East Coast Bias: Bye Bye Braves

You have no idea how hard this is to say, but the Atlanta Braves are through. It’s hard for me to say, because back in my younger days I used to follow the Atlanta Braves. A young Daniels didn’t start following baseball until the early 90s. I have no great memories of the 1986 Mets’ season because I only watched Game 7 of that series. I didn’t see the fabled Bucker play live. I didn’t live the elation of the city and state of New York at the tender age of 8. In fact, I didn’t follow a full baseball season until 1991.

I was in 8th grade and didn’t have a team. I had four television options in Upstate New York. The Mets and the Yankees were carried upstate. I had just about every Red Sox game on WWOR-Boston, and I had just about every Braves game on WTBS. I didn’t know much about baseball, but I knew enough to know I wasn’t supposed to like the Sawks. I knew enough folks who followed the Yankees and the venom I’d heard pointed at the Sawks over the years were enough to turn me off of them. So, as most folks who are young and impressionable, the choice finally comes down to one of two things: 1) Who’s good at the time or 2) Who your friends or family likes.

My family was not a baseball family. My father and grandfathers never followed the game. I didn’t even have uncles that watched baseball. All of the sports memories I have growing up are either football or basketball. Mostly football. As for being good, the Yankees were still playing sub-.500 ball then, their 1996 dynasty team still five years away. I have to admit, had I waited another few years to start following baseball, I would almost certainly be a Yankees fan right now. The Mets were… well… let’s just say it would take them another ten years to even sniff the playoffs.

This left me with Atlanta. It wasn’t a tough choice, really. In fact, my best friend at the time was born in Georgia and had always been a Braves fan. They were 2 years into their 14 year streak.

Then came 1994.

I wasn’t so invested into baseball to be depressed by the strike, but I was irritated. Just like the hockey players last year, the players never look good in a strike, regardless of who’s right or wrong. Therefore, 3 years into baseball, I was finished with it again. I still watched the playoffs and I would still follow the season on an as-yet-not-annoying Sportscenter, but there was no love for the game. I was still happy for the Braves when they won their World Series (thankfully removing any and all comparisons to the Bills) and I still, from time to time, would watch John Smoltz or Tom Glavine pitch whenever I caught a game, but it was more out of being a fan of the individual player rather than the team or the game itself. The first time I ever saw Andruw Jones, 19 years old at the time, swing a baseball bat, he did some yardwork at the expense of Andy Pettitte. One inning later, he did the same thing.

Mostly I stayed away from baseball. It wasn’t really a conscious decision, I just wasn’t interested. Looking back, I almost wish that wasn’t the case. Regardless of the venom directed toward the Yankees in recent years, the late nineties team was as close to a perfect baseball team as one could get. If there’s a reason Yankees fans are spoiled brats who feel every World Series belongs to them, it’s this team. This team swaggered like, more recently, the Patriots swaggered. They knew they were going to win and, moreso, the fans knew this team was going to win. It was a shock in 2001 when they lost but, in fairness, at that point no one could have beaten the Curt Schilling/Randy Johnson 1-2 punch. Nobody.

Then came the playoffs of 2003. I don’t know really what it was about this set of playoffs. Maybe it really was the power of the Red Sox and Cubs both being in the mix in October. Maybe it was watching a team who I’ve seen the entire history of trying to make their second world series run. Maybe I got a thing for guys named Pudge. Either way, I found myself watching these entire playoffs with bated breath. I remember where I was during the Steve Bartman incident (who is still the scapegoat, no pun intended. Alex Gonzales makes a play and the Cubs are out of that inning with 1 run. Oh yeah, and the whole “Game 7” thing). I was there when Aaron f’n Boone of all people put off the Red Sox dreams for another season. And I watched the Marlins upset the Yankees. All in all, it was just a perfect set of playoffs.

Ten years later, I was back, but my situation had changed. I hadn’t paid any attention for years, but now I was in a quandary. Continue to follow the Braves or, since almost everyone I knew at the time was a Mets fan, start to follow the Mets. My eventual choice, both. This is complicated, and eventually, it will lead to a column about the rules of following two teams, even if they are bitter enemies. It’s possible, at least in my own head. Unfortunately, some of my Mets friends are not exactly appreciative of someone sort of pulling for the Braves, so that leaves me as kind of a no-fan.

Lo and behold, here I am, sort of a Mets fan and sort of a Braves fan. Now, I’m watching the most under appreciated record in baseball go out not with a bang, not even with something you could call a whimper. The Braves, for the first time in 15 years are bad… embarrassingly bad… Royals (without two ace starters) bad.

It’s to be expected really. Their bullpen is a debacle, and has been since John Smoltz left the closer role. They traded for a new closer, Dan Kolb, last season and promptly returned him to the Brewers (under warranty, I assume) this season when they found out he was broken. They had been using the mess that was Kyle Farnsworth (the future Yankees’ closer… good luck, guys) and had recently settled on all 9.11 ERA worth of Chris Reitsma before he wound up on the DL. 2 of their 5 normal starters and one of their backup starters are currently on the DL. Jorge Sosa is not on the DL but also should not be in the major league. The Braves are currently left with 2 good starters, 3 messes, and a horrifyingly bad bullpen. However, Smoltz and Hudson, the aces, are 10-10.

Nothing is going right for this team, be it run support or pitching, and that’s pretty much a recipe for disaster.

And it’s not going to get better any time soon. John Smoltz will turn 40 next year. Chipper Jones is 34 but his body seems to be falling apart like he was 44. Andruw Jones’s contract is up at the end of next season and Scott Boras is his agent. Some team that isn’t Atlanta is going to offer Andruw some obscene amount of money to be a center fielder (just in time to get a sweet deal from a newly relocated Marlins? Filling in for a traded Junior? The options are plentiful). Atlanta doesn’t bid with other teams, and Boras doesn’t offer hometown discounts. Bobby Cox looks like he’s going to keel over at any moment. All of the heralded rookies from last year are now spotty at best, including 2005 Rookie of the Year candidate Jeff Francoeur.

So what are the Braves chances for 15 this year? Well, fixing the bullpen would be first. Problem is: who’s going to sell them a closer? Second problem: will they even be buying? It would seem, right now, the only available closer is Danys Baez. The Braves might be able to get Baez for prospects, who is certainly better than Reitsma, but isn’t dominant by any stretch. Do you really want to give up prospects for an unproven closer? Or do you just chalk the streak up to “good show” and move on to next season? At the end, this is probably what the Braves are going to do. They’ll make a run with what they have and come up short, barring some sort of mid-season meltdown by the Mets (which is not outside the realm of possiblilty).

It’s ironic that the Braves’ pitching is going to be their downfall this season. The same pitching system that gave us the Glavine/Smoltz/Maddux rotation is now going to be the end of 14 Division Titles in a row, and that’s kind of sad. Even sadder is the fact that, as of now, they are tied with the 14 million dollar Marlins team. The Marlins combined make the same amount of money as Mike Hampton. Mike Hampton has not pitched a game this season.

And that’s pretty much the definition of less than a whimper.

Quick Hits

  • Kris Benson hit a homerun off Pedro Martinez at Shea Stadium. There should be a rule in the books that if an AL pitcher hits a homerun the game is automatically over
  • The Orioles took 2-of-3 from the Mets proving once in for all that Leo Mazzone has the Mets’ number, not the Braves
  • Can anyone other than me see the Marlins making a run at 2nd place in the NL East and possibly the wildcard as all these rookies figure out how to play baseball?
  • Speaking of playoffs getting you back into an entire league, the NBA playoffs go back to Dallas for game six. If you haven’t been enjoying this, Darth Stern finds your lack of faith disturbing
  • The US has a chance at advancing into the World Cup tournament if they can beat Ghana and Italy can beat the Czech Republic. In a brilliant bit of scheduling, both of these games are on at the same time on Thursday night.
  • Dwayne Wade’s free throws with 1.9 seconds left on the clock were exactly the type of drama I was referring to in last week’s column

I’m out. I’ll see you on Thursday with some thoughts on ECW.