Of Mikes and Men, the autobiography of Atlanta Braves long time and beloved broadcaster Pete Van Wieren is a fascinating read. Van Wieren grew up in upstate New York and cut his teeth as a baseball broadcaster in Binghamton covering the play-by-play for the Triplets. In fact, a few summers back I sat in the stands at NYSEG Stadium as Pete Van Wieren was inducted into Binghamton’s Baseball Shrine. Like every baseball broadcaster who works for the same franchise for several decades, Pete Van Wieren is a baseball historian, a curator of the Atlanta Braves baseball past.
Of course any tome addressing the history of the Atlanta Braves is historically interwoven with our New York Mets. As I dove deeper and deeper into Van Wieren’s work, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the early Braves and the current status of our Mets.
The Braves have been positioned as a National League power for so long, it’s easy to forget that at one time they were an abysmal baseball mess. In Van Wieren’s first 15 seasons manning the mike in Atlanta the Braves had just three winning campaigns and finished in last place eight different times.
Things began to change for the Braves when they rehired former manager Bobby Cox to be their General Manager. Cox had skippered the American League’s Toronto Blue Jays to a 99 win 1985 season before rejoining the Braves. And, Cox was blunt about the retooling task that faced him in Atlanta telling everyone who would listen it would take five years to reshape the Braves organization. As Van Wieren emphasizes, Cox was right.
And, ironically during those 5 building years, Cox was unable to field a quality Braves baseball product on the field at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium. What he did do was build a foundation that would help shoulder 14 consecutive division winning baseball seasons, seasons he would enjoy from the Braves dugout after he was moved down from the front office to take the reins of the Atlanta team as manager.
In some ways, Cox’s strategy closely resembles the Sandy Alderson game plan put into place in Flushing to retool the Mets. Cox understood if the Braves were to become successful they needed to overhaul their player development system to establish a pipeline to bring quality young baseball talent through the Atlanta farm system to the major leagues. Sound familiar?
According to Van Wieren, Cox immediately added minor league affiliates and hired more minor league coaches and baseball instructors. The size of the Atlanta scouting team grew proportionately and trades were made with an eye on the future with Cox moving established major league pieces on the Braves roster for talent he believed would be part of a brighter Atlanta baseball future.
Of course, the most significant of those moves came when Cox sent an aging, 36-year old Doyle Alexander to help the Tigers chase a pennant for low level minor league prospect John Smoltz. Lesser productive trades during that 5 year retool brought guys like Lonnie Smith, Francisco Cabrera and Charlie Leibrandt, all players who would factor into the early Brave renaissance when things shifted in a positive direction in the early 1990’s.
In some ways, I saw a lot of Sandy Alderson in Van Wieren’s description of Bobby Cox’s years as the Braves GM, the building block years of Atlanta’s baseball reawakening. Yet, it wasn’t until Cox moved back to the dugout and Atlanta brought John Schuerholz from Kansas City as the team’s new GM that the Braves employed the daring and risk taking to fit all the pieces together into a championship baseball product.
Schuerholz was wildly busy in his first off-season as the Braves GM. The new Braves boss understood much of the heavy lifting had been done by Cox and the Braves farm system was packed full of promising home grown talent. He also understood, it was imperative to use some of that talent to leverage trades as well as to be active in the free agent market to bring in vital pieces to anchor a Braves championship run. Significant Schuerholz moves brought Terry Pendleton from St. Louis and Sid Bream and Rafael Belliard from Pittsburgh.
Appreciating the value speed adds to a roster, Schuerholz also signed Deion Sanders and moved two minor leaguers to Montreal to pick up Otis Nixon. The new GM found Juan Berenguer, ‘Senior Smoke,’ who saved 17 games out of the pen for the championship 91 Braves.
Pendleton would become the National League’s MVP in Schuerholz’s maiden season as the Braves GM. Nixon would set a club record with 72 stolen bases. More importantly, the Braves would finish first in the NL’s Eastern Division beginning an incredible 14-year run. And, attendance at Fulton County Stadium exploded growing from 980,129 in 1990 to 2,140, 217 in 1991 then surging to just under 4 million the following summer.
Bringing winning baseball to Atlanta and bringing the fans to the Stadium locked in a revenue line that allowed Schuerholz the flexibility to strategically wheel and deal to keep the post season train in motion. Never complacent, Schuerholz signed ’92 Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux before the 1993 season. Maddux would go on to win the Cy Young award in each of his first three seasons in Atlanta.
Even with Maddux leading a star studded pitching staff, Schuerholz feared the Braves roster might not have enough to repeat in ’93. On July 18 with the Braves at 54-41 but still 8 games behind San Francisco (63-32), Schuerholz pulled the trigger on a pennant shaping move, sending three minor leaguers to the Padres for ‘The Crime Dog,’ Fred McGriff. With McGriff pounding 19 HR’s, knocking home 55 runs and with a slash line of .310/.392/.612, the Braves caught the Giants and moved to the post season once again. Of course, that pattern of strategic decision making was repeated over and over again much to the distress of all New York Met fans.
But, it’s exactly that daring, insightful and bold decision making that, so far, is missing from the Met rebuilding blueprint. Like Bobby Cox, Sandy Alderson has laid a solid minor league foundation, a pipeline to add important roster pieces in Citi Field for some time to go. But, like John Schuerholz, will Sandy take the next step; bold and brass free agent signings sprinkled with the strategic trades that see the Mets rise to the next level, post season baseball play? We’ll see.