The Atlanta Braves are rebuilding, and they’re nearly unwatchable. They can’t hit or field and most nights they can’t pitch. They opened the year 4-17. Three weeks later, they fired manager Fredi Gonzalez, which hardly reassured fans that they knew what they’re doing. By nearly every measure they are the worst team in baseball.
This is their last season in the city of Atlanta; next year they’re moving to suburban Cobb County. But if they’re not careful, they could lose fans in the process.
“The product they’re putting out is insulting,” says Jim Tremayne, the editor of DJ Times magazine, a trade publication for disc jockeys. “It definitely feels very cynical to me. The entity that owns this club, it doesn’t feel like they’re interested in winning. At the end of the day, that’s what fans want.”
And, from a practical level, the team’s approach seems self-defeating, because Atlanta is a college football town with a decided fair-weather approach to its pro teams. “I think it’s really shortsighted,” says Cliff Harpe, an attorney in Cordele, Ga. “In Atlanta, if you have a superb product you can make superb money. But if you have a mediocre product, you can’t even make mediocre money.”
The team has taken a rapid plunge. In the 2013-2014 offseason, the Atlanta Braves were in an enviable position. The previous year’s team had won 96 games and a division title with the equivalent of a team full of sophomores: lineup anchors Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons were all 23, and the rotation was equally fresh-faced, led by 22-year-old Julio Teheran, 25-year-old Mike Minor and 27-year-old Kris Medlen, and the team had a 25-year-old ace closer in Craig Kimbrel.
Braves brass believed the future was bright, and brought in former Indians GM John Hart — the man who in the 1990s in Cleveland helped to pioneer the practice of handing pre-arbitration extensions to young stars — and signed extensions with five of them, committing $280 million to Freeman, Simmons, Kimbrel, Teheran and Heyward.
That future is nothing but a hazy memory. Since Opening Day in 2014, the Braves have gone 158-212 and gotten rid of nearly everyone who was on that division-winning team. Among players who played a single inning for the 2013 Braves, only three are still on the 40-man roster: Freeman, Teheran and Eric O’Flaherty, who signed as a free agent in the offseason after spending the last two years elsewhere.
For many fans, the Andrelton Simmons trade was the absolute nadir. The Braves traded the best defensive shortstop in baseball, to whom they had recently handed a long-term, team-friendly extension, to the Angels in exchange for two risky pitching prospects. They also made sure to ask for Angels shortstop Erick Aybar in return. By WAR, Aybar has been the worst player in baseball this season.
And now their ballpark is in its last months as home of the Braves. After 20 years in Turner Field and 51 years in the city of Atlanta, the Braves are building a stadium in the suburbs that they hope will be easier for fans who live outside the city to reach by highway.
But anyone who has ever driven in Atlanta knows the city’s highways are so nightmarishly congested that, as Chris Gigley recently wrote here, “Fans who must take I-285 or I-75 to the game will never make it for the first pitch of any Braves game. Ever. They’ll probably miss the entire first inning. And probably the second.”
A lot of old-timers are reminded of the bad old days in the 1970s and 1980s, when the team was frequently one of the worst in baseball. But back then, the team had heroes to worship like Henry Aaron, Phil Niekro and Dale Murphy. They see nobody like that now.
“They were sort of analogous with the Falcons,” Tremayne said. “I grew up in Columbus, Georgia, so you had a lot of kids who couldn’t bring themselves to root for the crappy Atlanta baseball and football, so they would root for the Cowboys, or the Reds, or the Pirates, or even, later into the ‘70s, the Yankees… You actually believed that they may not be good in your lifetime. I believed that.”
Tremayne grew up in Columbus and started rooting for the team in 1971. “It got to the point where it was a little depressing,” he says. “The only thing you had to root for was individual accomplishments. Aaron, obviously, hitting 715. Or Niekro winning that 20th game. Or Buzz Capra winning the ERA title.”
But Aaron’s chase won the team new fans across the country. “I think I was the only kid in the state of Connecticut who followed the Braves,” says Chris Nicholson, who is now a real estate developer in Concord, Mass. “Hank Aaron, he was chasing the record… and I just thought, he was my guy.”
Joel Kauffman had the same experience in Mount Union, Pa. Discovering the Braves was almost an illicit thrill. His father gave him a radio one day, and he started listening to it after bedtime, searching for stations.
“I stumbled on WSB, and there was a Braves game on. I stopped there. And this guy named Hank Aaron stepped to the plate and hit a home run,” Kauffman remembers. “So I listened to the rest of the game, waiting for him to come to the plate again. The next night, I went there, and — there was another game on! That’s how I got hooked.”
Ted Turner‘s TBS Superstation played that role for a lot of fans. “I didn’t really come from a family of baseball fans, but I watched the ’95 World Series and I was hooked,” says Karissa Marken, a schoolteacher who grew up in central Virginia. “I call myself a TBS fan — they really were the only team I could get.”
The Braves often like to point out that they are the oldest continuously operating franchise in major league baseball, a direct descendent of the Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869, the first professional franchise in baseball history. A large contingent from that team moved to Boston — the Boston Red Stockings of 1876 were a charter member of the National League — and the franchise then went to Milwaukee in 1953, then to Atlanta in 1966.
But in their long history, the Braves have won only three World Series, one in each city: 1914, 1957 and 1995. Between pennants in 1958 and 1991, the team made the playoffs just twice, with division titles in 1969 and 1982, getting swept both times. With those two exceptions, the Atlanta Braves were pretty terrible for most of their existence.
“The Braves have sort of always been an underdog,” says Rhett Thomas, who grew up watching the team in Sebastian, Fla. “As bad as it was, I felt like, this is my team, and they need somebody, they’ve got me. And they were on TV all the time. One hundred thirty games a year. If you were a baseball fan you watched the Braves.”
For some, being there for the lean years was a point of pride. For others, it was simply a matter of fact.
“I’ve been a Braves fan for a long time, ever since there’s been such a thing as the Atlanta Braves, and there’s been a lot of lousy teams and lot of lousy seasons,” says Tim Floyd, a law professor at Mercer University in Macon, Ga. “And this is right up there with the worst of them. That expression, ‘There’s No Such Thing as a Pitching Prospect’: They hadn’t invented it yet, but I lived it.”
Attendance is always higher for good teams than bad teams. The team is betting on the belief that once the team wins again, fans will come in droves to their shiny new stadium.
By way of contrast, Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Mark Bradley points out that “there weren’t many Braves fans” in the 1980s, before the worst-to-first season of 1991 changed everything. He remembers a court case from the 1980s that a colleague of his attended:
It was a guy from TBS. They got free Braves tickets, because nobody wanted them. This guy got free tickets and saw ten to twelve games a year.
One day, he drove to the game and went the same way he always did, and got ticketed by the Atlanta police for a wrong turn. He goes before the judge and my colleague is watching.
And the judge says, “You go to 12 games a year?”
“Is this gonna be an insanity plea?”
However, Terry Pluto, a Cleveland sportswriter who has written extensively on the Indians, thinks that the benefits of the new stadium may not be quite as great as the Braves would hope. (I quoted his book “The Curse of Rocky Colavito” in April.)
“The Braves are not going to be able to cash in” on the new stadium, Pluto believes, because the contrast with Turner Field is simply not that great. “It’s not like they’re going from a place where the plumbing didn’t work.”
Both the Braves and Indians went from extraordinarily bad in the ’70s and ’80s to extraordinarily good in the ’90s. But they were also fortunate to be the only good show in town: The Browns had left Cleveland, the Falcons were mediocre, and the Cavaliers and Hawks were middling. “When they came in, the door was wide open for them to plant the flag,” Pluto explains. “That’s not the case in Cleveland now, and I don’t think that’s the case in Atlanta.”
Through their first 40 games, the Braves used 21 pitchers. They have the fifth-worst ERA and sixth-worst FIP in the National League. Two of their top pitching prospects, Mike Foltynewicz and Aaron Blair, have respective FIPs of 4.48 and 4.64 in the majors this year. (Foltynewicz’s ERA is 3.95; Blair’s is 7.59.) Blair, who just turned 24 on May 26, was sent back to the minors after a horrendous May 17th start in which he gave up nine runs and recorded just four outs. They may develop — old-timers remember that Tom Glavine put up a rookie ERA of 5.54 in 1987, and John Smoltz had a 5.48 ERA as a rookie in 1988 — but being young and struggling is not a particularly good predictor of whether a pitcher will go to the Hall of Fame.
Watching the team fail so spectacularly, and seeing the front office blame the manager for losing with a roster that Babe Ruth and Joe McCarthy couldn’t save, raises a disturbing question: is the team being torn down and rebuilt by people ill-equipped for the task?
On May 1, the Braves tried to call up Emilio Bonifacio, a player they’d released in spring training then re-signed to a minor league contract. It turned out he was ineligible due to a rule that teams must wait 30 days to call up players whom they have cut and re-signed, a rule the front office had overlooked. “They bungle these little things,” says Bill Smith, a disability benefits specialist in Chattanooga. “You wonder if they know what they’re doing.”
Worse was the team’s blockbuster trade for Cuban defector Hector Olivera. Team scouts and then-manager Fredi Gonzalez loved him and pushed the front office to trade young pitching and prospects for the 30-year old third baseman, who was in the Dodgers’ minor leagues at the time, getting back into playing shape after two years moving through the administrative process of defection. Shortly after the trade, the Braves announced that he was moving to the outfield because they didn’t believe he could stick at third.
In early April of 2016, he was arrested on domestic violence charges and placed on administrative suspension by major league baseball. Before the league announced his punishment, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan reported that the team was trying to trade him, only to find — predictably — that he is perceived around the league as untouchable. On May 26, the league handed down an 82-game suspension, announcing that Olivera will be ineligible to play until August 1. There is a chance that he may never play another game by the Braves.
“It feels like every move has backfired,” Tremayne says.
The biggest problem, as the team builds its new suburban stadium in Cobb County, about 15 miles from their downtown digs at Turner Field, is convincing the fans that it will all be worth it.
“There’s nobody really that you can pull for,” says Tim Denman, the cybersecurity learning director at Defense Acquisition University in Huntsville, Ala. “I know the players are playing hard, but there’s no part of the game that, as a fan, draws me to them right now.”
It’s hard not to draw a conclusion about how the team feels about its rooters. “The lineup they throw out there every day is as bad as anything I’ve seen,” says Floyd, the law professor. “They don’t seem to care that much about the fans or the product on the field.”
If the Braves win again, they will probably find a way to fill the stadium. But some Braves fans who have been with the team for years may not be with them. There’s a serious empathy gap, and a sense of profound loss.
“I hate that they’re moving it to a mall in some horrible suburb,” says Nicholson, the Massachusetts developer. “Not that I’m tied in with Atlanta or any connection with the South, but I feel I should be rooting for a team that’s in a city, not in a mall, with a bunch of players who come and go.
“I think Bobby Cox cried the day he traded Dale Murphy. Well, okay! That’s my general manager. He feels the way I feel. I think [GM John] Coppolella traded Simmons to show everyone he could do it.
“I hate these guys.”
References & Resources
- Chris Gigley, The Hardball Times, “If You Build It, They Will Bottleneck”
- Phone interviews with nine commenters from Braves Journal (a site that I manage): Tim Denman, Tim Floyd, Cliff Harpe, Joel Kauffman, Karissa Marken, Chris Nicholson, Bill Smith, Rhett Thomas, and Jim Tremayne.
- Phone interviews with Mark Bradley and Terry Pluto.