“What did you do in the war, Daddy?” you say. Well, last night I went down to the basement and found the dusty old footlocker. I found the key and opened it, and there they were. All my medals. The 101 Purple Hearts I got in the ’77 campaign. The 106 Purple Hearts from the ’88 campaign. My Combat Action medal from the Padres beanball wars. And lots of Good Conduct Medals for being a good soldier and Not Giving Up the Ship. What was it like, you ask….
[Narrator looks away wistfully into middle distance. Screen dissolves to men dressed in powder blue double-knit pajamas.]
We were still feeling a little buzz in 1975. It hadn’t been that long ago that we were in the playoffs in ’69. More to the point, in the previous year we got to watch one of the best 3 or 4 hitters to ever play the game chase and eclipse the most magical and storied record in all of sports. And Hank wasn’t some aging Babe Ruth rental. He WAS the Braves, through and through.
But in ‘75, he was gone to Milwaukee, for the aging rental referenced above. And the cupboard was not being replenished. All we had was a phenomenal CF in Ralph Garr (career .317 BA, 137 SBs as a Brave) and the ageless Phil Niekro. Other than that, only Darrell Evans and Dusty Baker were above average players. The rest were WAY below average. Vic Correll. Rod Gilbreath. Larvell Blanks. Guys that had been good (Earl Williams, Darrell Evans) were sliding fast beyond their ”Best By” date.
Then, Ted Turner bought the team (along with the Hawks, who I understand play basketball) in 1976. And it was like Al Czervik from Caddyshack had bought the team, if Al had been a good ol’ boy from South Georgia. Or if Mr. Burns and Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel had a baby together: that would be Ted Turner. Just crazy shtuff. He went out and paid top dollar for a FA pitcher, Andy Messersmith, then pretended to nickname him “Channel” then gave him the number 17. He then put Channel on the guy’s jersey, as if it were his actual name, so the centerfield camera would show Channel 17, the name of Turner’s cable station. In 1977, he fired the manager, found a uniform, and tried to manage the team (for one game until the league said no, Ted.) So in addition to being supporters of a terrible team, you were also tarred with being embarrassed by this jackass’s latest ravings or stupid FA signing.
But he actually seemed to want to improve the team. He didn’t know how, other than to treat it like a fantasy team and go out and buy a guy who just had a great year and pay him top dollar: Willie Montanez, Jeff Burroughs, Messersmith, Mike Marshall. That’s how it seemed. Steinbrenner was doing it, so heck, why not? But the addition of those players never added to the win column. Things like Barry Bonnell, Pat Rockett, and Junior Moore were rolled onto the field regularly.
The pitching staff varied wildly between a Bunch of Guys You Never Heard of, and Guys You Wished You’d Never Heard of. In addition to guys who just absolutely stunk, like Buzz Capra, it was a neverending parade of horribles. In 1977, Niekro started 46 games, and only he and Dick Ruthven had more than 16 starts. A total of 13 pitchers had starts. If it hadn’t been for Niekro, I don’t know what we would have done.
And as I’ve said elsewhere, the most scarring thing about those years was the fielding. Instead of Tinkers to Evers to Chance, we had Moe to Larry to Curly. The ‘77 Braves had 116 unearned runs, the ‘79 Braves had 109. (The 2013 Braves had 36.) For these abysmal years, they finished no higher than 10th (of 12) teams in fewest errors. The inability to make routine plays was just an epidemic.
This may be a personal thing, but nothing causes me more agita, whether on my kid’s high school team or the Atlanta Braves, as an inability to catch and throw. Because it’s both the easiest part of the game to be competent at and the key to winning in my book. You don’t need to be Brooks Robinson. Just make all the routine plays, and you’ll be in most games. But what made it worse was the combination of terrible defense with mediocre to poor pitching. Fielding becomes exponentially more important when you have a crap pitching staff throwing meatballs. You make an error behind Greg Maddux, no biggie. He’s probably going to throw a DP groundball next batter. You make an error behind Buzz Capra or Preston Hanna, big problem: you’re looking at a 4 or 5 run inning.
For those five years, we averaged just under 67 wins a season. In the 6 team NL West, we finished fifth, last, last, last and … last.
We were trying to win. Ted was trying to win. Just didn’t know how to do it.
Next: Movie Time.