The damndest thing happened in the summer of 1981 — baseball went on strike. No superstation! No internet! What was a fan to do? In response, newly rechristened SuperStation WTBS (formerly WTCG-17 Atlanta) decided to bring their MLB broadcast crew of Skip, Pete and Ernie to AAA to cover the Braves AAA affiliate in Richmond, VA for the duration of the labor stoppage. And so my minor league fixation was born, the 1981 Richmond Braves.
It helped a great deal that the Richmond 9 were actually a pretty good team with a core that would feature in our dreams — and break our hearts — in the years that followed.
1981 Richmond Braves
- Manager: Eddie Haas
- Pitching Coach: Johnnie Sain
- Record: 83-56
- 605 runs scored 546 allowed
The International League of the early 1980â€™s was far different than what we are accustomed to today: games averaged a little over 8 runs (and less than 2 hours!) while the starting pitcher finished the deal almost 30% of the time. 10-man pitching staffs were the norm and the extra bench players were almost uniformly awful. It was not unusual for a AAA team to have an average age greater than their MLB counterpart as guys hung onto their dreams/careers for far longer than today. For instance, in 1981 there were 13 IL players who were already over 30 and would never play in a MLB game. The R-Braves bucked this trend as they had only 1 old guy — although, true to form he would never make the majors — and were the 2nd youngest team in the league.
As for the team, Iâ€™m just going to mention the players who made it to Atlanta, but most of the other players were easy to root for and several of them gave great interviews that sadly no longer appear to exist.
The whole infield would see time with the big team over the next few years, although only 21-year old catcher Matt Sinatro was any kind of prospect. He looked to be 15. 2B was manned by old man Chico Ruiz who had no arm at all and whenever possible lobbed the ball to first underhand. Gotta admit I loved that. The shortstop was Paul Runge, who would put up about half a win of value for the Braves over the next 9 years. At AAA, he was, well, not a star, but a very good player. Randy Johnson — unfortunately for us Braves fans the wrong one — was an excellent defensive 3rd baseman who fell flat in Atlanta both times Bob Horner broke his wrist.
Out in the pasture the teamâ€™s actual stars hung out. CF Brett Butler would be a quality player for the next 15 years although, thanks to The Worst Trade of All Time, little of it would be spent on the Braves. He won the IL MVP in â€˜81. Left fielder Larry Whisenton was the other offensive standout although he could never turn his AAA success into much in Atlanta.
The pitching staff was the true strength of the team and every member would see significant time in the show (although, to continue the theme, usually not with the Braves). A young Ken Dayley led the team in innings and the league in wins while walking nearly six guys per nine. Steve Bedrosian was still a starter and tied for the league lead in complete games with long-time Pirate Larry McWilliams. Closer was generally manned by groundball specialist Carlos Diaz who worked to make every save an adventure.
The MLB strike lasted from mid June to the end of July so I ended up missing a pennant race that saw the team finish 5 games behind the hated Columbus Clippers (Yanks, natch). In the playoffs, Richmond came from 2 games to 1 behind to defeat the Tidewater Tides in a low-scoring affair marred by 5 rainouts. Meanwhile, Columbus dispatched Rochester in similar fashion. For the finals, Columbus defeated the R-Braves 2-1 after another 5 rainouts pushed the games into the planned instructional league schedule. Both teams requested Columbus be declared champs.
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