be his highest batting average as a Brave. His play at second was not much better; he posted a Defensive WAR of -2.1 with the Braves. In 2014, the Braves released Uggla and were willing to pay the remainder of the contract, which was at least $ 15 million. Uggla was reducing the Braves to a 24 man roster, and had to be moved if the Braves were to compete on any level, which ended one of the worst experiences in Braves history.
In November 2012, B.J. Upton landed in Atlanta as a free agent after eight seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays. Upton signed a five year, $75.25 million contract. The Braves made a major splash with the signing, but they had almost immediate buyer’s remorse. Upton is closing out the second year of his contract and has amassed this line:
Upton has been better on defense than Uggla, but it has not been enough to counteract his offensive struggles. Upton has a Definsive WAR of -0.4 with the Braves. As improbable as it might seem, Braves fans are already beginning to wish Dan Uggla would come back in place of Upton. The rumor mill has already begun about how Atlanta can get out of the contract without having to pay out all the remaining money of the contract. It does not look promising for Upton to finish the contract as a member of the Braves.
Frank Wren gave seven years and $83 million to Kawakami and Lowe. In return, during five seasons the Braves received:
Neither pitcher lasted the full length of their contract with the Atlanta Braves. Wren also gave ten years and $134.25 million to Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton. In return, the Braves received:
In five and a half combined seasons, Uggla and Upton have not produced a single season worthy of an average Major League player. Kawakami and Lowe were serviceable on the mound but not respectable based upon their salary and expectations. Kawakami finished his Braves career in the minors, Lowe was traded away with cash for a minor leaguer who at the time was in High A ball, and Dan Uggla was released because the Braves could not find another team to take him nor were they willing to take away playing time from their minor leaguers. Three of the four major acquisitions made by Frank Wren did not finish their contracts as a member of the Atlanta Braves. The fourth, B.J Upton, seems destined to be the worst signing of the bunch, and at the present it does not seem too difficult to imagine a situation where the Braves get rid of him either through trade, demotion, or release.
Ultimately Frank Wren sealed his own fate through his inability to successfully acquire players who could remotely live up to their large contracts. While not entirely his fault, Wren was highly involved in altering how the Braves play on the field. He sought out the pricey talent from other teams. The Braves have been highly successful in developing talent through the draft or through trades for minor leaguers or young players. The Braves continue to have excellent pitching; it is the offense which is lacking. While Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz were all Hall of Fame caliper players, the offense was balanced. Atlanta had the power from Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, Ryan Klesko, and Brian McCann. The team also had the players who could get on base ahead of these power hitters, like Otis Nixon, Jeff Blauser, Mark Lemke, and Marquis Grissom. The Braves forgot how to play same ball.
Times change, but in baseball generally the winning formula stays the same. Good pitching, which the Braves generally had during Wren’s tenure despite the signing of Kawakami and Lowe, and a balanced offense, which seemed to be forgotten. Atlanta has plenty of offense to be competitive; however with a lineup full of high strikeout batters who are swinging for the fences, the difference between success and failure becomes razor thin. Success in baseball is about scoring runs and preventing runs. Atlanta forgot what brought them success and appeared to value highlight reel worthy home runs more than fielding a balanced team which could compete on a yearly basis.
The Braves lost their way and fell in love with both the long ball and with making a splash with high profile free agent signings or big trades. The long term ramifications for these ill-advised signings by Frank Wren are still being felt. B.J. Upton needs to return to hitting .240 before fans can at least say the Uggla trade was worse than the Upton signing. The situation in Atlanta with Derek Lowe was not good. A mediocre to serviceable pitcher at best, being paid based upon past performance and hopes. The situation with Kawakami was sad. He seemingly never got the run support from the Braves offense, before he began to struggle, and eventually disappeared into the minors for his final season of baseball in America. The situation with Dan Uggla was ugly. A guy who worked hard but most likely should have never made it beyond AA except for the Marlins thrusting him to the Majors and then the Braves believing his power was worth the lack of hitting ability. Uggla eventually got into a standoff with Manager Fredi Gonzalez and the Front Office as he saw his playing time dwindle to nothing. The Uggla situation became so bad the Braves, who do not have a big market payroll, were willing to pay Uggla at least $15 million to leave.
The situation with B.J. Upton looks like it could be worse than it ever was with Uggla. Less than two years into his contract the Braves sought to trade him to the Chicago Cubs for Edwin Jackson at this year’s trading deadline. Jackson has a worse career ERA and WHIP than Kawakami and Lowe during their time with Atlanta, and is still owed $24 million through the 2016 season. The trade however was rejected by the Cubs. Try as they might Atlanta will have a tough time moving Upton through a combination of poor play and over $45 million due to him during the final three seasons of this contract. Do not be surprised if the Braves have to eat more money, this time from B.J. Upton to get out from under the last of Frank Wren’s disastrous major moves.
Frank Wren understands baseball. You do not become the General Manager of two teams by accident. Nor do you last seven years in a place which is used to winning and expect to win. What went wrong for Wren is not the day to day operations of the Braves, rather it was his attempt to go out and sign priced talented players. The signing of Kawakami, Lowe, Uggla (after trading for him), and Upton have not helped the Braves to continue winning. It is fair to argue these signings actually hurt the team both based on their on-field performance and the money they tied up, which could not be used to go out and sign other players. These four moves eventually caught up with Frank Wren and cost him his job. The Braves should return to the formula which led them to over a decade of success, while integrating advances in scouting and sabermetrics to get the best out of their players and to fully understand the capabilities of the players they are looking to add to their roster.
The Braves in some ways lost their way when they fell in love with the home run and over looked the high number of strikeouts they deemed acceptable by their lineup. The men who led the way to the Braves success, John Scherholtz and Bobby Cox, have been tasked with leading the Braves back to their winning ways and steady baseball. Along with John Hart, Scherholtz and Cox are not trying to rediscover “The Braves Way”; rather they should aim to return to playing sound baseball. The Frank Wren tenure is over. B.J. Upton has some major work to do if he wants to avoid being one of the worst, if not the worst, free agents signings by the Braves ever. Time with tell with B.J. Upton. It is time for the Braves to return to what they know and for a long time did so well, winning through great pitching and a balanced offense, while on a budget.
The Professor is gone. Pete Van Wieren recently passed away after a long battle with cancer. I love baseball, and the death of Tony Gwynn was sad for everyone associated with baseball in any manner. However, the death of Pete Van Wieren hit home for me and made me genuinely sad. Just as Braves fans were celebrating the inductions of Bobby Cox, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, they were hit with the news of Van Wieren’s passing. Each one connects back to the run of 14 straight division titles for the Braves. As a kid growing up in suburban Atlanta they were all a part of my childhood.
Listening to Cox cheer on the players or get in the face of an umpire to protect one of his players. Watching Maddux and Glavine pick apart opposing batters, often getting borderline calls which other pitchers with less impressive resumes would not get. Through it all there were Skip Caray and Pete Van Wieren calling the games. These men were the voices of my obsession with baseball when I was growing up. The nasally voice of Caray with his one liners, countered perfectly with the precise information of Van Wieren. They were amazing on their own, but together they were golden.
I have no doubt that both Skip and Pete had their faults but to a boy so in love with baseball and rooting hard for the Braves every night, they were saints. Every team has their own voices. Some even share these voices with the rest of baseball. The Dodgers share Vin Scully, the Tigers shared Ernie Harwell, the Cardinals shared Jack Buck, the White Sox share Hawk Harrelson, and the list goes on. However, Skip and Pete always seemed to not garner the same national recognition as the others, despite the Braves being on television nationally nearly every night thanks to owner Ted Turner and TBS. I have personally met die hard Braves fans from Rochester, New York (Van Wieren’s hometown), Billings, Montana, and other cities which should be far outside the reach of the Braves. In some way this has made me love Skip and Pete even more, they were the Braves treasure to enjoy. We did not have to share them with the rest of baseball, they were ours.
Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS is the proof that Skip and Pete were ours. The call by the national broadcasters is as foreign to me as speaking Russian. However listening to Skip and Pete call the game continues to give me Goosebumps. Skip talking about “alotta room in right center” and Sid Bream’s mad dash home from second on Francisco Cabrera’s single to left field and Barry Bonds’ throw being too late. I had just turned six when that play happened but I can remember jumping up and down then and when Marquis Grissom caught the final out of the 1995 World Series. These calls by Skip and Pete will forever be the sound track of my childhood.
Every broadcast for the Braves with Skip and Pete began the exact same way. The camera would come on in the broadcast booth and Skip would say “Hello everybody”. It always made you feel like he was talking to you and your family. In the same way in which Red Barber, Jon Miller, and Tim McCarver in my mind have a full name because they are broadcasters, Skip and Pete only have one name each because they are family. They were not working, they were simply telling you what was happening in their opinion, often times with a pro-Braves slant because they too were cheering for the Braves. Most people want a neutral announcer, not me, I want someone who will celebrate an important win or be angry when an umpire blows a call or will laugh when a player does something funny. I want to watch the game with family and friends and this is exactly what Skip and Pete gave you and me every night.
Skip carried on the family business from his father Harry Caray, while he could be just as entertaining as his father, he could also be serious in his own manner. This has passed on to his own son Chip Caray, who broadcast with the Cubs for a while but has found a home with the Braves now. Chip is his own man but you can definitely tell there is Carey blood in him.
Pete sought to change his family name, as chronicled in his autobiography Of Mikes and Men. His father abandoned him and his mother when he was young, so he sought to reclaim the dignity of the Van Wieren name. I view Vin Scully as a grandfather figure, Harry Caray as the fun uncle, Bob Uecker as the crazy cousin, Skip as the wisecracking older brother, and Pete as the smart friend who never ceases to amaze you with his vast knowledge of the game and his humility. You will be missed by me and everyone who ever heard you call a game, and you played such an important role in my life and the lives of thousands of others who you never met. Job well done Pete and thank you.
The Atlanta Braves took two steps towards continuing their return to dominance of the National League East. While some say the Team of the 90’s underachieved by only winning one World Series, I would contend their success is among the greatest in baseball history. The Yankees did have more success in the World Series during the 1950’s. However they did not have to navigate the treachery that is the Major League Playoffs. The Braves were faced with a much longer task and the advent of free agency meant it was harder for teams to retain talent, as that talent could not be controlled for the entire length of their career. Could you imagine what players like Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle could have earned if free agency existed when they played? This adds to how special the Braves were during their run of 14 consecutive National League East titles.
Just as the Yankees continually reach into their deep pockets and sign one big free agent after another, the Braves have an approach all their own. This approach has three parts. First, they develop home grown talent, such as Chipper Jones and Tom Glavine. Second, the trade for young talent which is usually still in the minor leagues, such as John Smoltz. Third they are selective about signing free agents, such as Greg Maddux. The signing of Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman to new deals fits the mold of how the Braves operate, they are keeping their home grown talent. They drafted and developed Heyward and Freeman and are building the future around a young pitching staff and these All Star caliber players.
Jason Heyward is coming off a down year. Although this is primarily due to injuries and he should bounce back in 2014. Heyward’s speed and power make him a prime offensive threat and prevents countless hits from dropping in the outfield. His throwing arm makes any opponent trying to take the extra base think twice and many wisely decide not to. While Heyward has tremendous upside his career thus far has been a little bit of a roll coaster due to a lack of plate discipline in his second season and injuries this past season. The Braves were smart to sign Heyward to a two year, $13.3 million deal as it allows him time to get and stay healthy and for the Braves to not be tied down to a big contract. I expect Heyward to have a great 2014 season. The Braves should be eager to work with him next off season to sign him to a multi-year deal. This saves the Braves some money now and allows Heyward to sign a larger deal as he enters his prime as he will be 26 when this new deal ends. If the Braves are smart they will keep Heyward in Atlanta beyond this new contract and continue to build their new dominance with him as one of the cornerstones.
Freddie Freeman is now the face of the Atlanta Braves. The retirement of Chipper Jones meant the team of the 90’s was gone and the Braves were beginning anew. Freeman has gotten better every year he has been in Atlanta. He hits for power, he hits for average, and he is an excellent defender at first base. He has increased his walk totals and decreased his strikeout totals every season. Freeman is durable and has average 150 games a year in his career without the aid of the DH to keep his bat in the lineup, while giving him days off from the field. Freeman will be 32 when his 8 year, $125 million deal ends in 2021. He will be on the back end of his prime, however the Braves have shown a willingness to work with their best players to keep them in Atlanta and yet continually fielding a contender. Chipper Jones restructured his contract with the Braves, which allowed the front office to continue to put a winner on the field. He has since retired as a legend in Atlanta. I will not be surprised if Freeman does the same thing. He fills a valuable position on the field at a discount later in the contract, as salaries in baseball will undoubtedly continue to go up. Freeman is the left handed bat in the middle of the lineup that helps keep the Braves balanced while protecting Heyward. The Braves are spot on with their signing Freeman to a long term deal as it provides a core to build around and by signing him so early, like the Tampa Bay Rays did with Evan Longoria, Atlanta will be getting All Star caliber play, if not better, at a reduced price.
The Atlanta Braves cannot compete with the Dodgers and Yankees for high priced free agents. At the same time they are not the Houston Astros. They remain in the upper middle class as far as Major League Baseball team payrolls are concerned, and yet nearly every year they out perform their payroll as they have developed quality players at a fraction of the price that a free agent would cost them. You can argue the Braves are titans during the regular season but are paper tigers during the playoffs. However, I would say they understand how to run a quality organization that has created a way for the team to be competitive year in and year out. Having the opportunity to win every year means winning pennants and World Series Championships are more likely than the ebb and flow experienced by other teams. The Braves do all this without the high payroll or necessarily being a destination team. The Yankees and Dodgers will always have appeal to players as destinations for players due to their location, history, and their deep pockets. However, on the field there is little that replaces winning and the Braves know how to win.
The Baseball Hall of Fame has three deserving incoming members in its class o f 2014. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Frank Thomas all distinguished themselves as elite players throughout their careers and induction into Cooperstown is a deserved reward. While there is some discussion about Craig Biggio and Jack Morris not getting and the debate over if players suspected of using steroids should be elected, Maddux, Glavine, and Thomas were clear cut Hall of Famers. To understand this, you need to only look at three statistics for each player.
999 career walks
4 straight Cy Young Awards (1992-1995)
18 Gold Glove Awards, including 13 straight (1990-2002)
305 wins, fourth most among left handed pitchers
5 20+ win seasons
17 seasons of 30+ starts
7 seasons of 30+ home runs, 100+ RBI, and .300+ BA
10 seasons of 100+ walks
80 errors in 15 seasons playing first base
Maddux dominated, not through power but through control and out thinking the opposing hitter. Glavine remained healthy and was able to take the mound with such consistence that it saved the bull pen. Thomas could hit and hit for power, but he was also willing to take the free base when the opposing pitcher wanted to give it to him. All three of these men deserve to be in Cooperstown and they will go in without controversy, which is good for baseball.