Thursday, May 25, 2006

Baseball Blunders

Rob Neyer has a new book out called Big Book of Baseball Blunders in which he chronicles some of the most egregious front office blunders in baseball history. For instance, he relays the story of how Babe Ruth became a Boston Brave. I always just assumed that it was a sentimental move to let The Babe finish his career in Beantown without having to face the Yankees. Nothing could be further from the truth, which might be good fodder for another entry.

Espn.com jumps on the bandwagon to let the fans vote on what they think is the greatest blunder in baseball history, as well as top blunders by each team. In typical Esspen fashion, pretty much all the choices are post-1979, which is when sports began in its opinion. Every franchise has had its blunders, particularly since hindsight plays a large role in determining whether a player transaction works out or not. Here are my Top Ten Braves Blunders, which I’ll limit to time in Atlanta:

10. Trades for Denny McLain and Dick Allen. The Braves had an obsession in the early 70s to trade for enigmas and ending up with enemas. The Braves gave up Orlando Cepada (who was at the end of his career as well) in 1972 for McClain, who never reported. Likewise, Jim Essian was traded to the White Sox for Allen after the ’74 season. Allen never reported. The Braves eventually traded the rights to Allen to the Phillies for Jim Essian, who they had gotten from the Sox in the meantime.

9. Signing Nick Esasky to a three year, $5.6 million contract. Not so much a blunder as just bad luck. Esasky gets in all of six at-bats and is never able to play again because of vertigo.

8. Trading Dave Justice and Marquis Grissom for Kenny Lofton and Alan Embree. The trade on paper wasn’t a disaster; after all, the Braves have won nine straight division titles since this “blunder.” And the trade arguably freed up the cash to sign Maddux, Glavine, and Smotlz to another round of contracts. What the trade did do, though, was give up a team leader in Justice and a character guy in Grissom for a clubhouse cancer in Lofton. That the team weathered it was yet another testament to Bobby Cox.

7. The signing of Jim Bouton. Virtually blackballed because of "Ball Four" and having not pitched in the big leagues since 1970, Jim Bouton managed to convince Ted Turner to sign him to a minor league contract, against the advice of farm director Henry Aaron. Bouton would pitch for AA Savannah for the better part of three months, and would get a September call-up with the going-nowhere 1978 Braves. He made five starts with the parent club, going 1-3. Aaron’s criticism was valid – Bouton took valuable starts away from prospects in both Savannah and Atlanta.

6. Trading Andre Thornton for Joe Pepitone. The colorful Pepitone was traded to the Braves in 1973 and managed to wear out his welcome after only 11 at-bats. He was released after one month. Thornton went on to have a steady 14-year career in which he amassed 253 homers with the Cubs and Indians.

5. Signing Al Hrabosky. Sure, Bruce Sutter never measured up to his contract in a Braves uniform, but the Hrabosky signing in 1980 was a bigger bust. The tone was set early. The Braves were shellacked in the first two games of the season by the Reds 9-0 and 6-0, but have the lead in Game Three. Hrabosky, in to nail down the game, gives up a two-run homer to Dave Concepcion to lose the game. Hrabosky didn’t get the save that day, but he would manage to get seven saves over the next three seasons (after having 90 in the previous seven).

4. Releasing Luis Tiant. In 1971 a 30-year-old Tiant was thought to be washed up when he was released by Minnesota. The Braves gave him a 30-day tryout at Richmond to see if he could regain the All-Star form he had achieved with Cleveland in the 60s. After 30 days, the Braves let him go. He signed with the Red Sox’s AAA affiliate and was recalled to the Show a few weeks later. He went on to eat another 2,100 innings over the next 10 seasons.

3. The Eddie Haas experiment. Haas was the choice of Turner’s baseball people to replace Cox after Cox was fired after the 1981 season, but Turner went with Joe Torre instead. Though Torre finished first, second, and second in his three years in Atlanta, he and Bob Gibson were always clashing with the front office (Al Thornwell, John Mullen) and minor league pitching instructor Johnny Sain. When Tommie Aaron, a coach on Torre’s staff, entered the final weeks of his battle with leukemia in 1984, Eddie Haas was plucked from Richmond by the front office to replace Aaron, which created even more friction. Torre would eventually be fired after the 1984, and was replaced by Haas, whose tenure as manager would last all of 121 games. The Braves would finish either 5th or 6th in the NL West each of the next six seasons.

2. Trading Brett Butler, Brook Jacoby, and Rick Behenna for Len Barker. In the throes of a pennant race for the second straight year in 1983, the Braves panicked. Just before the roster freeze, they traded three players to be named later to Cleveland for Len Barker. The trade itself was bad – Barker was never effective for the Braves, Butler and Jacoby had decent careers (three All-Star appearances between the two). The blunder was in how the trade was handled. Word leaked out that crowd-favorite Butler was one of the PTBNLs during the September pennant race. The Braves’ brass later admitted that he was one of the PTBNLs, though the commissioner’s office let him finish the year with the Braves. The damage was done. The trade cast a pall over the team, which finished second to the Dodgers. Barker was never welcome in Atlanta, and the home team made matters worse by then signing him to a five-year deal. He was released 2/5 of the way through the contract as part of the April Fools Day Massacre in 1986.

1. Botching the signing of Tom Seaver. In 1966, the Braves signed USC standout Tom Seaver to a $40,000 signing bonus, only to have Commissioner Spike Eckert void the contract because USC’s baseball season had begun when the contract was signed. Every other team was offered the opportunity to match the Braves’ offer and get Tom Terrific. Three teams were interested, and the Mets were awarded the rights to Seaver by lottery. 311 wins, 3,600 strikeouts, and three Cy Young Awards later, Seaver was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.


JGraham

Great post by JG, but have to disagree on one of his selections (although I can't dimiss the merits of his point). Signing Jim Bouton may have been a stupid baseball decision, but it was a cool moment in diamond history nonetheless -- two mavericks, Ted being the other, flipping the middle finger at the establishment for no other reason than they could. Watching Bouton get his first and only win that season against the Giants in Candlestick stands out as one of my earliest Braves memories. I didn't know much about Bouton's past -- I had yet to discover "Ball Four" -- but I was intrigued by the brushstrokes. Plus, I thought it was neat when his hat fell off during his delivery (and I'm a sucker for knucklers).

--CB

1 Comments:

At 8:22 AM, Anonymous JGraham said...

As you might guess, I was looking at the Bouton thing purely from a baseball operations standpoint. As a fan that year, I loved it. I vividly remember the win over the Giants, mostly because they were carping the previous week about how the Braves were starting Bouton against the Dodgers in the middle of a pennant race.

 

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