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A Southbound Team on a Northbound Track
Fall is in the air and football is upon us, meaning for the hard-core Southern boy, baseball is on the wane and we are ready to put the Braves behind us, and the Braves have helped in this effort by performing in the shabbiest of fashion.
It bids evil for a team near the bottom of the standings to have the discussion less about hitting and pitching than the dreadful decision to move the franchise from the city to the suburbs of Cobb County.
What the Braves need is Ty Cobb, not Cobb County.
For more than a decade, the Atlanta Braves were viewed as an organization that knew how to get things done. The watchword was stability: create a sound farm system as a foundation, find and develop young talent and, most of all, build on pitching, pitching and more pitching.
When the city purloined the Braves from Milwaukee in 1966, Atlanta was in a race with Birmingham and other southern cities to be the dominant city in the south, and getting a major league baseball franchise sealed the deal. Atlanta was in the big leagues, everyone else was in the minors. Having moved to Atlanta just a few years after the Braves arrived, I expected to soon attend a World Series, but knew the city could never truly be major league until a championship banner flew.
The team languished, not bad enough to be laughable but too bad to be competitive. Then Ted Turner came along and bought the team for around $10 million, and was the butt of many jokes because everyone thought he was insane to even want to own such a franchise. Turner, of course, outsmarted the world by piping the Braves over his satellite-distributed Super Station to cable systems all across the country, replaying the games in the wee hours for stations desperate for programming.
The folks in Butte, Montana and Bismarck, North Dakota, loved being able to curl up on a sofa and watch the Braves at midnight. Turner made his investment back a million times over, built a cable empire, made himself a national celebrity with a movie star wife and the Braves became America’s Team, and Atlanta, by extension, became America’s Southern City.
It was not Delta, Coca-Cola, or the ever-expanding airport that showcased Atlanta to the eyes of the world but Ted Turner and the Atlanta Braves. The city of Atlanta and the Braves were joined at the hip and viewed from afar it seemed as Ted Turner and the Braves went, so went Atlanta.
It was slow going for a while at the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, but eventually a franchise was built and, starting in 1991, the Braves won 14 straight division titles, played in multiple World Series and won it all in 1995. Atlanta was considered the touchstone of baseball franchises.
Despite this apparent success, which yield only one World Series title even with the team having the best pitching in the game and one of the greatest starting rotations of all times-three Hall of Fame pitchers in John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux-they found ways to lose big games rather than win them. The steady winning philosophy during the regular season tended to crumple in the playoffs and Bobby Cox, widely considered one of the great managers, ultimately did less with more than perhaps any manager in baseball.
But the Braves are now in full retreat—quite literally—as the team will be moving from Turner Field in downtown Atlanta to a new stadium in suburban Cobb County.
The Braves are now a bad acid flashback to the teams of the 1970s and 1980s, when for two decades—except for the two years Dale Murphy put the team on his back and carried it to the playoffs—the Braves are not just bad but horrid.
One of the great injustices of all time was that Phil Neikro did not win the Cy Young Award in 1979, after going an astonishing 21-20 on a team that went 66-91. One can only wonder what kind of year it might have been had Neikro played on a professional team.
Through those years, the Braves fielded teams with players who should have been driving trucks. Pitchers touted as “one of the best arms in the game” or “great stuff,” but couldn’t hit a wall if you locked them in a room; hitters with “sweet swings” who looked great popping up; fielders who though catching a ball would give them the clap, and managers who, even if they knew what they were doing, had nothing to do it with. They team played hard, just as the current roster does, but they just weren’t any good. It was never, “wait until next year” but “wait until three years from now.”
The Braves have now returned to that philosophy. A series of trades ripped away veteran talent and stocked the farm system with an array of young players the Braves are banking on to become stars. All this expected to happen when the team bolts to Cobb County in 2017, a move Ted Turner probably finds appalling and would have never happened had he still owned the team.
There are no good guys in the Braves move to Cobb County. For the Braves, it is a simple—if not mercenary—business decision. Put the stadium closer to the majority of the season ticket holders, ignore Stephen King traffic congestion, and eventually everyone will adapt.
And city leaders should be ashamed. Following the 1996 Summer Olympics—which were held in Atlanta but it is hard to find anyone who remembers—Centennial Stadium was reconfigured into Turner Field. The agreement was to develop the surrounding area with shops and restaurants to not only support the stadium but become a destination for those on the town, a plan that is an active part of the Cobb County deal.
In Atlanta, nothing, absolutely nothing, has changed for the better around the stadium in 20 years. To call the area blighted is to be kind, and if you have a flat tire there, keep driving.
City officials thought the Braves were a captive tenant, all the while pulling out all the stops to help build a billion dollar stadium with a retractable roof for the Atlanta Falcons. When the Braves announced they were leaving, it was a shock to everyone. Even the local newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was caught flatfooted, which tells you as much about the newspaper as it does the city.
The Braves went into this year with a plan to dump the status quo and reinvent the team in a new image. New front office management had a plan and went with it, and like any plan, there is always room for error.
The Braves traded away Alex Wood, a young major league starting left-handed pitcher, for what is supposedly the next superstar, 30 year-old Cuban Hector Olivera. Even if this guy turns into what they are hoping, he’ll be 32– maybe 43 given Cuban record keeping– when the Braves move to Cobb County.
Young talent is just that, young talent. Baseball is unique among sports because success is difficult to predict. The Braves history is littered with young talent that never became major league talent; AAA players who became AAA+ players.
Brad Komminsk was the Braves “can’t miss” prospect, and fans waited with baited breath for him to emerge. He arrived in the majors with great fanfare after a stellar minor league career, only to demonstrate a swing like washwoman manning a mop. He produced a .217 average as a Brave and increased beer sales to the outfield fans. Such can happen with young talent.
On the positive side, the Braves did cashier some non-productive bums and dumped several big salaries. They have money, a plan and room to maneuver, but are rolling the dice in a big way.
Given the fact the Braves official minor league team, the Gwinnett Braves, is located in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, the idea of relocating outside the city is not original. The team will kept the name Atlanta, but in a city that is still suffering from an inferiority complex, the world will know that the Braves are no longer an Atlanta team. You can soon come to Atlanta, see a Braves game, and never set foot in the city. City leaders have suggested it’s no big deal, but delusions have always been a mainstay of city management.
The Braves put Atlanta in the spotlight, and when they started winning the city seemed to shine. Sadly, the Braves are now sinking to the bottom faster than a fat catfish and, despite the bluster of officials, Atlanta will soon no longer be a “major league city.”
The Braves are celebrating 50 years in Atlanta this year, but they will not celebrate 52.
The taxpayers in Cobb County are helping fund a new stadium with the fans being given the promise of, wait until 2017. If the young talent the Braves are banking on produces a World Series, a parade could grace Marietta. But if that talent turns into a new version of the 1987 team, finding a ticket for Saturday afternoon will not be difficult and the Atlanta Braves—Cobb County Braves—will be the most ballyhooed AAA team of all time.
Atlanta will then have succeeded in doing something no other city can boast: be the metropolitan host to two minor league teams in the suburbs, both of which can be reached from anywhere in Metro Atlanta–after only a three hour drive.