Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Hudson to match Zane Smith

Starting opening day is an honor, I suppose, but in the grand scheme it’s pretty meaningless. Example: Who had more opening-day starts for the Braves, future Hall of Famer and potential 300-game winner Tom Glavine, or mediocrity Rick Mahler?

Mahler, may he rest in peace, five to four. And so we get news that Hudson, not Smoltz will start this year’s opener at Chavez Ravine. Smoltzie, of course, accepted the move with total class.

Among Atlanta's not so notable opening-day starters: Zane Smith, Russ Ortiz, Tommy Boggs, John Burkett and Carl Morton.

-- CD

This is how it's done

Next time you hear Pete Rose or some other guy bitching about not making the Hall of Fame, think of Buck O’Neil. His grace and good humor are an example for us all.

The 94-year-old tells the AP that baseball fans should shed no tears for him.

-- CD

Monday, February 27, 2006

Speaking of sports

This is Howard Cosell, speaking of sports.

As another Winter Olympiad concludes in the snow-capped Italian Alps, this reporter is compelled to state that I am appalled at the egregious failings and desperate verbal flailings of the American skier Bode Miller. Ballyhooed and bombastic, this beer swilling skirt chaser professes to be anti-establishment while accepting the corporate lucre of the world’s largest purveyor of athletic shoes. I speak, of course, of Nike Inc.

This Miller humiliated himself and his team, only to subsequently contend that victory was never his aim. That is an abomination.

But wait! The annals of sport teem with charismatic and superb gladiators who also enjoyed a libation and the company of pulchritudinous members of the fairer sex. Reginald Martinez Jackson swung his bat and his tongue with equal gusto. Regaroo enjoyed life, taunted opponents and even his manager with flair, but played the game with an unquenchable thirst for victory. Likewise, Joe Willie Namath. Broadway Joe! A playboy, at times a clown who in later years was reduced to public buffoonery by alcohol addiction, Broadway Joe was nevertheless in his day a fierce competitor inside his panty hose. Joe Willie guaranteed victory and delivered, unlike the skidding Boring Miller.

Then of course, there was The Greatest. This reporter never witnessed any athlete or other public figure with the overwhelming magnetism and innate sense of style of Muhammad Ali. The Champ defined bombast, yes. He was loud, at times obnoxious but always, always stylish. He brought an utterly original air of jovial gravity to every stage, a sense of moment. Muhammad entertained, but beneath the showman’s garish robe raged the fire of a champion, a man devoted to pure excellence.

This Miller knows no such commitment. His farcical debauchery and his atrocious athletic showing leave him a humiliation, an imbecilic and pathetic curiosity sadly symbolic of many of this country’s winter Olympians circa 2006. Miller is a charlatan and a fraud, a would-be free spirit who flies his freak flag, as the hippies used to say, but backs it up with incompetence and so renders it an empty gesture. Overly harsh? What can I say. I never played the game, but I tell it like it is.

-- CD

Fathers playing catch with sons

This isn't "Field of Dreams."

Roger Clemens' first pitch of his simulated game against Houston Astros minor-leaguers went over the left-field fence. Next time that batter was up, he got buzzed high and tight. Who was in the box against Rocket? His son Koby.

Roger Clemens threw 66 pitches Monday afternoon, followed by 18 more batting practice pitches.

Koby Clemens said his dad was ready to retire in December, but his family talked him out of it.

"We were all like, 'You should wait and allow yourself to rest your body,'" Koby said. "He was still kind of hurting, kind of tired. He was like, 'I don't want to do this again.'"

Looks like Roger's coming back, and it's hard to see him not returning to Houston. His son's there, it's close to home and they let him come and go as he pleases. Plus, with Clemens, they are as good a bet to represent the NL as any team, featuring a rotation second to none.


Hall broadens Negro League representation

Several Negro League players and executive Effa Manley, the first woman Hall of Famer, today were selected to be enshrined in Cooperstown.

Too bad Buck O'Neil wasn’t one of them. I have no idea what kind of player he was, though I just read he had a .288 lifetime average in the old Negro Leagues. I’d like to see O'Neil honored for being a wonderful baseball ambassador and storyteller. His melodious voice and engaging wit on Ken Burns’ documentary and in other interviews makes you feel like you’re walking through a dusty Grays-Monarchs game in the 1930s.

Anyway, the great Satchel Paige, like me a native Alabamian, was elected to Cooperstown in 1971. I’m using this as an excuse to post a cool photo of Satch, one of the signature pitchers and personalities in baseball history. Because of the color barrier, Satch didn’t make his major league debut until the Indians acquired him when he was 42 years old. Amazingly, he pitched five major league seasons and posted an ERA of 3.29.

On a related note, the Boston Globe has a nice piece up on Willie Harris and Jackie Robinson’s hometown of Cairo, (say Kay-ro) Ga. A Cairo native and second baseman, Harris is trying to make the Red Sox as a utility infielder and outfielder.

-- CD

Take a swing at John Rocker

First off, I have nothing against people in wheelchairs, hunters or hunters in wheelchairs. I do, however, think John Rocker is a bit of an imbecile.

It’s almost too easy to take shots at Rocker. But as he’s back in the news, why not? The pride of Macon is appearing in a Spike TV – tagline: Spike TV will inspire and define the modern man by addressing his lifestyle interests – show where he’ll pitch to a few average Joes who win some sort of contest, in New York, no less. Ooooo. Rocker in New York. This could get crazy.

Probably not. According to the local organ, the burned out lefty will have plenty of security in tow, not to mention the Spike crews. Rocker will be flinging on “Pros vs. Joes, the show where ordinary guys face off against some of the greatest athletes in the world.”

I’m not sure John is one of the greatest athletes in the world. Maybe Bode Miller isn’t available, though he’ll probably be chasing gigs like this soon. As for Rocker, he seems to remain on a campaign to rehabilitate his image. He has a web site filled with news about appearances at charity events for children. He does seem to do a lot of that. And he lets you know about it all.

The above photo features this caption:

John poses with Dusty Vance of Philadelphia, Mississippi, at the National Wild Turkey Federation’s Wheelin’ Sportsmen event in March 2004. Rocker recently spent three days in Union Springs, Alabama assisting disabled hunters in the field.
Dusty, a Wheelin’ Sportsmen participant said, “I am thankful to all the volunteers who came out to help with the Wheelin’ Sportsmen event. I am particularly grateful to John Rocker, who not only took the time out of his busy schedule, but he is also one of the nicest people I have ever met.”

See. He is a nice guy. If you don’t believe Dusty, John’s publicist – yes, he has a publicist – says so too in a Newsday story when Rocker signed with the Long Island Ducks. This was before the matured Rocker had screaming matches with a couple of Long Island fans.

The real Rocker, Curzio says, is "a very genuine person, a very likable person, intelligent, great sense of humor. Look, he knows he made a mistake. He doesn't deny that. ... But he's also grown up in six years, and he's matured."

He’s matured enough to write a book “that will cover topics such as politics, current events, the media and sports,” according to his web site. Move over Thomas Friedman and David Brooks.

-- CD

Delmon wants none of Chucky

“I don't want to face that guy no more. It's that changeup. He threw me a 2-0 changeup and I thought I broke my bat on my back."

That’s Devil Rays outfielder Delmon Young, ranked by Baseball America the top prospect in the game headed into this season, on Bravos’ lefty Chuck James. James is among four Braves included in BA’s top 100. That’s not a terribly high number, but of course the Braves are already loaded with kids who have jumped from prospect lists to the big league roster.

The highest-ranked Brave is Jarrod Saltalamacchia, at No. 18. He’s followed by shortstop Elvis Andrus, 61, pitcher Anthony Lerew at 93 and young Chuck at 98. If this list is a guide, the Diamondbacks could have a bright future, as five Snakes are among the top 23 prospects.

On last year’s list, Francoeur was 14th, McCann 44th, Davies 53rd, Jake Stevens 92nd and Lerew 99th. Among non-Braves who broke through last season, A’s closer Houston Street was 97th, NL Rookie of the Year Ryan Howard was 27th, Pirates lefty Zach Duke was 34th and Twins catcher Joe Mauer was No. 1.

-- CD

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Leave Skip and Pete alone

The most unsettling news out of Braves camp so far doesn’t involve the bullpen, or Renteria’s health or any player at all.

It is this: Fox has bought Turner South and might mess with our broadcasters. We could see a lot less of Skip and Pete on TV, perhaps as soon as the second half of this season, according to the local organ’s Tim Tucker. (No link, as I can’t find the story online.) The gist: Fox, through its $375 million acquisition of Turner South, has broadcast rights to about half the Braves games the next two years and more than 100 each season after that.

You’d have to think Fox will keep showing Braves games, though this quote from a network high sheriff isn’t encouraging: “These are not just Atlanta networks.”

But let’s assume the regional Fox network will keep televising the Bravos. The question from there is, will they mess with the booth? After crafting a more “national” approach by using other announcers less tied to the Braves more often, Turner learned the hard way two years ago that we Braves fans want our old friends Skip and Pete doing as many games as possible. With many other interests and viewing the channel as “not just Atlanta” anyway, Fox might not be as responsive.

That is worrisome because in our era of baseball, venerable announcers are a club’s real fixtures. Notable exceptions like Smoltz and Chipper aside, in any sport these days players come and go. Jerry Seinfeld famously said we “root for the rags,” meaning the uniform. That’s true, but we don’t want anybody taking away from us the guys who root along with us year after year. How much fun would it be to hear Sid slide, or just radio highlights from last night’s game with Steve Lyons calling it?

FSN South, the Southern regional sorts network Fox already owns and which it will presumably more or less meld with Turner South, already shows 25 Braves games a season. FSN gives us the broadcasting milquetoast-and-pollyanna duo of, respectively, Bob Rathbun and Tom Paciorek. Rathbun is awful and Paciorek is prone to statements like, “Wow!” when someone catches a popup.

Let’s hope like hell we don’t get force fed more of those two. Fox, hands off Skip and Pete.

-- CD

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Go crazy folks!

Watching a documentary on Ozzie Smith, I'm reminded of the best defensive play I've ever seen (on live TV, anyway).

On April 28, 1978, Smith made what he rated as his best play ever when he dove to his left to snare a grounder hit by Atlanta's Jeff Burroughs. The ball took a bad hop and skipped behind Smith's head, so Smith promptly stuck out his bare right hand to snag the ball before popping to his feet and throwing Burroughs out at first base.

Eighteen years later, I was at Dodger Stadium for Ozzie's last game in Chavez Ravine. During a pre-game ceremony honoring the Wizard, they showed the Burroughs play on the video screen. Even then it elicited gasps.

Some footnotes from the "Behind the Glory" episode on Ozzie:

*He played on the same high school team as Eddie Murray, but wasn't drafted;

*Then-Padres manager Alvin Dark was forced out of his job after insisting on giving the starting SS job to Smith over former first-round draft pick Bill Almon;

*His Game Five home run in the '85 NLCS off Tom Niedenfuer was the switch-hitter's first homer from the left side in his career;

*Jack Buck's call of that play might be my favorite of all-time. No broadcaster was better at capturing big moments than the late voice of the Cardinals.

I miss watching Ozzie play. No one has approached his defensive mastery. Not even close.


Travis Wilson of the week

This week's spring flash: Wes Obermueller

"He threw the ball super," manager Bobby Cox said after watching Obermueller throw batting practice Friday to a group that included Jeff Francoeur and the Joneses, Andruw and Chipper. "He's got good stuff — 92-94 [mph fastball], great slider, and he's around the plate. Our scouts liked him, and you could see why."

Obermueller's career numbers: 9-19, 5.71 ERA, 131 strikeouts, 104 walks, 256 1/3 innings.


Memories of Timry Flanster

Remember that old Padres platoon of Tim Flannery and Jerry Royster? How about John Lowenstein and Gary Roenicke? Or Chris Chambliss and Jim Spencer?

Platooning isn't what it used to be in baseball, but old school Bobby is still getting plenty of mileage out of that Earl Weaver-model of managing. Particularly at first base, which has been a non-stop platoon for much of the Braves run since '91, excluding the McGriff/Big Cat era. Before, there was Sid Bream and Brian Hunter. Since we've seen the likes of Ryan Klesko, Wes Helms, Rico Brogna, Hunter (again), Ken Caminiti (ouch!), Rob Fick, B.J. Surhoff, the Old Man and Adam LaRoche take their turns at first.

Rochey is trying to change that pattern this season, bidding to win the job outright. If he's successful, that would free up the Bravos to carry both Kelly Johnson and Matt Diaz (or Brian Jordan). I'd prefer to see LaRoche not split time with prospect James Jurries, but memories of a particularly hideous at-bat against John Franco last season gives me pause.

He's had 68 career at-bats against southpaws, and hit just .188 in 48 at-bats against them last year.

During the 2003 season, LaRoche's final one in the Minors, he hit .230 (40-for-174) against southpaws. While at Double-A Greenville that year, he hit .276 (21-for-76) and belted six homers against them. After being promoted to Triple-A Richmond, he hit just .194 (19-for-98) when facing lefties.

"I feel like I'll get every shot," LaRoche said. "If I don't end up getting that full-time job, I'll be blaming myself for not getting the job done. It's never even crossed my mind that it's going to be a problem."


Diary of a madman

Back before he was marrying movie stars and coddling dictators, Ted Turner was the world's most entertaining meglomaniac. No incident sums that up better than his one-game stint as Braves manager, back in 1977.

For a full, and entertaining, recollection of that bizarre May evening in Pittsburgh, check out this link.


Friday, February 24, 2006

Rollins rocks

A guy I already liked is climbing my list of favorite non-Braves: Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins.

According to the New York Times, the fleet leadoff man who plays with flare and enthusiasm, and is by all accounts a hell of a guy, is also an aficionado of the old Negro Leagues. He even cracks a joke about being as fast as Cool Papa Bell.

How many contemporary players would even know who Cool Papa Bell was? It’s always refreshing to see a big leaguer who grasps the wonderful history of the game that gives today’s players so much.

-- CD

Shocking! Sheff is stewing

It’s so predictable and so amusing. Remember those shots of a grinning Gary Sheffield earlier this week, a fellow giddy because the Yankees said they were going to pick up his option for next season?

Well, they didn’t actually exercise that option just yet. And so now Sheff is pissed, according to the Bergen Record:

Yankees right fielder Gary Sheffield is stewing about having to wait for the Yankees to pick up his $13 million option for 2007. Sheffield says the Yankees are making a mistake auditioning him. If they need a few months, or even weeks to see if his bat is still quick, the slugger is ready with a countermove. Actually, it's a thinly veiled threat: wait too long, and he's moving on.

-- CD

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Least of the East

With three reasonably good teams and two terrible ones, the NL East is probably a good base for a wild card winner this season.

We know how awful the Marlins will be. If you miss Dontrelle Willis in a series, you have to like your chances to sweep them. Florida might be good again in a couple of years, but now.

Then there are the Nationals. After contending deep into last season, the Natspos stumbled to a .500 finish. Prospects look bleak this spring: Washington has three rotation spots open, a question mark at leadoff hitter, a starting shortstop who hit .219 last year – and he hit .325 in his last 25 games to get that high – and an influx of 25th-man candidates as offseason additions. Imports include Michael Tucker, Damian Jackson, Daryle Ward, Ruben Mateo and our old friend George Lombard – as much mediocrity as a batch of Bush appointees.

Beyond that, the Nats still have no stadium deal, no independent owner and now are in a legal dispute over the team name. A potential colossus of a franchise is anything but for now.

The good news is the Braves play 37 games against Florida and Washington. The Mets and Phillies do too, of course. So if the three likely contenders play each other and Central and West opponents close to even, the East could come down to who punishes the bottom feeders. The home team is usually good at that.

The East is no beast. We all know the Braves’ question marks. But it’s not as if the Mets or Phillies are impregnable. The Phils’ rotation and bullpen are iffy. They don’t have a pitcher as good as either Smoltz or Hudson. The Mets imported Billy Wagner and gobs of offense, but Pedro’s toe hurts. He was fantastic last season, and is fun to watch, even as a Met.

Yet, remember that in September his fastball slowed to 86 mph and he had to stop pitching. Behind him is Glavine, whose ERAs in ’05 and ’04 weren’t bad -- 3.53 and 3.60. Both were nearly a run lower than the 4.52 he put up in his first year in New York, 2003. But Tommy turns 40 in March, and he is a six-inning pitcher. His average innings pitched in three seasons as a Met: 202, or 6 per start. In his last five seasons with the good guys, Tommy averaged 229 innings, or 6.5 a start.

Not a huge falloff perhaps. But just once in his last five Braves years did Tommy allow more hits than innings pitched. He’s done that two of three years at Shea. The biggest dip, though, has been in strikeouts. He averaged 138 a season in his final five Bravos years; he’s put up 99 per season in Flushing. More contact leads to more hits, which leads to more runs. It’s also not a good thing with a wobbly defense behind him. Last season, the Mets ranked 22nd among teams in runs saved per nine innings, according to the Baseball Musings blogmeister David Pinto.

The new infielder, Delgado, is a masher but isn’t noted for his defense. It’s unclear who’ll be at second. Anyway, we at the Office are not huge fans of these convoluted new stats, but that one is at least relatively straightforward. The Braves ranked seventh, and the Phillies sixth. The Nats and Marlins were worse than the Mets. Interesting to note the two pennant winners, Houston and the White Sox, ranked first and fifth, respectively.

Back to the Mets. After Tommy, the rotation is a thrill ride with Victor Zambrano, Steve Trachsel and Aaron Heilman. That’s less than imposing.

The point of all this is that the National League East, the entire NL for that matter, has no dominant team. In fact, you can make a case that the East’s two worst teams are worse than the laggards in the other divisions. In the central, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee are both much improved. Cincy’s no good, but at least they can hit. In the West, the Rockies are still bad but should be better. No one else there should be awful, though if Bonds goes down the Giants young pitching will have to save them, and that might not happen.

-- CD

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Maybe Lowe's will buy them

Arthur Blank is suspending his bid to buy the Bravos. Many had their doubts about whether the Falcons' owner had enough cash to purchase another professional franchise, and apparently that skepticism was well-founded. From the AJC:

Unable to agree on a price for the Atlanta Braves, Blank on Wednesday broke off negotiations to buy the Atlanta baseball team.

Blank and his representatives had met regularly with Time Warner about a possible Braves purchase since the team and the Turner South regional cable network were put up for sale in December.

Time Warner wants a premium price of $400 million-plus for the team, according to people familiar with the negotiations. Blank values it at substantially less and meetings in the past week failed to narrow the gap.

Meanwhile, Fox is closing in on a deal to buy Turner South, but fortunately they're not interested in the Braves.

After focusing on the talks with Blank, Time Warner now is expected to turn its attention to other potential Braves bidders. The company has said that "a lot" of candidates have expressed interest, some of whom have submitted applications for MLB approval to enter substantive negotiations.

"To maintain the integrity of the process and the confidentiality of interested parties, we are not commenting on individual discussions we have had concerning the Atlanta Braves," Shirley Powell, Turner Broadcasting's senior vice president of corporate communications, said Wednesday.

"We will say that our initial assumption that the franchise has significant marketplace value and that there is widespread interest in it as a possible acquisition has been confirmed. We continue to have meaningful discussions with outside parties about a possible sale of the Braves."

Perhaps we'll see Publix emerge as a frontrunner to purchase the Bravos (that would sure make the Office look good). Or, perhaps, Mark Cuban, who's previously expressed interest in buying the Pirates.


Andruw or Manny -- who would you take?

You’d think a guy being paid $700,000 a week for his time playing baseball could drive 110 miles and show up for spring training with his team. You’d think a guy being paid $100,000 a game, counting spring training, wouldn’t have so much to complain about.

But that’s Manny Ramirez. Charming fellow. He’s been trying to whine his way out of Beantown for a couple years now, griping about the lack of privacy. Maybe he should have thought about that before he took the Red Sox’s $160 million and agreed to play there for eight years. That Red Sox fans and media are obsessive is not a new story. That didn’t start when Manny joined the team.

Anyway, Ramirez has worked out a deal with the team to show up at camp March 1, six days after the club’s mandatory reporting date. Baseball spring training, lest we forget, especially for a superstar is not exactly boot camp. Nevertheless, Ramirez last October threatened to boycott spring training if he were not traded.

Guy’s a great hitter. No question. A few more years like he’s been having and he’s a lock for Cooperstown. But he’s also an all-time pain in the ass. He plays defense grudgingly; the same way he runs out grounders. He refused to play a game for no reason a couple years ago. One day he’s pouting for a trade, and the next he’s happy. “Manny being Manny” sure would get old.

Your humble bloggers heard a Braves executive say recently that he would not put up with that crap. Frankly, though, it’s hard to see what the Boston brass can really do. They’ve tried to trade him but they haven’t found the right deal.

Meanwhile, as Manny stays in Miami, another superstar reported to camp in Orlando a week earlier than he had to. Often taken for granted and before 2005 considered an underachiever or malingerer by his home fans, Andruw Jones has never complained about anything. He’s never demanded to be traded, or demanded anything. He signed a below-market value contract with the home team, even ignoring his agent Scott Boras to do it. He plays every day. His defense, of course, remains superb in center field. He makes about $8 million a year less than Manny and plays a more demanding position.

Clearly, Ramirez must be considered a better offensive player than Andruw. For their careers, Ramirez’s 162-game average is .314, 42 HRs, 136 RBI; Andruw’s is .267, 34, 100. One super year, admittedly, does not put Andruw on Manny’s level as a hitter, though it does close the gap.

Moreover, at 28, Andruw’s numbers mostly surpass what Ramirez had done at the same age. Consider: Andruw, .267, 301 home runs, 894 RBI; Manny, .313, 236 homers, 804 RBI. Andruw’s played at least 153 games in each of his nine full big-league seasons. Manny’s played in that many games once in 11 full seasons, and played at least 150 games six times.

Andruw is five years younger. Manny is due $57 million over the next three seasons and bitches and moans incessantly. Andruw is due $25 million over the next two years and said this week he wants to end his career as a Brave. Of course we have no idea whether that will happen given the Braves’ finances. It could come down to which Jones the home team wants to give another big contract. Considering their ages, Andruw would be the obvious choice.

But we’re comparing Andruw and Ramirez here. Weighing the differences in age, attitude, performance and paycheck, which player would you rather have right now? I’ll take our guy.

-- CD

More Salty, please

The majors top catching prospect, according to Baseball America, continues to wow Bobby.

With the wind blowing in Tuesday, Cox said he saw only one ball hit over the fence during batting practice. That was by catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the Braves' top-rated prospect.

"He's as good looking a young hitter as has ever walked through here," Cox said of the 20-year-old switch-hitting slugger, who will start the season in Class AA.

CD has already predicted that we'll see Salty in Atlanta this year. Looks like he may be right. Whether it's behind the plate or at first base remains to be seen.


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Be suspicious of spring flashes

In the name of Travis Wilson, keep a closed mind when it comes to spring training news.

Wilson is the New Zealander who hit .415 for the Braves in the 2001 Grapefruit League and, in those pre-Marcus Giles days, looked like a possible second baseman of the future or at least a solid utility infielder. Alas, the Kiwi landed back in Richmond and was last seen hitting .277 at AA Chattanooga in 2004, before returning to the New Zealand national softball team last September.

So don’t get too excited as we read about Anthony Lerew’s shot at closer, and about unknowns like 250-pound journeyman Chad Paronto and Jose Ascanio, who according to the local organ, “have caught manager Bobby Cox's attention in the opening days of spring training.” Recall spring 2005. This is not meant to knock Bobby, or anyone else. Spring is about optimism, and as we know Bobby is always trying to keep players upbeat, and rightly so.

But take spring training scouting reports with a shaker of salt. A quick sampling of comments from Disney, circa spring 2005, shows why:

Chris Reitsma on Feb. 19: "It's going to be a good [bullpen]," he said. "I like it. Having the two lefties [Gabe White and Tom Martin] gives us a lot of flexibility." Nothing against Reitsma. What’s he supposed to say? But he was wrong about the two lefties. The home team released White on March 30, and he spent the season mostly in AAA, pitching 8 and a third innings for St. Louis. He’s in the Twins spring camp with a minor-league contract.

As for Martin, he had one of the shortest seasons in Braves history -- 2 and a third innings, six hits and five runs. That, not surprisingly, earned him a pink slip. He’s now in camp with the Rockies (!), also on a minor-league contract. He spent most of last season in Houston’s minor league system.

Bobby, on Raul Mondesi in late February: "He came to play. I think he's on a mission.” It’s safe to say the mission Bobby had in mind was not hitting .211 and getting released in late May, which is what Mondesi did. His May power numbers would’ve made for a good game – a homer and six RBI. Mondesi is apparently out of baseball.

An unnamed Braves official on outfielder Billy McCarthy: "He's the best right-handed hitter to come through the system since Marcus Giles." We probably wouldn’t hear that now, after an injury plagued .226 season at Richmond last year. McCarthy is not on the 40-man roster, but is on the Richmond roster.

Bobby on Adam Bernero in early March: "I've seen his stuff all spring and can't understand why he's not on a team." "Bernero again -- outstanding," Cox said. "He's got a bunch of good pitches. Every once in a while you find a guy like that in camp." He made the Braves, of course, and fashioned a 6.51 ERA in 36 games. That’s why he’s not on a team. He’s in the Royals’ camp on a minor-league contract.

Dan Kolb on himself, after allowing four runs in an inning on March 11: "The thing about my situation, I can take a day like today and [know] it really wasn't that bad. I basically made one bad pitch [fastball that ran back over the plate] and it cost me. I have another week and a half to play around, see what works and what doesn't. After that, it's time to put it together, toss out what doesn't work. . . . I don't look at how many runs or hits they had [Friday]. I felt good. My arm felt strong." No point rehashing his 2005.

The March 20 local organ: “Four weeks at spring training isn't sufficient to make definitive judgments, but the Braves are encouraged by their aging corner men.” Those corner men were Mondesi and Jordan. We know what happened. Jordan’s in camp on a minor-league deal. As much as we like BJ, his chances of making the club appear minimal.

On the other hand, we read plenty last spring about Andruw’s new approach and about the promise of Francoeur and McCann. But for every one of those there seem to be two or three Berneros.

-- CD

Winners sometimes quit

Great column today in the Washington Post from Thomas Boswell regarding this whole Bonds affair (no link, registration required):

These days, Hank Aaron sometimes needs to find a chair at baseball receptions held in his honor. The Hammer, at 72, has to take a load off his feet. That's fair because he has carried more than his share of the sport's weight for more than 50 years.

Aaron's smile is still gentle and understated, his manner reserved yet accommodating. Nevertheless, there's always been pain in his face. And there's more now. In recent years Aaron says he has buried five brothers and sisters. That doesn't count the funerals of "all the old friends" he and his wife have attended in the last two years. Aaron muses quietly about these things, painful as they are, because they're part of life. However, he falls silent, diplomatic and noncommittal, as soon as the name of Barry Bonds is mentioned. Compared to steroids, BALCO, "the clear" and "the cream" and The Record, death is an easier topic.

Nobody in baseball, including Aaron, wants to think about Bonds stepping to the plate with a chance to hit a 756th home run. That moment is baseball's nightmare. "Aaron" is not only the first name in the record book, alphabetically, but for millions of fans, he also represents the game's apogee: a modest superstar and complete player.

Jackie Robinson endured more. But for Aaron, the pursuit of Babe Ruth's career home run record was terrible enough with its hate mail and death threats. Perhaps no American athlete ever broke a more significant record under greater social pressure with such consummate grace.

For that, you get tons of extra credit. And, frankly, you deserve better than to watch a guy such as Bonds, whose achievements have been tempered by suspicions that he used performance-enhancing drugs, break the record you set the old-fashioned way. Aaron wouldn't even switch leagues and become a designated hitter until he had passed Ruth's record with plenty of home runs to spare.

Does Bonds understand? Does he grasp that Aaron defined himself as much by the dignified manner in which he broke Ruth's record as by the record itself? Does Bonds get it? Does he grasp that he may define himself, and show his true (usually unappreciated) character, by the manner in which he graciously declines the crown of Home Run King?

For the past two years, with hints here and quotes there, Bonds has tested the waters, trying to feel his way toward the most difficult decision of his career. Now, finally, it's starting to look like Bonds may do the right thing -- for baseball, Aaron, and, most of all, himself. Whether you like Bonds or not, root for him to be wise.

On Sunday, Bonds gave one of his periodic whiney, self-centered I'm-the-victim interviews (in USA Today) that have done so much to damage his credibility and his popularity. Few people are so utterly tone-deaf to their own voice. Bonds said he is tired of baseball. It isn't fun for him anymore because of "all the crap going on . . . Thank you for all your criticism. Thank you for dogging me."

Besides, Bonds added, he has no cartilage remaining in one knee. "I'm bone on bone," he said, which has led him to ingest "I can't even tell you how many" pain pills and sleeping pills. Bonds has said his father was an alcoholic and that he has a brother with drug problems, so flirting with dependencies should be a hereditary red flag. So, Bonds said, he would retire after the '06 season. If he did, he would presumably hit the seven homers necessary to pass Ruth, but not the 48 needed to surpass Aaron.

"I've never cared about records anyway," Bonds said, prompting laughter from 20 years of teammates.

"Maybe then everybody can just forget about me," said the man who has devoted his whole athletic life to becoming unforgettable yet who knows his sport wishes he would emulate Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro and disappear.

Later on Sunday, Bonds did what he usually does. After calling the maximum amount of attention to himself with his retirement quotes, he reversed himself. Why? To keep all his options open and call maximum attention to himself -- again.

"If I can play [in '07], I'm going to play. If I can't, I won't. I'm playing psychological games with myself right now," Bonds said to another reporter. "So I go back and forth. Back and forth every day. . . . This is what I'm struggling with."

Henceforth, to make it simple for us to remember, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Bonds is retiring after this season. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, he'll play as long as he can. And, on the seventh day, weary from his struggle, he will rest.

For his whole career, Bonds has sabotaged himself whenever possible. Now, out of respect for Aaron, a contemporary of his father Bobby and his godfather Willie Mays, will Bonds finally find some common sense?

If Bonds retires with more homers than Ruth, but fewer than Aaron, he may be amazed at the gratitude the sport affords him. Most fans are awed by Bonds's achievements, no matter how they were accomplished. But those same fans are not suckers and don't like to be played for fools. Nobody has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Bonds knowingly took steroids to boost his power. But what about "beyond a reasonable doubt?" For many fans, he's already way over that line.

"I love the game of baseball itself, but I don't like what it's turned out to be," Bonds said Sunday.

He can still change that. Bonds's love of the game is genuine, and his feats are gargantuan. He deserves a place near the top of the sport, but not at the very apex. If he settles for what he deserves, he may find his records, and his reputation, age quite well despite all the doubts that surround his methods.

But if he is determined to take down Aaron's record, if he grabs for what many doubt he has earned, then his sport and even his society may extract a lifetime of subtle retributions.

Tears from Bobby

I’m not a huge fan of Terrence Moore, a columnist for the local organ.

But he deserves credit for a couple of things. One, he seems to genuinely like and care about baseball, a rarity among contemporary sports scribes. Two, he gives Bobby his due. He gave it to him in a column online now, in fact. After all these years, it’s not easy to write something fresh about the home team’s skipper.

But one thing in particular intrigued me: Bobby’s excitement about young players and the new season blended with the same sense of nostalgia so many of us fans share. Here’s the nugget from the TM column that best conveys that:

“When Tom Glavine wasn’t here that first spring, and then Greg Maddux, you know, you’d look at their lockers and walk in that first day and their names weren’t there, it felt funny,” said Cox, blinking to fight moisture in his eyes. “We talked about Otis Nixon for an hour this morning. Lonnie Smith. You miss them. Their names always pop up. It’s strange not having Leo (Mazzone, the Braves’ departed pitching coach for all of their current run).”

-- CD

Monday, February 20, 2006

Drama queen

Moodswings are common for those weaning off drugs, so it should come as no surprise that Barry Bonds is "qualifying" his remarks about retiring after the 2006 season.

"If I can play [in 2007], I'm going to play; if I can't I won't," Bonds told MLB.com in a telephone interview Sunday. "If my knee holds up, I'll keep on going. I'm playing psychological games with myself right now. I don't want to set myself up for disappointment if things don't work out this season. So I go back and forth. Back and forth every day. These are the things that are going through my mind. This is what I'm struggling with."


"All I can say is that I have a contract for this year, so as far as I know, I'm committed through this year," Bonds said. "If my knee doesn't hold up, then it's over. But if it does, I'll keep going. No one can predict what's going to happen. Even I can't speculate until I get out there. I'm going to be 42 years old. I've got to be realistic. Since I don't have a contract for next year, then this could be my last year."

I knew this was too good to be true.

"The brace feels great, it's awesome," said Bonds, who will turn 42 on July 24. "Right now, I feel like I can play for another five years, another 10 years. It's given me a new lease on life. That's how I'm feeling today. I'm ready to get going."


Sunday, February 19, 2006

Footsteps at first

This stands as a pivotal year in Adam LaRoche's career with the Braves. He's assured the starting job, and might even get a chance to play against lefties, with Julio Franco gone.

But if he doesn't evolve beyond Sid Bream territory, he's likely to be elsewhere next season. Bobby isn't one for hyperbole, so his remarks about catching prospect Jarrod Saltalamacchia merit attention.

"He's the most impressive hitter I've seen come along in a long time. He makes one of those different sounds that Hank (Aaron) made when he hit the ball. He steps into the cage, and it sounds different."

The 20-year-old switch hitter, who's likely to get some time at first base in Double A Pearl this year, batted .314 with 19 homers and 81 RBIs last season, while playing at pitcher-friendly Myrtle Beach.


Barry responds

So the Office throws down the gauntlet, and hours later Barry Bonds says this year will be his last, regardless of whether he breaks Hank Aaron's home run record. And there's no way a 41-year-old, steroid-free (at least this season), wobbly kneed Bonds is going to hit the 47 homers he needs to tie the Hammer.

"I'm not playing baseball anymore after this," Bonds told USA Today in a telephone interview from his California home. "The game (isn't) fun anymore. I'm tired of all of the crap going on. I want to play this year out, hopefully win, and once the season is over, go home and be with my family. Maybe then everybody can just forget about me."

We'll do our best, Barry.

"I've never cared about records anyway," Bonds told USA Today, "so what difference does it make [if he finishes shy of Aaron's 755 career homers]? Right now, I'm telling you, I don't even want to play next year. Baseball is a fun sport. But I'm not having fun.

"I love the game of baseball itself, but I don't like what it's turned out to be. I'm not mad at anybody. It's just that right now I am not proud to be a baseball player."

Certainly he's not implying that baseball's reputation has been sullied? Who could possibly be responsible for that?

Beyond his usual blame everyone else game, Bonds sounds like he'll have trouble getting through the '06 season.

"I can't even tell how you may pain pills I am on or how many sleeping pills I'm taking," he told the paper. "I don't have a choice. I can't even run that much anymore. How can I run? I don't have any cartilage in that knee. I'm bone on bone."

Hank's record appears safer than ever, though I give A-Rod another seven or eight years before he eclipses 755. He may be a phony, but at least he's not a fraud.


Second best?

It's assumed that Edgar Renteria will hit second this year. While I have no real trouble with that, Ryan Langerhans might prove a better option.

Langerhans finished last season with a very respectable .348 OBP; in the season's final month, he was on base 43 percent of the time. Contrast that with the Braves' new SS, whose OBP the last two years averaged out at .331. While his career on base total is comparable (.345), Renteria has always done his best work hitting lower in the order, as was the case in St. Louis.

Putting Langerhans in the second spot also gives the line-up better lefty/righty balance from top to bottom.

Beyond that, I think we have a potential Paul O'Neill on our hands. Batting behind Giles and in front of Chipper would only aid in Langerhans' development as a hitter.


Looking good?

The Office might have finally found a template that will last. Some recent troubles with links and such caused yet another redesign.

Cold shoulders

Hall of Fame voters are promising just that for the allegedly retired Sammy Sosa, and he deserves it. Credit to CD for labeling Sammy as a phony years ago, while many of us were still wanting to swoon.

Barry Bonds stands 47 home runs shy of Hank Aaron's all-time record. Early reports indicate that Bonds might not be healthy enough to play more than 100-120 games this year. Now 20 pounds lighter, it's unlikely Bonds will break 30 HRs in such an abbreviated campaign. Hell, he may not break 20.

I'm hoping he doesn't break Babe Ruth's career mark.

That's wishful thinking, but the idea of Barry eclipsing the Hammer gives me cold sweats. Could any baseball fan stomach the sight of a fraud overtaking a hero?

Hank has always been a gracious figure, too gracious on this point. While he had previously voiced reservations about Bonds breaking his record, saying he would not participate in any festivities if and when said event occurs, Aaron's most recent comments about the Giants slugger indicates a change of heart.

"I think he will. I hope so," Aaron said about Bonds usurping his milestone. "I've had it long enough. I've gotten a cup of coffee and a dime out of it."

"I think if Barry doesn't do it (next) year, I think there's a good chance he'll do it (the following) year," said Aaron, looking ahead to 2007, though Bonds' contract is through 2006. "Records are made to be broken, and I want you to understand that. Barry has been a tremendously gifted player. We can't sit here and accuse him of anything. He hasn't been found guilty of nothing. We talk about it and talk about it, and that's all I can say."

Go with your instincts, Hank. Bonds doesn't deserve your blessing. In fact, I'd like to see Atlanta's premier sports icon take a stronger stance against juiced up sluggers.

"I don't mind, no," said Aaron when asked about Rafael Palmiero joining the Hall of Fame. "I'd gladly put my arm around him and shake his hand for what he's done. ... His records should stand."

No they shouldn't, nor should sports' ultimate number --- 755 --- fall. At least not at the hands of a cheater.


A miserable human being

That's how former Braves broadcaster Milo Hamilton describes Harry Caray in his book, "Making Airways: 60 Years at Milo's Microphone," maintaining his reputation as a vindictive SOB. As an aside, who the hell wants to read about a nondescript announcer? Is Bob Rathbun's autobigraphy next?

"I see that statue (of Caray) every time the Astros visit Wrigley Field as our bus pulls up to the park," Hamilton writes (as reported in today's AJC). "I say to myself, 'I gotta go get some peanuts and feed the pigeons so they'll fly over the statue all day long.' "

Settling a score with a dead man? Sounds like the actions of a "miserable human being."


Friday, February 17, 2006

Exploiting a trend

Sports web sites are mad with power rankings these days, and the Office is not above copycatting. CD will likely disagree, but he's in Mexico right now trying to locate German Jimenez.

1. Oakland: Baseball's trendiest franchise doesn't seem to be getting the ink they deserve this year, but in all facets of the game, the A's grade above average. Their rotation is young, talented and deep (though I don't really understand the Esteban Loaiza contract). Their bullpen is young, talented and deep. And so on with their line-up, defense, etc. While Milton Bradley and Frank Thomas might well sour the game's chummiest clubhouse, they bring some needed pop to an Athletics line-up that's solid top to bottom.

2. White Sox: They should likely have the top spot in this list, but I don't want to be too predictable. I still have some questions about their offense, however.

3. Braves: It goes without saying that the Office is biased towards the home team, but outside of a questionable bullpen (that I think will surprise this year), the Bravos appear poised to return to the World Series. It helps that the National League lacks any dominant team.

4. Yankees: Can't argue with their bats, but their rotation is on the verge of chaos, if Johnson and Mussina continue their downward spiral. I'm not alone on this, but I don't see Kyle Farnsworth thriving in the Bronx.

5. Minnesota: Cleveland is seen as Chicago's most likely challenger, but don't overlook the Twins, whose rotation might be the best in the American League. Francisco Liriano seems to be another Johann Santana in the making. They've got another stud starting prospect, Scott Baker, and I like the Luis Castillo acquisition. The wild card will come out of the Central, and it won't be the Indians.

6. Boston: If healthy, their rotation is imposing.

7. Toronto: If healthy, their rotation is imposing.

8. Cubs: If healthy, their rotation is imposing.

9. St. Louis: They're old and not very deep. Look for them to miss the playoffs this year.

10. Pittsburgh: Yes, Pittsburgh. They picked up some nice complimentary players to supplement their wealth of young talent. I like Milwaukee, too, but the Pirates are the NL's most improved team.

11. Angels: The Cards of the American League.

12. Indians: Bob Wickman won't repeat his unexpected comeback. Casey Blake, Aaron Boone, Ben Broussard shouldn't be everyday players, and Coco Crisp will be missed. And why do teams keep signing Jason Johnson? They're still a team on the rise, but their offseason moves don't compute.

13. Houston: If Clemens returns, they rank higher.

14. Milwaukee: If Ben Sheets stays healthy, they're a wild card possibility.

15. (tie) Dodgers: If Just Disabled, Nomah, Gagne and Furcal stay healthy, they'll win the West.

Mets: They're worried about Pedro's foot, and if he's down, their rotation is probably the division's worst. They deserve a higher ranks, but they're the Mets, so screw 'em.


Thursday, February 16, 2006

Ownership blanks still not filled in

There’s been a flurry of stories this week about the Braves sale, but it’s no clearer than ever who might buy the team and when.

The latest Associated Press story says Falcons owner Arthur Blank “has hardly distinguished himself” from other potential buyers. Attributing it to anonymous sources, the AP reports that Blank might not have the “financial stamina” to buy the home team. One issue is whether Time Warner will sell the Braves and the Turner South TV network separately. The AJC originally reported that TW wanted to shed them as a package.

But the local organ’s latest story has Fox close to buying Turner South without the Braves. According to that Tim Tucker piece, Fox has no appetite for hardball after its sour experience owning the Dodgers. The bottom line: We still have no idea who’s going to buy the Braves. We know Blank might, but if the investment banker shopping the team for TW is to be believed, plenty of others are also interested.

Still, no one besides the Office has reported that the Publix owners might want the Braves. They are based in Florida, so maybe they’ll be sniffing around spring camp in Kissimmee.

-- CD

Time is closer to beginning again

Pitchers and catchers are reporting to Braves camp in Kissimmee, Fla., and other major league spring training sites across the Sunshine State and Arizona.

We’ve done our spring previews of the home team. Today’s local organ has a nice piece about McDowell. Steve Hummer is the AJC’s best sports writer, and he gives it the customary flair and humor, along with a few insights missing from the paper’s other whacky-guy-becomes-serious-pitching-coach stories.

Chipper and Francoeur will probably be with the U.S. World Baseball Classic team for most of March and miss about three weeks of regular spring training. They’ll be working out and playing so it shouldn’t be a problem. Reitsma and Orr will be with Team Canada, which will likely be eliminated from the tournament sooner than the U.S.

Team USA’s infield is ridiculously stacked, with A-Rod, Jeter, Derek Lee, Chase Utley, Michael Young, Michael Teixeira and Chipper. So is the bullpen, with Wagner, Nathan, Lidge and Cordero. I’m not hugely excited about the WBC, but it could be interesting. One problem is that the games will be like spring exhibitions in that each pitcher will only be going a couple or three innings. That should make the US’s bullpen critical.

Pictured: The greatest Brave of them all takes his cuts in spring training.

-- CD

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Writing that impacts us negatively

That headline is a joke. Though apparently it is officially gramatically correct to use "impact" as a verb, I loathe that usage. It sounds like an interoffice memo, especially when used like this headline when you should say something like hurts or annoys.

Anyway, as a self-appointed guardian of the language, I sometimes seethe at the drivel that passes for sports writing. Just today I read several words and phrases that regularly pollute newspapers, magazines and web sites:

Over the course of
What’s wrong with “during” or “for?”

Proved to be
How about “was.”

Possess, as in “Chipper Jones possesses power from both sides of the plate.”
Use has. Possess sounds clunky and out-of-place when you’re talking about a ballplayer’s speed, power or defense.

Display – “Kelly Johnson has displayed patience at the plate.”
Baseball is not a flower show. You don’t display a good glove or a fastball or speed or knowledge. You show it. Write that, or something more vigorous.

Another one that bugs the hell out of me is “efforting.”
I don’t read this one much but hear it on sports radio – “Dillweed is efforting to get John Smoltz on with us.” No he’s not. He’s trying to get John Smoltz on with you. Effort is not a verb.

-- CD

Mets can rake, but can they pitch?

For what it’s worth, John Donovan of si.com picks the Braves to win the division. He points out, accurately I think, that the Mets have the best lineup in the division but that their rotation is a problem.

Donovan judges the Braves to have the best rotation in the division but a weaker one than in many seasons since ’91. Again, a fair judgment. He observes that we need to find a closer and leadoff hitter. I’m probably less worried now about the leadoff spot. I think Giles will do fine.

Donovan predicts the Mets to finish second, followed by the Phillies, Nationals and Marlins. His summary comment on the home team: “The returning champs aren't great in any one area, but good at a lot.”

I actually know John from working briefly at si.com years ago. He’s a good guy and a solid, fair writer who cares about baseball.

-- CD

Arthur might be ready to buy

The local organ reports that Falcons owner and Home Despot magnate Arthur Blank “continues to pursue a purchase of the Braves.”

No one offers any official comment. It’s all based on anonymous sources. But Tim Tucker’s a good reporter, and he’s been with the AJC longer than about anybody except the ancient Furman Bisher. So there’s probably something to it. It does not mean Blank is definitely going to buy the team. It does probably mean he is the leading candidate.

He’s been good for the Falcons. A marketing whiz, he’s done a lot of common sense things, like cutting the price of tickets that otherwise were not going to sell and sprucing up outside the Georgia Dome for better pre-game doings. They don’t seem to get a lot of public credit for it, but the Braves have been offering lots of new discount ticket packages the past couple of seasons. I’m not sure there’s a huge amount Blank would do on that front. On the other hand, there is plenty he could do outside the ballpark. The area adjacent to the Ted is asphalt and desolate commercial strips, though gentrifying neighborhoods are creeping closer.

I’m not sure Blank would immediately hike the payroll to, say, $110 million. I do think he might jack it up to maybe $90-$95 million with a key free agent or two and see if that translated into more gate revenue.

-- CD

Monday, February 13, 2006

Look out, Bobby

Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated is one of the best baseball writers we have. But he begins a story now on si.com with a truly painful lead:

"As eagerly anticipated paired collocations go, pitchers and catchers is right up there with strawberries and cream, rock and roll and Turks and Caicos."

“Paired collocations” sounds like telephone industry jargon. That’s not the only tortured language I’ve come across today. I actually heard a man, a salesman of video network gear and software, say, “Heavens to Murgatroid.” And he was not imitating Snagglepuss. The guy also used the expression, “by and by” several times. Nothing makes a room quite as uncomfortable as a nervous, overly enthusiastic salesman who can't get his projector to work.

In other news, as I left work this evening, I flipped on one of the local sports talk stations and heard, yep, more talk about Michael Vick. Will it ever stop? Braves pitchers and catchers report in four days and they’re discussing the Falcons’ quarterback for the 916th consecutive day.

Thank God pro football season is over. Of course we have the NFL draft next month. Sadly, that’ll stir up more radio chatter here than the first month of baseball season. Except amongst members of the Braves 400 Club and others who attended the club’s annual banquet Saturday night.

One other note on Pat Corrales’s remarks there. He didn’t talk long, but in thanking various members of the Braves organization he included Leo Mazzone. He didn’t shout it. But you had to wonder if he meant to ever so gently remind everyone that Leo did a lot of good here, because you might not know it from most of the comments in the paper lately. In fact, Horacio even compared Leo to Bobby Knight in the local organ a few days ago.

Yikes. I hope Leo never flung chairs in the bullpen. I’m not sure Bobby Dews could get out of the way.

-- CD

Sunday, February 12, 2006

No relation to Bake

Could Macay McBride be a darkhorse in the closer's derby? John Schuerholz says he is
a candidate for the job (along with Joey Devine), and the hard-throwing lefty from Sylvania is also drawing some favorable notices from around baseball.

In his preseason preview, Petah Gammons conducted a poll of more than 50 executives, scouts, managers and coaches, asking, among other questions, which players are most likely to have breakout seasons. McBride received "multiple" votes, ranking with such prospects as Arizona's Conor Jackson and Milwaukee's Rickie Weeks.

The former first round draft pick's bullpen numbers have been largely unimpressive, although he displayed flashes of dominance in '05, striking out 69 batters in 57 innings (between Richmond and Atlanta).

His career trajectory is starting to resemble fellow Georgian John Rocker's: each began as a starter, and each progressed quickly to Atlanta once they moved to the 'pen. But fortunately, by all accounts, McBride is not a major league a-hole.


Saturday, February 11, 2006

Why I love the little fat man

Will Clark probably never slammed a hard tag on Lonnie Smith again.

At the Braves 400 Club’s annual “Gameboree” awards banquet Saturday night, Pat Corrales got an award and told a couple funny stories. In summing up his 17 years with the Braves, he mentioned a couple of players who “hated to lose.” One was Terry Pendleton.

“That’s why I love the little fat man,” Corrales said.

Then he talked about Skates. He said Lonnie would be walking along and literally fall down. But, as we know, the man could play baseball. And, like TP, he flat-out despised losing. To illustrate Lonnie’s toughness, Corrales related a story from his days as first-base coach.

Lonnie was taking too big a lead, and Corrales told him to get back to the bag. When he did, Clark tagged him so hard that Lonnie had to walk around in foul territory to ease the pain. When play resumed, Lonnie wandered even farther off the base. Corrales again told him to get back. The pitcher threw over. Lonnie jumped into Clark’s foot with both feet, spiking him to the tune of 10 stitches.

He hurt Lonnie. Lonnie hurt him. Lonnie wasn’t dirty, but he played hard and, when it was called for, he played mean, Corrales explained. Skates hated to lose. He also hated being ridiculed by the Phillie Fanatic, but that’s another post. Don't forget that Lonnie hit four home runs and knocked in eight runs for the Braves in two World Series.

The real highlight of the evening with the 400 Club was meeting celebrity usher Walter Banks.

First, let me say that Walter really did the numbers promo at Turner Field, where a fan would give him a number and he’d immediately summon some obscure fact tied to that number, from baseball, other sports or history or politics. No one was feeding him the information. I told him a friend doubted the trick was genuine, so he asked for a number. Someone said 95. He started in circuitously, as he always did on the big screen between innings. Only two players hit 700 home runs in the 20th century, Walter said, distinguishing the century because – though he didn’t say so – Barry Bonds hit his 700th and a bunch more in the 21st century. Those two players were Henry Aaron and Babe Ruth, and Babe Ruth was born in 1895. Recalling that the Braves won the Series in ’95 would’ve been too easy, Walter said.

He then reversed 95 and said that in 1959 the first Daytona 500 was run and Lee Petty won it in car No. 43. Also in 1959, the White Sox and Dodgers played in the World Series in the only stadium to see a World Series, Super Bowl and an Olympic Games – the Los Angeles Coliseum. I gave him 14. The first African-American player in the AL was Larry Doby, who wore No. 14 with Cleveland. The Braves first World Series title was in 1914. Christopher Columbus sailed for the New World in 1492. Hey, they’re not all great.

Walter Banks was as friendly and gracious as anyone you could ever hope to meet. He said Ted Turner still stays in touch. Walter recently got an invitation to a dinner where Turner will receive an award. Walter also recalled that the smallest Braves home crowd ever was 737 in September 1975. The 67-94 Braves drew a paltry 534,672 that year, an average of 6,600 a game. Amazingly, that attendance was good enough for 11th among 12 NL teams. The San Francisco Giants drew 522,919 at Candlestick even though they finished just one game under .500.

Ted bought the club the next year, and in those lean early years would run from his dugout level seat to the press box after bad losses and apologize to fans over the PA system, Walter said.

On top of everything else, Walter made it clear that I made the right choice wearing the tie covered with baseball team logos. He inspected it and immediately pointed out that it was unique because the Expos and California Angels logos are extinct. His wife was there too, and was as gracious and dignified as Walter. He said they had gone to Expos home games in three different cities – Montreal, San Juan, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. He also mentioned seeing an Old Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium and the history behind how the Royals came to be called the Royals.

The guy’s a true baseball fan and a numbers savant. A salute to Walter Banks and the Braves 400 Club!

-- CD

Friday, February 10, 2006

Not Fehrful

It’s as if Dick Cheney were spotted driving an electric car.

One of the twin scourges of baseball fans is talking happy about the next labor agreement. When normally we see Donald Fehr – the scourge along with Alan “Bud” Selig – he is scowling and ruing the dark clouds gathering over any chance at an agreement between the players union and owners. That, or equivocating and looking absolutely pathetic before grandstanding congressmen asking about steroids.

Lo and behold, Fehr and Loathing is saying he thinks the relationship between players and owners is better and points to an easier time with the next agreement.

Speaketh he:

"What I can say is that the overall atmosphere of the sport is such that there are a lot of reasons that people on the outside should be optimistic about our chances of reaching an agreement," Fehr, the head of the baseball players union, said Thursday.

Enjoy your Prius, Mr. Vice President.

-- CD

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Spring preview: Position players

In Kissimmee this spring, all the intrigue will be on the mound. There is less uncertainty surrounding the Braves’ everyday players than there has been in years. One bench slot is likely open, and that’s about it.

Barring a major trade, the regular eight is in stone. Left field is the only position open to any question, and it would seem Langerhans settled that debate with his second-half performance last season. He hit .292 with a .374 on-base percentage after the All-Star break, and .333 with a .432 OBP in September and October. He also got several crucial hits.

By contrast, his left field mate, Kelly Johnson, hit .228 after the break. Consequently, Langy got most of the time in left at the end of the season – 69 at-bats to Johnson’s 18 in September and October.

So as pitchers and catchers report in just about a week, compare this season to last. Last March both corner outfield spots were up for grabs and churned a few times during the season before The Lilburn Flash and Langy settled in. The only solid bench slots last spring belonged to Eddie and Julio.

This year, the only questions involve the bench. Let’s figure Todd Pratt, Betemit and Orr are more or less locks to be among the opening-day 25. Pratt is sure to be the back-up catcher and Betemit and Orr were good reserves last season. Not all young players can do that. OK, that leaves just two more roster spots, assuming Bobby breaks camp with 12 pitchers, as he has the past two years.

I’m figuring it turns out one of two ways. One, Johnson and Matt Diaz both make the club. That leaves the Bravos with no real backup first baseman. Right-hand hitting Diaz has caught a little and you’d think he could play first in a pinch against lefties, whom he hit for a .370 average last season in KC. But that was in only 54 at-bats. In the other scenario, either KJ or Diaz does not make the club, and James Jurries sticks as LaRoche’s backup and first sacker against tough lefties. (LaRoche had just 48 at-bats against left handers last season and hit .188 with one home run.)

That bench puzzle will be settled at Disney.

My call: A ticket to Richmond awaits the career minor leaguer Diaz -- who at 28, a year older than Marcus Giles, has just 119 major league ABs and a .252 average. K. Johnson has a decent spring and makes the club. Bobby likes him, and he has the benefit of a year’s experience in Atlanta. In fact, Diaz’s primary role in Kissimee might be as motivation for KJ. Meanwhile, Jurries -- a so-so prospect out of Tulane who turns 27 in April and hit .284 with 21 homers, 72 RBI and 107 Ks at AAA last season -- begins the year with the big club.

On the other hand, JS could swing a deal for a right-handed backup first baseman and pinch hitter. But given JS’s reluctance to deal prospects this offseason -- other than Marte for Renteria and he felt he simply had to get a good shortstop -- don’t expect anything too significant there. And if only retreads are available, why not give the homegrown Jurries a shot?

I think the Braves will. So your opening day bench will be Pratt, Betemit, Orr, Johnson and Jurries.

It’s not overwhelming. But you’ve got some speed in Orr, decent middle infield defense in Betemit, a little pop in Johnson, Betemit and Jurries, and a second catcher in Pratt who also offers a smidgen of power. Orr can also play the infield and outfield, though he wasn't exactly Andruw Jones out there last year. That’s just to start the season. It will almost certainly evolve as spring turns to summer.

-- CD

Miles o' Milo

This says pretty much all you need to know about Milo. When Henry Aaron approached 715, Hamilton insisted that he do play-by-play on all of the Hammer's at-bats so he could call the historic homer.

Ever the gentleman and lacking Milo's massive ego, Ernie Johnson Sr., a lifelong Braves player and broadcaster, let him do it. I had forgotten that Hamilton is actually in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Here's an excerpt from a 1992 Atlanta Journal Constitution story about his induction:

"I thought the announcer should be the announcer," Hamilton said while in Atlanta last week with the Astros, his employer for the last eight years. "I think he [Ernie] was probably chagrined about it, but if he'd look back in retrospect, he was basically a color man and not an announcer, and the event called for a professional announcer to make the call."

In contrast, young Chip Caray yielded the final inning to partner Pete Van Wieren last year for the Braves' pennant-clinching moment.

"We still speak," Johnson said last week, 18 years after the event. "I've got no problem with him. He was the No. 1 announcer, but it kind of surprised me that he wanted to do it."

The first voice of the Braves in Atlanta in 1966, Hamilton therefore cleared the way for his broadcast of Aaron's 715th home run on April 8, 1974 - the highlight of his career.

"That's what made it big," Hamilton said. "Its place in history and knowing I would be the announcer." Current Braves broadcaster Skip Caray says, "If Milo's in [the Hall of Fame], then I think Ernie Johnson should be in there."

One National League announcer calls Hamilton "an egotistical boor ... He's campaigned all over the league for this, asking ballplayers to send letters of recommendation. I think it cheapens the announcers already in the Hall of Fame and those who go in years to come."

"Knowing I would be the announcer" is part of what made Aaron's 715th big? Maybe to Milo. Not to anyone else. What a prick.

-- CD

Milo's revenge

If you're a long-time follower of Braves broadcasts, you probably know how Skip Caray feels about fellow broadcaster Milo Hamilton, who used to work in Atlanta and Chicago and is now part of the Astros announcing team. Nothing but animus, it seems, and apparently it's mutual, at least when it comes to Skip's pop.

Milo has a book coming out in which he details how miserably Harry Caray treated him, according to ESPN's Buster Olney. "I just felt nobody really knew him," Hamilton says. "I think it's time they did."

I'm not sure if many readers really care if Harry was mean to Milo. Regardless, it's pretty damn petty to be settling scores after someone dies.

I'm certain Skip will have something to say about Milo's book, on-air and off. If this were the 1970s, the Braves would no doubt milk a promotion out of it: Skip vs. Milo in an ostrich race, perhaps?


Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Spring training preview: Pitchers

Starters: Smoltz and Hudson are the only certainties, but Jorge Sosa is pretty much a sure bet to be the third starter. There are three candidates for the final two spots: Horacio, Thomson and Kyle Davies. If the Braves feel Davies is ready (and based on last year, they must think so), he's likely to secure a place in the rotation. Smoltzie told me in an interview to expect a comeback season from Horacio, who, reading between the lines, chafed under Leo's tutelage. That leaves Thomson as the odd man out. His contract (one year, $4.5 million) would make him attractive to other teams offering a bullpen arm or a righthanded bat. Or the Braves might prefer having an extra starter, in case of injury. Thomson looked solid out of the pen in last year's NLDS Game 4, but my guess is he'll be elsewhere come Opening Day.

Relievers: Reitsma is the likely closer, and that's fine with me. Yeah, that contradicts some previous sentiments, but after spending some time with him, I found him not only to be a great guy, but resolute about proving his detractors wrong. He has the stuff, and, if positioned as the closer from Day One, he might just thrive. Bobby's biggest challenge will be setting up the roles for the other relievers, something that, due to Kolb's struggles, never occurred in '05. Boyer and Villarreal will likely battle for primary set-up duties. From the left side, I think Chuck James will join Macay McBride on the Opening Day roster, beating out Mike Remlinger and John Foster. James held lefty batters to a .103 average last season, numbers too good for the Braves to resist. Remlinger might hang around as a third lefty and veteran mentor, leaving one final spot. Joey Devine will probably open the season in the minors, though, if Reitsma struggles, it's not out of the question to imagine him closing games in April. Anthony Lerew almost made the jump to Atlanta last Spring Training, and Bobby's high on him. If neither of the rookies are ready, Lance Cormier and Brad Baker have 12th man on the staff written all over them.

In a perfect world, I'd love to see the Braves package Thomson and Horacio or Sosa for a Barry Zito-type, but that's wishful thinking. I will make one prediction: if Roger Clemens doesn't return to Houston (and Boston's making a push for his services), don't be surprised to see JS send Thomson to the Astros in exchange for promising reliever Chad Qualls.


***Coming tomorrow: CD previews the positional players.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Pen looking like '91

Before the panic over Reitsma closing sets in, remember these names: Berenguer, Pena, Stanton, McMichael, Ligtenberg.

They all led the team in saves during at least a season since 1990. So Bobby knows how to cobble together a bullpen and win. Sure, you’d rather have a lock-down closer and a strikeout-an-inning setup man. But we don’t have the Yankees’ budget, and after the closer even their pen is no sure thing.

In fact, as the ever insightful Peter Gammons points out in a recent column, relievers are so unpredictable that fewer than half the teams in baseball think they know their closer situations for sure. Even the past two World Series champions have had bullpen luck, good and bad (last year's Red Sox). As Peter writes:

The White Sox had no idea that Bobby Jenks would end up a world champion closer, any more than the other Angels reject, Derrick Turnbow, would end up saving 39 games for the Brewers. "I'll be honest," Brewers GM Doug Melvin says, "we had no idea who'd be in our bullpen last year at this time." And the Milwaukee bullpen turned out to be very good.

Twice in this decade the Twins started spring training with only hypothetical closers, and ended up with All-Stars in Eddie Guardado and, later, Joe Nathan. The Angels pulled Francisco Rodriguez out of Double A in September 2002.

No one here in the Office would pretend to be Gammons, but it’s clear that there is plenty of luck, good and bad, involved in shaping a bullpen. Remember Chris Hammond? Darren Holmes? Dan Kolb?

The Braves lack a rock-solid closer, yes. So do a lot of teams. I would contend that with the slew of good young arms coming along – Boyer, McBride, Lerew, Devine, et al. – and a wild card or two like Oscar Villareal, this year’s pen might not need as much luck as some in the past. It reminds me of the ’91 pen. Bobby had to patch together the closer spot, and got superb work from veterans Berenguer in the first half and Pena in the second, and got to them with a couple of young hard throwers in Stanton and Mercker.

That pen had 48 saves distributed this way: Berenguer 17, Pena 11, Stanton 7, Mercker 6, Jim Clancy 3, Wohlers 2, Jeff Parrett(!) 1 and Freeman 1. Ideally, Reitsma will claim the bulk of the saves. The local organ has a story on him today, and he sounds eager. Of course, you say, but not all pitchers do.

Failing that, if anybody can make a closer-by-committee work, it’s Bobby.

-- CD

Francoeur torn between playing for U.S., France

Just kidding. No such A-Rod dithering from Atlanta's own All-American, who has made the U.S. team that will participate in the upcoming World Baseball Classic. Francoeur will be the youngest player on the roster.

"The opportunity to represent your country, to represent the U.S., that's great," he said. "I'm ready to go."

Francoeur will join Chipper on the U.S. squad, which at one time included Smoltzie and Tim Hudson. Fortunately (speaking selfishly here), the two hurlers decided to drop out. But I think this benefits Frenchy, who will get to face premium pitching for, potentially, three weeks. It'll only make him better.