Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Ageism


The Braves will open the 2006 season with only one starting every-day player over 30, Chipper Jones. The average age of the starting eight: 27.

Put another way, Marcus Giles will be 27 on opening day. He’s the average starting Brave, chronologically. So that’s a young starting lineup. But it’s the divisional norm. Youth rules the NL East.

The Phillies field the oldest starting eight, at an average age of 30, while the Mets are at 29, the Nationals 28 and the Marlins are, of course, the youngest, at an average age of 25. If it weren’t for Pokey Reese, their Julio Franco at 32, they’d be even younger. Elsewhere in the NL, the Cardinals seem old, but their regular eight averages 29 years. The league’s senior citizens are out west.

The San Diego Padres’ everyday eight average 33 years old. That club appears to be on a geriatric movement, signing Mike Piazza, 37, Vinny Castilla, 38 and Mark Bellhorn, 31 as free agents this winter, and reupping with 35-year-old outfielder Brian Giles and 38-year-old closer Trevor Hoffman. In fact, the Pads deploy one regular under 30, shortstop Khalil Greene, 26. Pity that every day will be Old Timer’s Day at such a nice new ballpark.

They’re a AAA team, though, compared to their Northern California counterparts. The Giants’ training staff better be ready; that team is the Rolling Stones of baseball. That team’s frontline eight averages 36 years old. There is not a single starting regular in the NL East that old. Poor Lance Niekro isn’t going to have anyone to hang out with. He’s 27 and has four starting teammates who are at least a decade older.

San Fran’s outfield will creak by the Bay – 41-year-old Steve Finely in center will be flanked by Moises Alou, a spry 39, and Barry Bonds, also 41.

-- CD

Pictured: West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd, 162.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Braves never big on free agents


For all the hue and cry about the Braves’ reduced finances, the truth is that in the JS era the team has never been much of a free agent shopper.

To be sure, in earlier days a fatter budget allowed the Bravos to keep homegrown talent and make the occasional trade for a big-ticket player like McGriff, Grissom, Sheffield and Neagle. Actually, though, only McGriff and Grissom, and to a lesser extent Neagle, really increased the payroll because the Braves acquired Sheffield after becoming a mid-market team.

What the large payroll did, mainly, was keep guys like Maddux, Glavine, Chipper, Javy, Andruw and Smoltz around a long time. By contrast, in the free agent market, JS has never been a crazy shopper. In his years in Atlanta, he has only signed six free agent contracts of $10 million or more, and just three deals of more than $20 million – Maddux, Andres Galarraga and Jordan. The other $10 million-plus free agents were Pendleton -- at $10 million for four years that was no blockbuster -- Thomson, 3 years and $11.25 million, and Paul Byrd, 2 years for $10 million.

Of those, only the Byrd signing could be considered a real failure.

Despite all the Braves’ years as one of MLB’s highest payroll clubs, the biggest free agent deal for a player from another club of the JS years, and thus in team history, was Galarraga’s $25.2 million signing in November 1997. The Yankees sign free agents to deals bigger than that virtually every year.

So in team history, the Braves have signed one free agent from another club to a contract worth $25 million or more. (Maddux’s was slightly under that in 1992.) That’s remarkable, when you consider that this offseason alone, nine free agents have changed teams in deals bigger than $25 million, 10 the year before and six the year before that.

-- CD

Sunday, January 29, 2006

I've fallen and I can't get up!


My picks for teams who will regress in '06:

NATIONAL LEAGUE

St. Louis: Replaced Larry Walker, Reggie Sanders and Mark Grudzielanek with Larry Bigbie, Juan Encarnacion and Junior Spivey. Not sold on their rotation or their pen. Even though they're moving into a new stadium, their big pitching imports were Sidney Ponson and Braden Looper? Plus, they're getting old (Jim Edmonds says this might be his last year). I wouldn't be surprised if the Brewers or Pirates finished ahead of Tony LaRussa's squad;

Philadelphia: They won't fall much ...probably just down to the .500 range. A weak rotation will be their undoing;

Florida: Obviously;

and

San Diego: Sure, they only traded Brian Lawrence for him, but is there any sense in importing Vinny Castilla to play in roomiest park in the NL? Expect less than 10 homers, and an average near the Mendoza line. Lots of dead weight here; their rotation includes Woody Williams, Chan Ho Park and Shawn Estes, while Mark Bellhorn and Doug Mirabelli should combine to form the worst bottom of the order in baseball. Could go from first to worst in the NL West.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

O.C. Angels: The Cardinals of the AL. They won't be down for long, as they have an impressive pipeline of talent on the way. But I don't see them making the playoffs this year;

Cleveland: Everyone loves the Tribe, and they too have a lot of young talent, so I don't see their decline lasting long, either, but their rotation and bullpen is a lot weaker, and Coco Crisp will also be missed. I'm not sold on a line-up including Aaron Boone, Casey Blake, Jason Michaels and Ben Broussard;

and

the Yankees: Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina are nearing the end of the careers, and certainly their respective dominance. Can Chien-Ming Wang, Shawn Chacon and Carl Pavano carry this team? I say no. Still, with that line-up, the playoffs are a decent bet.

---CB

The case against stat geeks


What do the PECOTA freaks have against Derek Jeter? Whenever the question about overrated players is asked, Jeter's name usually comes up. He's an underachiever with the bat, they say. One actually called him the worst defensive shortstop in baseball.

I just don't get it. These guys worship numbers, and Jeter's are even better than I assumed:

Career batting average: .314. Lifetime OBP: .386 (.461 slugging). He's won two Gold Gloves. And do I need to remind you about his postseason heroics (lifetime .307 hitter in October)?

As much as I detest the Yanks, I revere Jeter. On top of everything else, he's baseball's best ambassador.

"Yeah, but his range factor in games decided by less than two runs is 24th overall." Nothing discredits the stat geek sector more than their Jeter bashing.

Let them have their Catalanottos and Kieltys. I'll take the guy with four rings.

---CB

Does familiarity breed championships?


Hard to say, though the most recent Yankees dynasty certainly made a case for continuity. Now they're a team of mercenaries, and have gone five years without a title.

Of course, it's been a little longer for the Bravos, and it would be unfair to compare them to the Yankees. JS' constant roster retooling has been out of necessity, for the most part.

But this offseason, Schuerholz has largely stood pat. Outside of Rafael Furcal, the team that took the field against the Astros last October returns intact. John Smoltz, for one, thinks this will help the Braves in their quest for a 15th consecutive playoff berth.

Imports such as Gary Sheffield and Just Disabled had no investment in the postseason disappointments of years previous. The Braves of 2001, for instance, had little in common with the '02 team.

Gone were '01 starters Quilvio Veras, Brian Jordan and Rico Brogna, replaced by, respectively, Giles, Shef and Vinny Castilla. And that trend has continued through this decade; in fact, turnover has been a constant for the Braves since the '97 trade of David Justice for Kenny Lofton. Before, then opening day line-ups rarely varied, supplemented only by call-ups such as Javy, Klesko, Chipper and Andruw.

Now we're seeing that blueprint followed again. I'd be surprised if 2007's Braves change much from this year's squad (John Thomson will be the only major free agent). Smoltzie thinks this formula will go a long ways to altering the team's postseason misfortunes.

History is on his side.

---CB

No draft dodging here



Everybody who cares knows about the Braves’ 21st century influx of homegrown talent. That doesn’t make it any less remarkable, and it is evidence of a string of fruitful drafts.

Researching past drafts, two things stand out: how few first round picks ever have significant careers, and how much more productive the home team’s recent first rounders have been compared to those in the early and mid ‘90s.

Just how full of original Braves is this club? Consider: seven of the Braves’ eight regulars and two or three starting pitchers have come up through the system. (I’m counting Smoltz since he was still in the low minors when he arrived.)

This season, the Braves’ opening day 25-man roster could have as many as 20 homegrown players, and will almost certainly have at least 15. There are the seven of eight regulars, two to three starting pitchers, depending on Davies and Horacio, at least three bench players – Orr, Betemit and K. Johnson – and probably three and maybe four or five relievers.

Look at some rivals. Two of the Mets’ eight regulars are homegrown, Jose Reyes and David Wright. They might have one native Met in the rotation, Aaron Heilman. The Phillies have a lot of in-house talent. Five regulars and one or two starting pitchers. The defending NL champ, St. Louis, is notably lacking homegrown players, with only two of eight regulars having come up through the system, Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina, and no starting pitchers. It’ll be interesting to see how quickly age catches up to the Redbirds.

Now about first rounders. Among the home team's Braves-bred regulars, the two or three starting pitchers and the passel of young relievers whom the Braves drafted, four were first-round picks.

Of the homegrown every-day starters, the first rounders are Chipper, the first overall pick in 1990, and Francoeur, selected 23rd in 2002. Side note: Among other 1990 first round picks, only Mike Lieberthal and Mike Mussina could be considered high-caliber big leaguers today. Among Braves pitchers, Macay McBride and Joey Devine, who of course could start the season in AAA, are the first-round draft picks.

Detroit took Smoltz in the 22nd round in 1985. JS took Horacio in the fifth round in 1997. Hudson was the A’s sixth round pick the same year.

The team's past few first round picks could have a big impact on the Braves: Wainwright helped secure one big year from J.D. “Just Disabled” Drew; McBride has already reached Atlanta; Francoeur, Salty and Devine. What a difference a decade makes. Here are some of the Braves’ forgettable first rounders from the ’90s: Mike Kelly, Jamie Arnold, Jacob Shumate, Chad Hutchinson, A.J. Zapp and Troy Cameron. Only Kelly from that group ever played for the Atlanta Braves, and he was in 127 games, got 47 hits and knocked in 26 runs.

Francoeur alone has already outdone that sad lot.

Those first rounders are part of a harvest of talent that got particularly rich in the 2000 draft. It yielded Adam Wainwright, now in the St. Louis organization but once considered a top pitching prospect, Kelly Johnson, Blaine Boyer, Adam LaRoche (29th round), Charles Thomas, Trey Hodges and Bubba Nelson.

In 2001, the home team picked McBride, Kyle Davies and Anthony Lerew. The following year brought The Lilburn Flash, Dan Meyer, a highly regarded prospect traded to Oakland for Hudson, McCann and James Jurries, who has an outside shot to make the big league club this spring.

Atlanta drafted Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the ace catching prospect, in the 2003 first round and promising lefty Jake Stevens in round 3. The past two drafts are, of course, so recent that it’s hard to draw conclusions. Still, Devine was the first pick in 2005 and Yunel Escobar, already a touted shortstop prospect, was the second pick. One player the Braves drafted in 2004 whom I hope makes it to the bigs just for his name: Adam Parliament, a right fielder taken in the 26th round.



-- CD

Friday, January 27, 2006

I'll be there for you


If I ran the jukebox at the Ted, things would be much livelier. No more having to endure the "Friends" theme song in between innings, or last year's horrid revival of John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy." And shouldn't we stop feeding unrepentant pedohphile Gary Glitter's ("Rock and Roll, Part 2") coffers?

Whomever it is that programs the musical selection for Braves games must have the soul of Pat Boone. Imagine a cooler scene, with a soundtrack featuring:

*"Apache" by the Sugar Hill Gang: And not just for the home run trots. Offensive, perhaps, but why not make room for some old school rap in the capital of hip hop?;

*Sanford and Son" theme, extended Quincy Jones mix: As beloved as Julio Franco was in Atlanta, just think how much more popular he would've been if this had accompanied him each at-bat? Even without the "Old Man," Fred G. Sanford should have a home on the Turner Field speakers;

*"Stand!" and "Hot Fun in the Summertime" Sly and the Family Stone: The first one, for obvious reasons. Always gets me high. The second was once used in a Braves marketing campaign back in the 80s, but instead of Sly they employed some bastardized, Caucasian version;

*"Desert Skies" Beachwood Sparks: An unlikely (and unknown) selection, perhaps, but would make great bumper music in between innings. What's wrong with some good hippie karma?;

*"Galley Slave" Southern Culture on the Skids: See previous entry (minus the hippie karma);

*"Slow Poke" Pee Wee King: To be played whenever Steve Trachsel is on the mound ... "You keep me waiting and it's getting aggravating you're a slow poke ..."

*"The Kids are Alright" The Who: In honor of the "Baby Braves";

*"Got to Give it Up" Marvin Gaye: That'll get those staid Turner Field crowds on their feet;

*"Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun" Beastie Boys: Might I suggest this for whomever the Braves closer turns out to be? Love the "Mississippi Queen" sample;

*"Under Pressure" Queen/David Bowie: So obvious but so underused. Would be a proper serenade for the other team's closer. And to prove there are other Queen songs besides "We Will Rock You."

*"Twilight Showdown" Starlight Mints: Not a chance in hell, but a kick ass song that would go well with those 7:35 summer start times;

*Anything from ELO: Their music was made for stadium speakers.

---CB

High and hard


He may be overstating matters a bit, but you gotta love Rich "Goose" Gossage's choice of hero and villain revealed in this quote (compliments of Chop Talk's Feb. issue, via the New York Post):

"It ticks me off to say (Barry Bonds) is the greatest hitter. He's playing in a wussy era. The game is soft. You never get thrown at today. The first thing Hank Aaron had to to worry about is: 'am I going to survive this at-bat because I'm black.'"

---CB

Inflation's a bitch


How much money do you think the Braves' top salaried player made in 1991? And who was the player in question?

Without research, would anyone have guessed: a.) $2 million and b.) Lonnie Smith? In fact, Skates was the only Brave making $2 mil that year. Charlie Leibrandt followed, at $1.8 mil. TP qualified as a true bargain; his MVP campaign cost the Bravos just $1.75 million. Only two other players on that iconic team earned seven figures: Sid Bream and Ron Gant.

John Smoltz made $355,000 back then, or about $9.7 million less than he'll accrue in '06. Still a bargain.

---CB

Nobody leans on Sharky's Machine


Atlanta was a much different place back in 1981. Skip Caray was still having three martini lunches in those days. The skyline was clear ... of smog and skyscrapers, save for the Peachtree Plaza, once the world's largest hotel and a key supporting character in the Burt Reynolds film, "Sharky's Machine."

I watched that flick for the first time in about 20 years last night and was transfixed, not so much by the plot, or the devilishly twitching eyebrows of Mr. Reynolds, but by the visual postcard of the Atlanta of my youth.

Burt was to Atlanta then what Elton John is now: the city's global celebrity-in-residence. He once owned a bar in the old Omni International, back before CNN moved in (and the indoor ice skating rink moved out). If the world's biggest movie star thought Atlanta was cool, then who could argue?

I recently took an out-of-town friend to the rotating bar atop the P'tree Plaza, which remains frozen in time, save for the view. In fact, I recognized the same decor watching "Sharky's Machine."

Outside of that, about the only thing that hasn't changed in the ATL is the manager of the Braves: Bobby was nearing the end of his first term as skipper of the Braves back in '81.

---CB

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Opportunity for Wilson?


If I'm Wilson Betemit, I'm volunteering to take grounders at first this spring. In fact, I'm already doing it. I'm oiling up my first basemen's glove as we speak.

Otherwise, don't expect the former phenom to play much in '06. Though he's never played first before, he's got the build for the position (6'3, 200) along with steady hands and a good arm. Unfortunately, he performed much better against righties last year than lefties (.327 versus the former, .256 against the latter).

Too bad, since the Braves need a replacement for Julio Franco. James Jurries struck out almost once every three ABs in Richmond, so it's hard to expect much from him. Newly acquired OF Matt Diaz would also be a virgin first sacker.

As Ken Caminiti showed during his brief tenure in Atlanta, manning first isn't as easy as it might seem. Of course, Cammy wasn't exactly lucid during that period.

I'm for giving LaRoche a shot to play every day, but I'm also for exploiting the vast potential Betemit flashed last season. That talent was on display again in the Dominican Winter League; Wilson finished with an .875 OPS.

---CB

Denny's grand slam breakfast


Remember when Denny Neagle came across as a playful, eccentric lefty, that darned Denny and his train whistle?

Well, in the proud tradition of other former Braves pitchers like Pat Jarvis, Rick Camp, Denny McClain and, under sad circumstances, Jeff Reardon, Denny has utterly humiliated himself. Four years after signing a $51 million contract with the Colorado Rockies, Neagle pleaded guilty this week to “patronizing a prostitute” near Denver. I guess he told her she was the best hooker ever, or that her outfit was really nice.

Here's a choice nugget from a story in the Rocky Mountain News:

Last week, the judge ruled that Neagle's statement to police that "he was being stupid" for looking for someone to perform a sex act couldn't be used against him in a trial.


The woman said Neagle paid her $40 for oral sex. With that kind of cash, he’s hiring $40 hookers. Damn, Denny. Your performance in Game 4 of the ’96 World Series is a tragic chapter in Atlanta Braves history, but you didn’t have to go do this sort of thing. Next time, spring for a nice call girl who’ll come to your hotel room.

-- CD

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The man sticking it to the people


In case you haven’t read anything nauseating lately, here’s an interesting nugget from The Palm Beach Post about the Marlins:

Wayne Huizenga does not own the Florida Marlins, and yet he is collecting $2 million per year through 2024 because he once did.

We’re talking long-term, spend-as-you-wish cash in the form of a special state subsidy. Seed money for a crop long since sold.

Continued taxpayer support specifically designated for the retrofitting of Huizenga’s football stadium for baseball. Never mind that the baseball team, now owned by Jeffrey Loria, has pledged to leave Dolphins Stadium by 2011, at the latest.


You might have heard that Huizenga gutted the Marlins the first time, right after they won the 1997 World Series. He didn’t even give the fans a chance to buy lots of tickets to see the defending champs. Instead, he sold off his stars, which he had bought in the first place, soon after the champagne dried and the parades ended.

Huizenga’s deal with the state of Florida is another reason to question the big subsidies states shower on auto makers, computer companies and other corporations.

-- CD

Glavine in '07?


Apparently there are no hard feelings left between the veteran lefty and the team he abandoned after the 2003 season. Yes, abandoned. So actually, there shouldn't be any hard feelings on his end.

Tommy G. tells the New York Post (no link, registration required) he'll sign with only one of two teams after his contract expires this fall: the Mets and the Bravos.

Glavine, who with 275 career wins doesn't deny he's set the goal of reaching 300, told reporters at the Mets caravan he won't blindly pursue the mark.

"I've only given it the thought from not having any certainty," he said. "I really don't see myself playing anywhere else."


Hard to imagine a spot for the certain Hall of Famer in next year's rotation. Smoltzie and Hudson will be back, along with Hampton. Jorge Sosa, Kyle Davies, Chuck James and Horacio would all seem to figure in that mix as well. Would the Braves have room for a 41-year-old lefty?

Doesn't look like it, but much can change. Resentment about him signing with the Mets aside, it would be nice to see Glavine end his career where it started. Just don't expect that to happen.

---CB

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

1969 redux


Did you know Tom Seaver was originally signed by the Braves? Think how that would've changed baseball history. Without Seaver, there's no doubt the "Miracle Mets" would've been just another also-ran. And the Bravos, who lost to New York in the inaugural NLCS, would've stood a solid chance at winning their first World Series back in '69.

Baseball Amercia recently revisited this forgotten bit of trivia:

Seaver, who had turned down the Dodgers as a 10th-round pick in 1965, was selected by the Braves as the 20th and final pick of the first round of the secondary phase of the January 1966 draft. That February, he signed with Atlanta for $40,000.

However, Seaver wasn't eligible to sign because Southern California already had begun its college season. Commissioner Spike Eckert voided the contract, fined the Braves $500 and barred them from signing Seaver for three years. Though Seaver never received any money from Atlanta, he had signed a pro contract, costing him his NCAA eligibility.

Eckert ruled that Seaver had signed a contract in good faith and that it was the Braves' fault that it had to be invalidated. As a result, Eckert set up a special draft for him. Any team willing to at least match the $40,000 bonus could enter a drawing for his draft rights.

The Indians, Mets and Phillies were the only clubs to do so, and Eckert picked a slip of paper that said "Mets" out of a hat on April 2. Seaver signed with New York the next day for $51,000 and launched a Hall of Fame career by winning the National League rookie of the year award in 1967.


---CB

Right time for Remlinger


An old friend is returning to The Ted, maybe.

JS signed Mike Remlinger to a no-risk minor league deal. He’ll go to camp with a shot at a bullpen spot, probably a reasonably good shot considering journeyman John Foster and kids Macay McBride and Chuck James are the other left-handed candidates. And you have to think the organization prefers that James spend the season starting games at Richmond.

However, Remlinger’s competition is probably everyone since he is not suited to a lefty specialist’s role.

Remlinger, of course, had his best years in Atlanta. After a couple of injury-plagued and mostly ineffective seasons in Chicago and Boston, it’s not realistic to expect a whole lot. I would say the best hope is that Remmy could be used against right handed hitters in certain spots.

It would be somewhat unlike Bobby to flout convention with the pen, but it might work. Remlinger’s success against hitters on different sides of the plate has varied widely the past three seasons: right handers have hit just .215, and lefties have hit .284.

-- CD

Monday, January 23, 2006

Leo, meet Anna Benson


It looks like Leo’s first reclamation project in Baltimore will be former Met, Atlanta-area native, 1996 No. 1 overall draft choice and husband of loudmouth ex-stripper Kris Benson.

The Mets dealt Benson to the O’s for a couple of pitchers roughly comparable to Cormier and Villareal, the guys we got from the Diamondbacks for Estrada. In an underwhelming injury plagued career in Pittsburgh and New York, Benson has a sub-500 career record, went 10-8 with a 4.13 ERA last year. He’s never won more than 12 games in a season.

Leo’s reputation as a savior of flagging careers will grow if he can pull a John Burkett with the 31-year-old Benson, facing the muscular lineups of the AL East all season. Benson was obviously highly regarded 10 years ago. The Pirates picked him first in the amateur draft.

I was hoping I could point out that he was drafted ahead of someone like Tim Hudson or Derek Jeter. But the 1996 first rounders have proven a pedestrian group. The only guys who’ve had even good careers so far are Eric Chavez, Jake Westbrook, Eric Milton and Mark Kotsay. After Benson, the top 10 picks were: Travis Lee, Braden Looper, Billy Koch, John Patterson, Seth Greisinger, Matt White, Chad Green, Kotsay and Chavez.

The Braves first round choice that year was a guy with a good name but little else in baseball terms, A.J. Zapp. Zapp, who’ll turn 28 in April, hit .243 and struck out once every 3.5 at-bats with the Reds’ AAA team last year. That’s actually a small improvement over his 10-year minor league career K ratio of one every 3.1 ABs. Zapp was last a Brave in 2002, hitting .185 in 92 ABs at Richmond after a .237 average in 300 ABs in Greenville.

Back briefly to Benson. It was his wife Anna who once threatened, publicly, to sleep with every Met if Kris cheated on her. A "model-actress," Anna felt compelled to hold a press conference to blast the Mets after the trade the other day. Classy lady.

-- CD

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Publix to buy the Bravos?


A rumor circulating around the Braves has Publix Supermarkets possibly buying the team.

It doesn’t seem to make sense. What would a grocery store chain want with a major league team? They could plaster Publix signs all over the ballpark, sure. But they can buy the space and do that already. Presumably, that’s a lot cheaper than spending $400 million to buy the whole organization.

Yet Publix is different from most huge companies in a way that might make it more likely to do something like this. Specifically, it'd be far easier for Publix to buy the Braves than it would be for a large publicly traded company, becuase Publix is controlled by a few people who can presumably make big decisions. The Lakeland, Fla.-based outfit, which runs a damned good supermarket, is mostly owned by two intermingled families, the Barnetts and Jenkins. The family founded the company in 1930, and its various members own roughly half the company, a stake worth about $6.5 billion to $7 billion, according to documents the company filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The other big chunk of Publix stock, about 31 percent, is owned by employees. SunTrust Banks also owns about 6 percent. Publix is not a publicly traded company -- you or I cannot buy their shares on a stock market. So the execs don't have to answer to finicky Wall Street analysts who might advise their big shareholder clients to dump the stock if the company does something that appears wacky, like buying a baseball team.

One guy, Publix Vice Chairman Hoyt Barnett, owns 31 percent of the company, worth about $4 billion. So if Hoyt and/or his extended family decide they’d like to own a baseball team along with their 875 grocery stores, they can afford it. Publix likes the Braves. It's a Braves sponsor with billboards at Turner Field. That’s a far cry from buying the team, of course.

But who knows. There aren’t that many billionaires around. So this rumor makes as much sense as any. If Publix does take over, you’d have to think the ballpark food would improve. Come to think of it, maybe the beer selection would too, as Publix has a pretty nice array of brews.

Lastly, if one of the Publix honchos buys the Braves, they would not be the first grocer to own a big league team. Former Safeway Chairman Peter McGowan owns the San Francisco Giants. So stocking shelves and baseball can mix.

-- CD, CB

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Telling it like it is, Bananas style


This is Howard Cosell, speaking of sports.

This reporter has never proffered himself as a political commentator, and has, in fact, always undertaken to separate the spheres of geopolitics and sport. But a situation has arisen that demands my attention.

First, let me remind the audience that this observer has first-hand experience in the political and societal workings of a chaotic tropical nation in the throes of upheaval, a banana republic, if you will. Moviegoers will recall a certain dashing television journalist’s star turn in the Woody Allen film, Bananas.

Which brings me to the subject at hand. Our United States Department of the Treasury has declared that Cuba cannot participate in the so-called World Baseball Classic. This administration’s worldview conflicts on several fronts with the enlightened, nuanced and refined political outlook of this reporter. Our president was handed a share of a Major League Baseball club some years ago and parlayed that into the governorship of a backward, Wild West commonwealth overrun by 19th Century attitudes, gun-toting yayhoos, cheerleader murders and state-sanctioned executions.

Sadly, he has imported much the same Cowboy governing philosophy to our nation’s fractious capital. And how ironic that the Neolithic administration of this privileged fraternity boy who professes to love baseball could end up robbing this international tournament of its credibility.

But wait! I am not here to defend dictators like Fidel Castro who squash free expression and amass fortunes while condemning the poor wretches under their rule to lives of destitution. This reporter loves liberty. In fact, the statue of liberty is a play that should be used more often. It typified the action on the day in a more freewheeling and, frankly, a more fun era in the history of the National Football League.

President Bush, tell your yokel cronies at Treasury to relent and allow this baseball exhibition – and be assured it is merely an exhibition concocted by Buddy Selig and his minions to sell more ball caps overseas -- to at least proceed with dignity and honor. Let the Cubans play. While you’re at it, lift the ludicrous prohibition on the superior cigars our island neighbors to the south produce.

Déjeles jugar. Let them play.

I never played the game, but I tell it like it is. Good afternoon.

-- CD

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Joe Pepitone slept here


If only for one night. More nuggets from Bob Hope's book, an invaluable resource for those still intrigued by the pre-'91 Bravos:

*Joe Pepitone was obtained one day and sold the next after refusing to play because he lost his toupee ...

*Forgotten SS Leo Foster (lifetime BA: .198) set a league record in 1971 by hitting into a triple play and two double plays in his big league debut ...

*Lefty pinch hitter Glenn Clark went to bat four times in 1967 before it was revealed he was blind in his right eye ... the one closest to the pitcher.

Selah.

---CB

The joys of being a lefty


I’m not here to moan about baseball players’ money. Sure, it’s absurd that Alex Rodriguez makes almost $70,000 a day. (His $250 million contract equals 28 percent of Belize’s annual gross domestic product.) But the owners have it, or else they wouldn’t pay it, and it’s a tired subject.

Still, arbitration is a joke. Horacio pitched like Tony Brizzolara last year, going 11-9 with a 4.66 ERA. And he gets a nearly 500 percent raise, from $370,000 to $2.2 million. Aaron Harang and Brandon Claussen had better stats!

If you or I or anyone we know is mediocre in our job, we are not rewarded for just showing up. Yet that is what arbitration does. The longer you play, the more money a team has to pay you. Of course, pitch badly enough and you’ll get released, or eventually your pay will decrease. But that takes a while, especially if, like Horacio, you’re left handed.

Someone will always give a creaky southpaw a shot. A week ago, the Diamondbacks signed Terry Mulholland to a minor-league deal. He’s 42. He was bad at 32. His ERA in 1996, in fact, was the same as Horacio’s in 2005.

-- CD

Dances with Levi


Before there was "the Chief," there was "Big Victor," a 60-foot mechanical Indian that was once positioned beyond the right field fence at Fulco. Victor, who was supposed to wave a tomahawk in his right hand as his head turned back and forth, with eyes blinking, every time a Bravo hit a home run, never quite worked out. The styrofoam creation would sometimes wave and blink on his own, and those red light bulbs in his eyes frequently burned out. He now sits in a north Georgia general store. Even if "Big Victor" had functioned properly, it's hard to see him surviving our p.c. times. What kind of native American name is Victor, anyways?

Levi Walker wasn't even the first Braves mascot to don a headdress; according to former publicity director Bob Hope, that job initially belonged to a pudgy Boy Scout who would dance in center field whenever a Bravo hit a home run.

Though he may have been as unpredictable as "Victor," Chief Noc-A-Homa was clearly the best of this triumvirate. He was symbolic of the Braves back then ... a true misfit, but a charming one.

From Hope's book, "We Could've Finished Last Without You":

"Once he (Walker) arrived late at a banquet where new Georgia Tech football coach Bill Fulcher was the featured speaker. Coach Fulcher was already starting his talk when Noc snuck up behind him on stage and let out a war whoop in his ear. The stunned coach sat down and never said another word the rest of the night."


Hope admits Noc-A-Homa was underpaid, which left Walker scrambling for other means of employment: "One day he came into my office and gave me his new business card. He had become a partner in a company called "Three Boys Inc." tax advisors. 'It's a simple concept,' he explained. 'We have three partners --- a white man, a black man and an Indian --- so we can offer a client whatever color tax consultant he needs.'"

Of course, the Chief reached mythical standards in 1982 after the organization removed his teepeee from the left field stands, making room for more seats. The eventual division champions went into a horrible slump, which didn't end until a.) Pascual Perez got lost on I-285 and b.) the teepee was restored.

Anyone know what's happened to Levi Walker? Rowland would like to drop him a card.

---CB

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Bargain second sacker


David Pinto on the widely read Baseball Musings blog opines that the $3.85 million, one-year deal Giles signed leaves the second baseman underpaid. He compares Gilly’s contract to Ranger Mark Teixeira’s new two-year deal for more than $15 million, noting that Teixeira has posted bigger numbers than Gilly but is not worth twice as much.

Pinto probably has a good point. After Giles, Chase Utley and Rickie Weeks, there are few if any good young second basemen in the National League. From a Braves fan’s perspective, it’s refreshing that Marcus is not trying to squeeze the club for every last penny. Then again, maybe that’ll happen when he hits free agency after the 2006 season.

There might be cause for hope. Marcus and brother Brian share an agent, Joe Bick. And Brian didn’t hold up the Padres unreasonably in his new contract, so maybe we can look forward to Marcus staying a Bravo for many more seasons.

-- CD

Chief Robby and Ole Hank


He never mugged for the cameras or sought attention. Like the man to whom he paid tribute, he carried himself with dignity, even if his attire was outlandish.

This slender, 70ish African-American gentleman, whose name I do not know, was a Turner Field fixture for several seasons. I’d see him striding the terrace level concourse in full mid-1970s Henry Louis Aaron uniform: the royal blue No. 44 jersey with the feather on the sleeve, white baseball pants and the lower-case “a” cap.

I didn’t see this guy last season; I hope nothing bad has happened to him. For he is one of the characters who enrich a night at the yard and make us as fans feel a little more unified. This brand of solo unofficial mascot in its truest form is found mainly in baseball, because the daily schedule culls the buffoons who paint their chests just to get on TV. That shtick can work eight times a year in pro football, but not 81 times.

We in Atlanta perhaps have fewer of these ballpark eccentrics than other cities. I don’t know, though, having never regularly attended games elsewhere. And you can only know these people by frequenting a ballpark. They generally don’t get air time. In any case, in our ongoing campaign to fill space as the hot stove cools, we regale our loyal readers with memories and views on Atlanta Braves mascots, official and otherwise.

Besides “Hank,” contemporary do-it-yourselfers include Robert “Chief Robby” Walls, the 37-year-old with learning disabilities who sits in right field for every game in full Indian regalia – head dress, face paint and a brown sort of coverall garment. The Atlanta Journal Constitution wrote in October 2004 that he’d just attended his 582nd straight home game.

I also used to regularly see a stork of a man with bulging eyes who wore a contemporary Braves uniform with the name Lindsey on the back of the jersey, usually No. 5. I don’t think I spotted him last season.

The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire

As ticket prices have climbed and security has tightened, the days of the wacky fan dancing on the dugout are probably gone for good. Consequently, the most visible homegrown mascots are from years past. The early ‘80s brought Brother Francis, a local bartender who wore a brown monk’s robe and exhorted crowds from atop the Braves’ dugout. He was the last of the freelancers allowed to climb on the dugout roof. There was also a guy who dressed like Jack Nicholson and raced up the steps at FulCo slapping high fives. He would also appear at Hawks games.

In the early ’90s, Uncle Phillip popped up, a bearded man wearing a crown and a cape. The story was that he’d show up every night and someone would give him a spare ticket outside the ballpark. In 1992, a regular in our section in right field brought his two young sons to every game. But at first pitch, the man clamped on a set of headphones and never uttered a word to either kid until the last pitch. Amazingly, he left Game 7 of that year’s LCS early. He doesn’t exactly qualify as a self-made mascot, just a ballpark weirdo.

More recently, we’ve had Sheff’s Chefs and Francoeur’s Franks, which are clever and fun but lack the panache of a lone inspired loony.

Of course, the organization has trotted out an endless parade of mostly ridiculous corporate cheerleaders. The Bleacher Creature, Rally and Homer the Brave cavorted in the empty bleachers through the ‘80s and still live, though out of sight of most fans. When he inhabited his platform in front of the right field seats through the late 1980s, Homer’s freakishly huge head made an inviting target for wadded-up hot dog wrappers, and he seemed to take it good naturedly. Hey, we were paying customers and in those days you couldn’t afford to chase away any.

There were the clogging Braves Kids atop the dugouts. That stunt was thankfully short lived, as were the Braves Furskin Bears. Who can whip up more enthusiasm than a troupe of people dressed as cartoon bears that have nothing to do with baseball? One group I liked from the late ’80s that I believe lasted into the early ‘90s was the Band of Braves, the roving elderly banjo pickers who played at day games. Those guys were good.

Likewise, they put a drum line in the center field plaza after some games this past season, and they were excellent. Let’s hope they’re back in '06.

Obviously, no discussion of Braves mascots is complete without the original and most famous, Chief Noc-A-Homa, Levi Walker. I recall as a kid in the early 1970s waiting in long lines to enter the teepee and get Nocahoma’s autograph. And who could forget his pre-game pitcher’s mound dance, followed by the sprint, later jog, down the left field line with Princess something or other.

CB has a post coming with more Noc-A-Homa stories.

-- CD

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Best in the West


Gotta agree with Buster Olney's assertion in his blog today: the Dodgers are the team to beat in the NL West. Hard to believe how quickly they've recovered from an off-season that began with their manager and general manager in limbo. They were slow to replace each, after being turned down by many.

But Ned Colletti has done a fantastic job, in short order, of restoring hope to Chavez Ravine. You could argue he spent too much on Rafael Furcal, but three years is not an outrageous committment, unlike the five years given to J.D. Drew by Colletti's predecessor, Paul DePodesta. He signed useful veterans like Bill Mueller, Kenny Lofton and Brett Tomko to reasonable deals, and he may have ended up with the bargain of the offseason, Nomar Garciaparra.

Danys Baez gives them great insurance for a recovering Eric Gagne, and if Jae Seo is half as good as he was down the stretch for the Mets last year, Colletti has secured a solid fourth starter behind the erratic front three of Brad Penny, Derek Lowe and Odalis Perez.

Plus, you could do a lot worse than Grady Little as your manager.

I'm glad to see at least a semblance of stability restored to what was becoming L.A.'s "other team." My old home is a very underrated baseball town (leading the NL in attendance last year, despite a wretched product on the field), and besides, Vin Scully deserves better than having to call meaningless games in August.

---CB

***Ironically, the Dodgers, as of right now, appear to be a better bet to win their division than the Angles (whose quiet offseason has surprised many) are to win the A.L. West. Who would've thought that just two months ago?

Coming from within


With the trade of Danys Baez to the Dodgers, it seems all but certain the Braves' next closer is already on the roster. (The Braves were reportedly in the hunt for the former Devil Ray closer but were unwilling to deal the young arms Tampa Bay coveted).

Is it Chris Reitsma? Although JS has been sending mixed signals, who else could it be? I think Joey Devine will get a chance, and so will Blaine Boyer. Oscar Villarreal, who posted a 2.57 ERA in 86 appearances as a rookie with the D'Backs in 2003, is
emerging as a darkhorse; scouts are reporting he's fully recovered from shoulder and elbow injuries suffered over the past two years. He's been dominant of late in the Mexican Winter League.

Hell, perhaps a couple of Triple AAA closers imported on the cheap --- Brad Baker and Jeff Bennett --- will emerge as this year's Derrick Turnbow. Some lucky fantasy leaguer might end up being very glad he spent $2 on any of these guys, or very mad that he spent $20 on another.

---CB

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Telling it like it is, again


This is Howard Cosell speaking of sports.

Today I shall speak of others who speak of sports, though they of course do it with nothing approaching the eloquence and insight of this reporter. To the contrary! With scant few exceptions, the bloviating mediocrities who inhabit the tawdry world of sports talk radio have become one more blight on our nation’s egregiously diminished popular culture. Worse still, they and their programs are yet another vehicle for advancing the jockocracy that inflicts sports journalism today.

Rather than delivering even a modicum of intelligence, these cretinous simpletons wallow on the level of your average testosterone-crazed high schooler. Based on the broadcasts these shameless vulgarians purvey, one would conclude that the only followers of sport in this land are Neanderthal drunkards who frequent exotic dance establishments, telephone gambling services and divorce attorneys.

But wait! Your humble observer appreciates clever repartee, a chilled cocktail and the sensuous charms of the fairer sex as much as any man. My beloved Emmy will attest to that. However! The sad silicone-injected strumpets who gyrate in the clubs advertised over the airwaves of which I speak maintain at best a tangential relationship with true womanly pulchritude. Much as these broadcasters polluting our airwaves maintain a tenuous relationship to journalism, if that.

Often these mediocrities are barely even aware of the accuracy of their so-called oratory. Furthermore, they offer a platform for miscreants throughout the benighted hinterlands who are mired in self-loathing and jealously to spew ill-informed vitriol all over the listening public. Enough.

Call me elitist if you must. But someone must establish standards. This reporter will humbly do his part. I never played the game, but I tell it like it is.

Good afternoon.

-- CD

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

A-Rod's hero


Say what you want about Alex Rodriguez, but no one can doubt his taste in baseball idols. Growing up, A-Rod worshipped Dale Murphy, as did many of us of a similar age. He was the Braves throughout the 1980s, and the only real shame of the organization's success in the next decade (and beyond) was that Murph didn't get to experience it.

Murph's name came up in accordance with yesterday's Hall of Fame announcements. Some, mainly Braves loyalists, argue that the two-time MVP belongs in Cooperstown. I wish I shared that conviction, but it's hard to make the case for a career. 265 hitter. Ironically, the fact that Murphy was a Brave probably hurt his chances.

Imagine him with, say, the Toronto Blue Jays of that time, surrounded by other big bats like George Bell, Jesse Barfield and Willie Upshaw. The free swinging Murph wouldn't have to had to carry the team, as he so often had to in Atlanta. Number 3 rarely had any protection in the Braves' line-up, backed by the likes of Ken Griffy Sr. and Jim Presley. With decent protection, Murph might've been able to put up numbers worthy of the HOF.

That he became a Gold Glove outfielder may have been Murphy's most impressive achievement. He was drafted as a catcher, where, defensively, he made Mackey Sasser look like Tony Pena. Bob Hope, in his book "We Could've Finished Last Without You," recalls Murph's first spring training behind the plate:

"His father, there to watch his son play in a spring training game against the Dodgers, told reporters: 'One thing certain is no one will steal centerfield on Dale.'" The Braves moved him to first base in 1978, where he didn't perform much better, committing 35 errors in 205 games over the next two seasons.

Finally, the Braves found a home for Murph in CF in '80, displacing our namesake, Rowland Office. From there, his career flourished. Starting in '82, there was no better player in baseball (at least for the four years following). His MVP campaigns in '82 and '83 were spectacular, but he was just as good the next two seasons: a .919 OPS in '84, .927 in '85.

Then came the drop-off. It was gradual at first, but by 1988, Murph's career was in freefall. He finished that season with a .226 average, surrounded by probably the worst collection of ballplayers in Atlanta Braves history. Trade rumors started percolating the following year, with the Mets reportedly offering a package including Howard Johnson, Lenny Dykstra and Rick Aguilera.

Bobby was the GM then, and no doubt he should've pulled the trigger on that deal. Of course, if he had, odds are Terry Pendleton, Otis Nixon and Alejando Pena would've never been Braves. Murph ended up going to the Phillies, for Jeff Parrett and Jim Vatcher.

It was sad seeing him in those powder blue softball uniforms the Phils used to wear. One of the more memorable '91 moments had nothing to do with the pennant race, but everything to do with the class this organization has come to represent.

The two teams had engaged in a beanball war in an otherwise meaningless (at least for the Phils) game. Glavine was on the mound, and it was his turn to send a message to the opposing team. Unfortunately, Murph had to be the target. Glavine threw an eephus pitch in Murph's general direction. It was a class move, signifying a passing of the torch from one Braves institution to another.

And it was a fitting show of respect for a player who remains to many the most popular ever to wear a Braves uniform. Hall of Famer? I wish I could say yes. Legend? No question.

---CB

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Good thing he stayed home


According to a solid piece by Thomas Stinson in today's AJC, Bruce Sutter decided it might be a good idea to be near a phone today.

Sutter became the second Atlanta Braves pitcher, along with Knucksie, to enter Cooperstown, after 13 years of waiting for the call. It was well-deserved.

"The best Braves pitcher Atlanta hardly got to know," as Stinson put it, will obviously not be the last Bravo hurler to make it to the HOF. Maddux is a cinch, and Glavine and Smoltz are both likely entries in the years ahead.

Shoulder injuries made Sutter little more than Gene Garber with a pedigree once he got to Fulton County Stadium, where he blew his first save, on Opening Day, 1985, and many more after. He was never the same during his three years here, but, as Whitey Herzog once said: "His nine years were probably the top nine years in the history of baseball," referring to a time frame with the Cubs and Cards when the split-finger pioneer recorded a 2.54 ERA, tops among major leaguers with more than 750 innings pitched during that era.

Finally, relievers are getting their just due from the writers, though Goose Gossage was short-changed, again.

---CB

Smoltzie will rest more


Smoltzie wisely has decided not to play in the World Baseball Classic, he told the local organ in a story published today.

Rather than risk his arm throwing hard in March, he’s going to be careful and prepare for the Braves’ season. Smart move. John also confirms what most suspected last October, that because of his ailing arm he could not have pitched again had the Braves advanced in the postseason.

Even more interesting, perhaps, Smoltzie acknowledges that he might've pitched too many innings in the middle of last season while he and Andruw were lugging the club on their backs with Chipper out. Of course, it’s Bobby’s call to remove a pitcher from a game. But with a veteran of Smoltz’s caliber and experience, I guess it’s a mutual decision unless he’s getting hammered.

So this means we can expect more six-inning outings for Smoltz in 2006. I doubt he’ll be tiring as quickly as Maddux has the past few seasons, yet caution is the only choice if we’re to get much out of Smoltzie in October.

In addition to these good decisions, Smoltzie is regrettably making what I consider a bad one in backing the hypocritical Ralph Reed in his run for lieutenant governor of Georgia. Smoltzie is scheduled to make a campaign appearance this month with Reed, a political animal to the bone.

I have no problem with ballplayers being involved in politics. It’d be refreshing, in fact, to see more players with a worldview extending beyond the white lines. And, not that anyone really cares, but his support of Reed doesn't lessen my admiration of Smoltzie as a player and person. I’m not here to preach to anyone about what they should believe. Still, Reed strikes me as a charlatan, an ostentatious Christian who wants to tell everyone how they should live while making millions alongside sleazebag lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Guys like him remind me of a dude who used to be in our rotisserie baseball league. This chap loved to yak about Jesus and God and other people's behavior. Meanwhile, he’d berate referees in church league basketball games and once indignantly told me to “enjoy the view of my ass in the standings” after I declined a trade offer.

Don’t let just anybody use your credibility, Smoltzie.

Elsewhere, Fox sports.com’s Ken Rosenthal’s latest offering has a few Bravo-related nuggets, notably that the club has talked to Cleveland about Coco Crisp – see our earlier predictions -- and this:

Braves right-hander Jorge Sosa is working as a reliever in the Dominican Republic, but manager Bobby Cox continues to view him as a starter. The only way that would change is if the Braves acquired another starting pitcher or promoted a second youngster to join right-hander Kyle Davies in their rotation. The more sensible solution would be to find another late-inning reliever.


-- CD

***Though I'm intrigued by the prospect of moving Sosa back to the 'pen --- giving Kyle Davies a spot in the rotation --- it should be noted that the Braves have no say in how their players are used in the independent Dominican winter league. That Sosa is working the late (innings) shift should not be viewed as any sort of audition for the big club.

Also, from Rosenthal's column, he mentions the Astros might make Willy Taveras available, for starting pitching. How about this trade: Horacio and KJ for Taveras and hard-throwing reliever Chad Qualls? And keep Sosa a starter.

---CB

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Sizing up the 'pen


I'd be surprised if JS doesn't make an addition, or two, to the bullpen. He's basically said as much. But let's assume he doesn't. Here's a semi-educated stab at what the bullpen might look like on Opening Day:

CL: Chris Reitsma
Main set-up: Blaine Boyer
Middle relievers: Joey Devine, Anthony Lerew, Oscar Villarreal
Lefties: Chuck James, Macay McBride


Barring a trade of Sosa, Thomson or Horacio, I suspect Kyle Davies will open the season in Richmond. He looked uncomfortable coming out of the 'pen late last season, and I'm sure the Braves want him to continue developing as a starter. I didn't forget Lance Cormier, my pick to be '06's version of Jorge Vasquez.

Potentially, those listed above could make for a deep and talented bullpen. But all that inexperience leaves little margin for error. Whether its KJ, Langerhans or one of the excess starting pitchers, expect a deal for a a proven veteran --- but not a proven closer --- before April rolls around.

---CB

In an AP story, JS says he still expects to acquire a closer. In his recent comments, Bobby sounds as if he's OK going into the season with Reitsma closing. But Bobby's almost never going to say something that could be construed as critical of one of his guys.

Here's JS:

"We don't have a closer, but I'm not concerned about whether we do it before we go to spring training or after we go to spring training," Schuerholz said. "We'll have a closer. We don't have one now. There's no time sensitivity with that."


-- CD

The Class of '06


After last year's rookie influx, there's bound to be a drop-off in the fresh talent imported to the Ted this season. Certainly no one will impact the team the way Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann did in '05. But some rookies are poised to contribute this year.

Although he appeared in a few games last season, Joey Devine still qualifies as a rook. I see him emerging as the closer before the end of the year, but that's really up to Chris Reitsma, at this point. Regardless, Devine will likely win a spot in the bullpen, along with another hard throwing freshman, Anthony Lerew. Bobby's been talking about Lerew since spring training last season, and it's not as if there aren't any jobs open in the 'pen.

Then there's Chuck James, who doesn't seem to have a spot in the rotation. But considering how thoroughly he dominated lefties last season (.103 OBA), and considering the way John Foster folded down the stretch, I think James has a chance to make an impact, possibly developing into an Eddie Guardado-type set-up man down the road.

Minor league free agent Brad Baker --- who's put up some decent numbers in the Padres organization and is a former first round pick --- is a darkhorse in the bullpen.

As for position players, it's likely no rookie will find an opening. The best bet may be James Jurries, best known as a steroid violator (he was suspended for 10 games last season while at Richmond). Otherwise, he had a pretty solid season, finishing with an .895 OPS. He might end up replacing Juley as a righthanded option at first base. The Braves added him to the 40-man roster recently, so his stock has risen, at least a little bit. Maybe the Old Man left some "Jesus Juice" behind. (NOTE TO MICHAEL JACKSON: We're not talking about wine).

CD thinks we'll be seeing catching phenom Jarrold Saltalamacchia this season, but I'm skeptical. Barring a McCann setback, I doubt the Braves will bring Salty up unless he'll be getting significant playing time. Brayan Pena is still around to fill in temporarily, if need be.

---CB

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Jerks in wheelchairs


Strange category of fan, those who are over-the-top obnoxious but immune from verbal fire.

I remember one guy in particular. At a Braves-Rockies game in about 1998 or ’99, a bearded man in a wheelchair parked above the center field seats kept up a chatter that would have left a healthier man with a can of verbal whoop-ass all over him. I would’ve tried at least. And I’m a wuss who hates confrontation. I can recall just one real verbal spat at a Braves game – late in Game 7 of the ’92 LCS when a guy insisted Blauser was selfish for hitting into a line-drive double play. That is if you don’t count the time the next season when, after a few big beers, I shouted down a guy trying to start the wave, and the time in the late ‘80s a woman called some friends and I “foul-mouthed creeps” as we left a 1-0, extra-inning loss to the Cardinals.

In any case, wheelchair guy never let up. His main theme, as best I can recall, was that the fans did not sufficiently embrace Andruw. That, and he just rooted too enthusiastically for the Rockies, of all teams. I don’t know. Maybe if I were wheelchair-bound, I’d go around trying to get on people’s nerves all the time too.

Toward the end of the game, a Rockie struck out with a couple men on and I yelled some rejoinder that I’ve long since forgotten. The next day I mentioned all this to a friend who said she had heard about the dude – how many insufferable guys in wheelchairs could there have been? – on an Atlanta radio station.

If anyone else has sat around a terrible fan who was similarly immune, please let us know. Just about three weeks until Camp Roger. Let’s hope JS has dealt for a closer by then.

-- CD

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Cronkite of rasslin


Comparing a rasslin announcer to Walter Cronkite is like comparing Bo Bice to Pavarotti. But then pro rasslin is absurd. That’s why so many of us loved it as kids.

And if you grew up in the South in the ‘70s and ‘80s and liked sports and absurdity, the Walter Cronkite of rasslin was a trusted friend. I’m writing of the late, great Gordon Solie, who was indeed known as the Cronkite of professional wrestling, the Dean of Wrestling and the Howard Cosell of rasslin. (The humble Solie tried never to bring attention to himself and was thus nothing like Cosell. The Howard comparison stems from Solie’s help in making “The American Dream,” Dusty Rhodes, a legend ala Cosell and Ali. Observant viewers remember that The Dream actually worked on Turner South Braves pregame shows last season.)

Solie was a fixture on Ted Turner’s Georgia Championship Wrestling, and later World Championship Wrestling from 1973 through the mid-‘80s. He started his career as a ring announcer for $5 a night in the early 1950s.

Born Francis Jonard Labiak in Minneapolis in 1929, Solie died of larynx cancer in July 2000 at 71, after years of heavy smoking. But in our series of crap to fill the site while nothing’s going on with the Braves, Solie lives again. Known for pioneering expressions like “he’s wearing a crimson mask” when a grappler’s face was bleeding, or fake bleeding, Solie kept his face straight no matter how ludicrous the goings on.

Gordon would dutifully hold the mike and interview Ernie Ladd as earnestly as Peter Jennings quizzing Dick Chaney, even as “The Big Cat” ranted about not shaving because he’s so mean he might cut his own throat, whupping his own grandmother if she put on tights and got in the squared circle, and as Ladd excoriated that “egg-suckin’ dog Dirty Rhodes.”

As the preening Austin Idol read a letter from a female fan who enthused that “no mountain is high enough, no valley deep enough” to keep her from AI, as Ric Flair yelped his signature “Wooo,” Solie would interject a deadpan question about an upcoming steel cage match. As the manic Kevin Sullivan, The Boston Battler, lashed Idol with a belt amid their long-running feud, Solie called the action matter of factly, making the craziness all the crazier.

He never condescended or let on that the proceedings were anything but serious, genuine competitions. He also never screamed or hyped the action, unlike most broadcasters of legitimate sports. Needless aside: Would someone please tell Thrashers radio man Dan Kamal to stop yelling. He makes those Latin soccer announcers sound like, well, Gordon Solie.

Mark Nulty, who is described online as “a professional journalist” who’s been in the rasslin industry since the mid-80s as an announcer, referee and promoter, wrote this about Solie upon his death:

He was often called the Walter Cronkite of professional wrestling. Cronkite is considered the most credible and most trusted newscaster of all time. Solie brought the same level of credibility to wrestling, no matter how incredible his assignment might be at the time. In a business that is built on being outrageous, Gordon knew the value of being subtle and was the master of it.


Gordon apparently did have something of an ego. Here is a quote from a biography called Something Left Behind, written by Gordon, and his daughter and son-in-law:

"...Who cares whether these thoughts of mine are ever printed? The important premise is they have been written. Whether anyone else ever reads them or not is transcended by the fact that I have expressed my own truisms."

Spoken like the orator he was. So Gordon Solie, who was inducted into the WCW Hall of Fame at a Slamboree pay-per-view event in his home state of Florida, is hereby inducted into the Office’s Hall of Our Favorite Dead TV Sports Personalities.

Pictured: Solie with the rasslin Garvins.

-- CD

Tejada coming (NL) East?


Hard to keep up with the merry-go-round of rumors involving Miguel Tejada and Manny Ramirez, but the latest involves one of the Braves' rivals in the NL East. And it's not the Mets.

According to Ken Rosenthal, the Phils and O's are discussing a potential Tejada for Abreu swap. The Phils would move Tejada to 3B, but the deal wouldn't answer their biggest need: starting pitching.

At this point, only the Mets scare me in the NL East.

---CB

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Nothing but the worst


Choosing the Braves' worst Opening Day line-up of the Atlanta era isn't easy, but we've reached a consensus on the following:

1987

Dion James CF
Andres Thomas SS
Gary Roenicke 1B
Dale Murphy RF
Ken Griffey LF
Ozzie Virgil C
Ken Oberkfell 3B
Glenn Hubbard 2B
Rick Mahler P

1988

Dion James CF
Damaso Garcia 2B
Gerald Perry 1B
Dale Murphy RF
Ken Griffey LF
Ozzie Virgil C
Ken Oberkfell 3B
Andres Thomas SS
Rick Mahler P

Some notes from this illustrious group: Garcia, who fell out of favor in Toronto after he burned his Blue Jays uniform, hit .117 in 60 ABs in '88. That team finished with a .242 BA, although '89's squad fell eight points below that mark. A .234 team BA is almost hard to comprehend. Russ Nixon never stood a chance!

Filling space with the stove off


We’re not big on trivia, but this strikes me as interesting.

For the seven opening days from 1988 through 1994, the Braves started seven different catchers: Ozzie Virgil, Jody Davis, Ernie Whitt, Mike Heath, Greg Olson, Damon Berryhill and finally Javy.

Likewise, in the most recent seven seasons, the home team has started seven different first basemen on opening day. Starting in 1999: Ryan Klesko, Andres Galarraga, Rico Brogna, B. J. Surhoff, Robert Fick, Julio Franco and Adam LaRoche. Let’s hope LaRoche settles in like Javy did.

-- CD

"Oh no, here comes Pico!"


We could break down the Mets trade of Jae Seo for Duaner Sanchez, but that would be too desperate, even for the Office, though I wouldn't have minded Sanchez in our bullpen, and would've dealt Horacio Ramirez to get him.

Instead, we resort to that staple of year-end journalism --- albeit a week late --- a best and worst list. This time, we cover baseball broadcasters, and we're sticking to our lifetime, and only announcers with which we're familiar; as a commenter points out, Ernie Harwell belongs on this list, but unfortunately I've never had the pleasure of listening to the voice of the Tigers ... and onetime voice of the Atlanta Crackers. So pardon the snubs of Red Barber and Mel Allen, though the latter was a weekly fixture on my TV narrating "This Week in Baseball." Now that's a Southern accent worth envying.

Play-by-play

The best: Harry Caray. Whether it's the young, smooth version (if you can find it, check out Harry's call of Stan Musial's last at-bat in 1963. It should be required listening for young announcers) or the older, less nuanced Harry ("Steve, why do we keep bringing in George Frazier? Everyone knows the guy can't pitch"), no one seemed to enjoy baseball as much as Skip's dad. He combined knowledge of the game with enthusiasm for it in a way that'll never be duplicated.

Very honorable mention: Vin Scully. Living in L.A. for six years, I had the privilege of listening to Scully call games, and no one is more skillful at presenting the action on the field. He is the master, never too high, never too low and never unprepared. And Scully does all the games solo, a feat in of itself.

Jack Buck. I interviewed him years back, and we ended up chatting about baseball for a good 30 minutes (he was very high on a young John Mabry, for some reason). A true class act, and the author of my two favorite calls: "I don't believe ... what I just saw" and "Go crazy folks. Go crazy!" And, for what it's worth, I like Joe Buck, too.

Skip and Pete. Obviously. They started calling Braves game shortly before I became a fan, and I can't fathom watching or listening to the home team without them. They compliment each other tremendously, and it's a treat on those rare occasions when they're paired with each other in the booth. And, for what it's worth, I like Chip Caray, too, though he can sometimes be a bit overly enthused.

Jon Miller. The best of the modern announcers. Great voice, good-humored and knowledgeable, plus he doesn't get in the way of his analysts, though sometimes, in the case of Joe Morgan, I wish he would.

Howie C. Sure, he badmouthed baseball at every turn, though he could be quite rhapsodic recalling his days as a youth in Brooklyn, peering under the fence at Ebbets Field to watch Jackie Robinson play. He, "Alfalfa" Michaels and the "Double D" (Drysdale) made for a pretty entertaining announcing team, back in the days of "Monday Night Baseball."

Alfalfa. Better on baseball than football.

The worst: John Sterling. He offered nothing but annoyance, and still does. He was a little bit better on basketball: "Bullsye! Rory Sparrow."

Dishonorable mention: Bob Rathbun (Wednesday nights are my least favorite of the baseball year), Steve Physioc (covers the Angles ... dreadful) and, of course, Chris Berman (although I will give him some credit for John "Tonight, Let it Be" Lowenstein).

Analysis

The best: Jimmy Piersall. I vaguely remember watching him and Harry do White Sox games on WGN in the late 1970s. There's never been a more blunt analyst, and who doesn't enjoy candor in their broadcasters? Some examples ...

*Umpires threatened to forfeit a game against the White Sox in 1981, saying Piersall's taunts in the broadcasting booth were inciting the crowd.

*When Piersall criticized White Sox slugger Greg Luzinski for failing to run out a grounder, Luzinski threatened not to re-sign with the club if Piersall remained on the job.

*Anthony Perkins, who played Piersall in the 1957 movie "Fear Strikes Out," got a thumbs down in a review by the player. "He threw a baseball like a girl and danced around in the outfield like a ballerina," Piersall said.

Piersall was ultimately fired for making derogatory comments about White Sox owner Bill Veeck's wife.

Honorable mention: This is a much tougher category to fill, riddled with "jockocracy." Sutton remains a favorite of mine, consistently providing a baseball education. Jim Palmer was similar, and I've come to appreciate Steve Stone of late. I used to enjoy Reggie Jackson, mainly because I was always a big Reggie fan. Of the newer guys, Rick Sutcliffe rates high.

The worst: So many to choose to from, and so hard to choose just one. The Braves have given us plenty of candidates, from Darrel Chaney to Billy Sample to Wimpy Paciorek. ESPN has also contributed greatly to this category, both in the booth and in the studio. Remember Mike "Frankenstein" MacFarlane, who always appeared as if his head was about to explode? Or the shrill Norm Hitzges, baseball's answer to Fred Edelstein? I'm tempted to put Tim McCarver in this category, but he has some good moments, unlike the ultimate winner ...

Rex Hudler
. The "Wonderdog" does Angels games (forming, with Physioc, the worst modern-day team). He oughta be covering the X-Games, if anything at all. Duuu-uuude, you suck!

---CB

Half right


I called the USC score correct, at least. Has anyone ever played a better game than Vince Young did last night?

Now we get to enjoy that patented Texas arrogance for the next year.

---CB

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Ax and ye receive

As TV sports became a huge business, the corporations buying all the commercial time and the signs on the scoreboards, and the leagues they were bankrolling, decided on-air odds makers no longer set the right tone. The nauseating hypocrisy of that is another post.

But just because GM and Budweiser don’t want professional gamblers on their shows doesn’t mean the Office can’t salute those sports TV fixtures of our youth, including the gamblers. We have no sponsors to offend.

Since he’s fresh on the blog, we’ll start with Pete Axthelm, or Uncle Ax, as my friend Sid used to call him. Sid wasn’t a gambler but is a huge football fan. He used to joke about getting a Christmas card from Ax and other football commentators.

Anyway, Axthelm, who died in 1991, was a fixture on NBC’s NFL coverage in the 1980s. He was also an inveterate gambler who loved horse racing and now has a race named after him, an accomplished sportswriter for Newsweek among others, an author and a friend of Hunter S. Thompson. In fact, here’s a nugget from an April 1991 Esquire piece Thompson wrote about his pal:

Pete Axthelm was one of the last free spirits in journalism or anywhere else in these humorless times. The last time I saw Ax was one long evening in my suite at the Hotel Carlyle in New York. He was sipping a Bombay gin magnum and reading aloud from the Book of Revelation as he often did when he studied the Racing Form.

Pete was not a religious man. He was in fact a black priest in a family tradition that openly worshipped gambling and had no regard for money.

He would gamble on anything, especially horses. He was a sportswriter, and if he couldn't go to the track he swore he would go to the tomb. He wrote brilliant essays and sometimes asked morbid questions, which eventually led him into a place that some of his friends called "the gray area." It was an essentially Buddhist concept based in karma, laughter, and occasional human sacrifice. He also loved football, whiskey, and fine chamber music.


Thompson went on to relate that during an interview, Axthelm got President Ronald Reagan to tell him that the current generation might be the one to face the end of the world. I doubt Terry Bradshaw or John Clayton or Joe Theismann or Chris Berman or any of today's other NFL gasbags have done anything remotely as interesting as Ax.

Here’s to you, Uncle Ax. Rest in peace.

-- CD

Equal time


If we give Jimmy the Greek some pub, we owe the same to Pete Axthelm. Which leads me to wonder, whatever happened to the TV prognosticator? Where's Danny Sheridan? And Fred Edelstein? (Actually, Freddie E. served 21 months in prison on fraud charges. Safe to say he hasn't been missed).

---CB

USC 38, Texas 24


Yeah, I attended USC, but my pick is based solely on weeks of statistical analysis, interviews, observing practices, lunches with Lee Corso ...

In truth, I know more about Wes Obermueller than either of these team's defenses. All that aside, I just don't trust Texas in big games. Outside of Ohio State earlier this year, when have the Longhorns not choked against a highly ranked opponent?

Besides, this much hype never pans out. Remember that Dolphins-49ers Super Bowl game pitting Montana against Marino? Tonight's game won't match that blowout, but USC will cruise nonetheless.

---CB

I didn't attend either Rose Bowl school, and I have no idea who'll win. I wouldn't be shocked if USC romps. But I think it's amusing that ESPN has decided this year's USC team would beat every college team ever, even before USC has beaten the supposed second-best team this year, and even though this year's USC is probably not as good as last year's.

It'll also be fun to see how many Hollywood types suddenly become SC fans tonight. That will be slightly less annoying than all the celeb Yankee fans who find their caps and box seats come World Series time.

-- CD

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Here's what's coming


Presenting the Office’s first, ridiculously early predictions for the 2006 Bravos ...

CB starts off:

The Braves won't win the division,

but they will make the playoffs,

where they'll advance to the NLCS to play the Mets,

whom they'll defeat in a 7-game thriller,

thanks to the efforts of closer Joey Devine, who will end up saving around 30 games once he inherits the role;

John Smoltz will stay healthy, but Tim Hudson will emerge as the Braves' ace.

Brian McCann will have a better sophomore campaign than his roommate, Jeff Francoeur.

Marcus Giles will thrive in the lead-off role, putting up Tim Raines-like numbers (minus the SBs ... though he'll get 30.)

Edgar Renteria won't have a better year than Furcal, but he'll be close.

Chipper will drive in more runs than Andruw.

Someone currently not on the roster will be starting in LF.

The Braves will start fast for a change but hit a big midseason roadblock. Naturally, they'll overcome it.

They'll play the Oakland A's (who'll defeat the ChiSox in the ALCS) in the World Series.

This time they'll win it.

Wilson Betemit will be a factor, either as a trading chip or as an everyday player (perhaps as the starting LF).

Unfortunately, Comcast will buy the Bravos.

Now it’s CD’s turn:

I don’t know who’ll buy the Braves, but it won’t be Arthur Blank. He’ll be too busy trying to fix the Falcons.

Chris Reitsma will start the season as closer and flourish until middle to late June, when he’ll again deteriorate from regular work.

Kyle Davies will win 12 to 14 games.

Schuerholz traded Damian Moss after a promising big league debut, and next month he’ll deal a package including Jorge Sosa to Cleveland for outfielder Coco Crisp, who’ll hit leadoff for the Bravos. Like Moss in his good year, 2002, Sosa constantly wriggled out of jams.

Led by a powerful first six hitters – Crisp, Giles, Chipper, Andruw, Francoeur and Renteria -- the lineup will prosper.

Reitsma’s early success will help mold a surprisingly good bullpen as youngsters like Boyer and McBride settle into complementary roles and Villarreal has a solid year. Rietsma’s midseason struggles will challenge JS and Bobby, though, to either deal for a closer or try one of the kids.

The Mets will stumble early as they assimilate their new players, while Smoltz, Hudson and the offense spark a fast start for the home team. But the New Yorkers will slowly catch up.

Home team wins a tight divisional race with the Mets and Phillies, made even more thrilling as the Cubs, Astros and Cardinals all battle the East teams for the wild card.

LaRoche finds consistency from the seventh spot and hits .280 with 25 homers and 85 RBI, giving the lineup great depth. Renteria serves as a middle-of-the-lineup table setter after the big boys clear the bases.

Renteria will be excellent defensively but won’t match Furcal’s range or arm.

Hudson will win 18 games. Smoltz will win 15.

Todd Pratt will get hurt, Saltalamacchia will come up and he and McCann will split catching duties in the second half.

The home team will beat the Cubs and Mets in the playoffs and face the White Sox in the World Series.

***Pictured: Former "NFL Today" prognosticator Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder. Speaking of, I saw Jayne Kennedy interviewed not long ago. She's gone zaftig on us. Phyllis George, meanwhile, remains shapely.

Bobby's take


The guy's calm even in print. From THE manager's January Chop Talk column:

"There's a lot of talk about getting a closer, and I'm not sure we're going to be able to get that done ... it just might be that we need to make it work internally.

Chris Reitsma has closed before, so has Joey Devine. Blaine Boyer and Anthony Lerew are two hard-throwing guys who could help us. We'll get it figured it out."


Little doubt that he will.

Meanwhile, in the same CT issue, THE general manager says: "As far as the closer goes, it's fair to say we're looking to find someone who is somewhat established. A lot can still happen."

A return to relevance


I really like what the Pittsburgh Pirates have done this offseason. Granted, the likes of Joe Randa and Jeromy Burnitz aren't going to stir up ticket sales, but considering their low price tags, and their supplementary status, each looks like a solid acquisition.

They also acquired Sean Casey (for non-factor Mark Redman). And Jim Tracy was a solid managerial hire. With Zach Duke and a healthy Oliver Perez anchoring their rotation (and burgeoning stars like Jason Bay and Jose Castillo in their line-up), the Pirates are a team on the rise. Wild card contention isn't out of the question in '06.

---CB

Once in a Blue Moon



One man’s picks for the best and worst names in Atlanta Braves history:

Best: Blue Moon Odom
Honorable mention: Mike de la Hoz, Chi-Chi Olivo, Clete Boyer, Sandy Valdespino, Bob Aspromonte, Hoyt Wilhelm, Rowland Office (of course), Buzz Capra, Biff Pocoroba, Trenidad Hubbard, Jung Bong, Bill Nahorodny.

Worst: Cliff Speck
Honorable mention: Bob Priddy, Roric Harrison, Wenty Ford, Bob Walk, Joe Slusarski, Tim Spooneybarger, Everett Stull, Joe Winkelsas, Mike Cather, Brad Clontz, Danny Heep, Jeff Dedmon, Bill Pecota – if only because he shares a name with that maddening stat-geek category.

-- CD

Don't forget Joey D


Most assume he won't be the Braves closer, but why not Joey Devine?

Think Chad Cordero. And Huston Street. Each excelled in the closer's role in their second season in the bigs. Devine's credentials are solid, and last year's brief audition shouldn't convince you that he has no shot at emerging as the Bravos' bullpen savior. If the organization thought he was good enough to pitch in a pennant race, I doubt they'd have any reservations about giving him a shot in April.

As of now, it's probably Reitsma's job to lose, but based on his two years here, there's little doubt the Canadian will find a way to lose it.

Among the Office's picks for next season, I'm predicting around 30 saves for Devine (who obviously made a good impression on me after I interviewed him last week). Maybe that's too optimistic for '06, but expect such numbers to be routine in the years following. He's got the stuff, the mentality and a refreshing eagerness to learn.

---CB

"I never realized how boring this game is"


That was Homer Simpson's lament as he attended a baseball game after quitting drinking. I have to disagree with "Home Run Homer," although far too many young major leaguers would concur with his observation. But not the "Baby Braves."

Most seem to actually like the game. Langy and McCann are the sons of coaches, and each were (and are) diamond rats. Francoeur and Boyer also seem to have a healthy respect for their profession.

I interviewed Joey Devine last week and was surprised again to hear a rookie talk reverentially about a game many say is too slow for the younger generation. Devine said he was "in heaven" watching the Game 2 NLDS match-up between his mound idols, Smoltz and Clemens.

You could argue it doesn't matter how well a player likes baseball, but only how well he plays it. Not exactly. Devine, for one, grew up watching the Braves, and Smoltz. He's well aware there's much to be learned from a future Hall of Famer, and he's eager to be taken under Smoltzie's wing.

The energy evident on the field and in the clubhouse last season wasn't just based on youth, but passion. It's good to know we're not alone.

---CB