The silver anniversary of rock bottom: Coda

The rebuilding project began in June, when the Braves drafted Steve Avery, Jimmy Kremers (traded in ’91 for Otis), Turk Wendell (sent to Chicago for Damon Berryhill and Mike Bielecki, who had a 3.09 ERA in 242 IP as a Brave), Mark Wohlers and Tony Tarasco (part of the package that brought Marquis Grissom to Atlanta).

A few months later I jumped — literally — when I heard that Ken Oberkfell had been traded to Pittsburgh. It didn’t matter who they got in return (Tommy Gregg); Obie, more than anyone, represented the malaise of the mid-80s and he had to go. Soon after the Bravos cut bait with Ozzie Virgil, Rick Mahler and Jerry Royster.

Unfortunately, their replacements, in some cases, were worse.

Yes, Ozzie Virgil sucked, but Jody Davis, acquired for Kevin Coffman (terrible in his own right) and Kevin Blankenship, was Dan Uggla without power, batting .161 in 267 AB’s as a Brave. Otherwise, Bobby’s biggest acquisitions that winter were 41-year-old Darrell Evans, Mark Eichhorn,  Dwayne Henry and Jeff Treadway.

The team’s 63-97 finish in ’89 was no surprise.


The silver anniversary of rock bottom: Streaking to the finish

You’d think a season that began with 10 consecutive losses wouldn’t get any worse, but the ’88 Braves showed fans no mercy.

They entered Game 140 with a 49-90 record after fighting back from a 4-1 deficit the night before to defeat to the Friars. It was their third win in 4 games, which is as good as it got that season. A losing streak would inevitably follow.

Their 91st loss featured the anemic offense (3 hits, including a trademark solo HR from Ozzie Virgil) and porous defense (a crucial error by 3B Ron Gant loaded the bases in the 4th, setting the table for a two-run single) we’d come to expect from the ’88 Bravos. The Padres coasted to a series win the next day behind a 7-run 2nd inning off Charlie Puleo.

On to L.A., where the eventual World Champions would knock Tom Glavine out in the 3rd inning of Game 142. The Braves fought back, scoring 4 in the 4th, but it wasn’t enough. It would be 23 innings, and two more losses, before they’d score again.

Their 6th loss in a row came at home, vs. the Padres before 4,224 at Fulco in the first game of a doubleheader. The Braves would snap their losing streak in the nightcap, committing 6 errors in a 6-3 win

Three days later, they started another winless streak. This one would last 7 games.

The silver anniversary of rock bottom: The nadir

The Braves. losers of three straight, were 38-74 entering Game 113. A crowd of 6,070 turned out on one crazy summer night in August to watch Rick Mahler battle Andy Hawkins.

A three-run homer by Murph gave the Braves a 3-1 advantage in the 3rd. The lead held until the 9th when, as you’d expect, the roof caved in. After a Tony Gwynn single, Andres Thomas booted a grounder by Keith Moreland to put the tying runner on base. Marvell Wynne bunted the runners over to 2nd and 3rd with one out. Mahler then coaxed a grounder from Benito Santiago but unfortunately it was hit to Thomas, who committed his second error of the inning.

The Braves still led by 1 and, following a strikeout of Randy Ready, were just one out away from victory. Mahler did his part, getting Garry Templeton to ground softly to first. Guess what happened next.

The third error of the inning, by Gerald Perry, tied the game at three.

It would stay that way for six innings. German Jimenez allowed two runs in the top of the 16th but the Braves battled back, scoring one and putting the tying run on third with Thomas coming to bat. Appropriately, he recorded the final out, dropping the Braves 25.5 games out of first.

The silver anniversary of rock bottom: At least they weren’t streaky

At this point in the 1988 season the Braves were already 20 games under .500 and 15 games behind the division leaders.

But they were about to begin what would be their longest winning streak of the season — 3 games. That’s right, the ’88 Braves never won more than 3 in a row. They did it twice in June, sandwiched, of course by a 4-game losing streak.

The second of those streaks started in Los Angeles, against one Don Sutton. Braves ace Rick Mahler did most of the work, collecting two hits, driving in two and going the distance for his 8th victory. He had accounted for 1/3 of the team’s wins at that point, but he would win just 2 more games in a Braves uniform.

The first came nine starts later, an ugly 8-5 defeat of the Giants.  His final win came three years later, in the second game of a doubleheader sweep vs. Pittsburgh. Mahler, signed off the scrap heap after he was released by Montreal, held the mighty Pirates to two runs in 6 IP — a most unlikely victory that moved the Braves to within 4.5 of the division lead.

Francisco Cabrera made a rare start at catcher that night, and in the 8th inning he provided a preview of the greatest moment in franchise history, homering to left for what turned out to be the game-winning run. On the mound for the Bucs: Stan Belinda.

The silver anniversary of rock bottom: Even the wins were ugly

Part of a recurring series “celebrating” the 25th anniversary of the worst season in Atlanta Braves history 

Through 25 games the Braves were 16-9 with a comfortable 3.5 game lead in the NL East. Through 25 games in 1988 the 6-19 Braves were already 10 games out of first.

Game 26 came at home vs. the woeful Phils, managed by Lee Elia and featuring past-their-prime stars like Mike Schmidt, Lance Parrish and Von Hayes. Kevin Gross, the Steve Trachsel of his day, faced off against Zane Smith, who would somehow win 15 games that year.

You can call me Al

Dion James, at .243, had the highest BA in the line-up for the Bravos. Murph stood at .234; Oberkfell, .219; Virgil, .197; Gant, .160. Against all odds, they jumped out to a 5-0 lead after 7.

And then blew it.

Smith loaded the bases with walks to Juan Samuel and Schmidt and a single by Parrish. He got Hayes to ground out to first, scoring one, then left the game after Mike Young hit an infield single.

Enter Bruce Sutter, with two on, one out and a 5-2 lead. After Milt Thompson walked, Chris James singled to close the lead to 5-3. Greg Gross popped to short, bringing (then-)light hitting catcher Darren Daulton to the plate with two outs and the tying runs aboard. Daulton, who would hit .208 that year with one homer, singled to left.

5-5, after 8.

Forty-one-year-old Kent Tekulve retired the Braves in order in the bottom of the 8th, and Paul Assenmacher did the same in the 9th, striking out Schmidt, Parrish and Hayes.

With two one and one out in the bottom half of the inning, Albert Hall stepped up to face Tekulve. Hall, who had entered the game as a pinch-runner for Ken Griffey Sr., singled to right, scoring Andres Thomas with the winning run.

Predictably, the Braves lost the following game. It would be two weeks before they’d put together consecutive wins, beating the Pirates and Cubs. Chuck Tanner would manage only one of those games. The local nine were 12-27 when they fired Tanner, who had a .424 winning percentage as Braves manager.

Good times.

The silver anniversary of rock bottom

When you finish 27 games behind the 5th place team in a 6-team division, you suck. Hard. And no Atlanta sports team — Falcons, Hawks, Flames, Thrashers, Dream, Chiefs, Knights, Crackers — sucked harder than the ’88 Braves.

The 4th Amigo

Despite a 92-loss season in ’87 the front office stood pat, trading for Terry Blocker (lifetime OPS: .509) and signing Juan Tyone Eichelberger and Lonnie Smith off the scrap heap.

Even perennially optimistic manager Chuck Tanner struck a realistic tone.

“It may be a long season, but it has to be done and I can do it. I’m going to do it,” Tanner told Furman Bisher. He was fired after 39 games.

After losing 15 of their last 18 spring games the Braves played host to the Cubs for the season opener at Fulco, where the bad omens outnumbered the fans.

Rick Mahler, who had not allowed a run in four previous Opening Day starts, surrendered four in 5 IP. Despite that the Braves still entered the 9th with a 2-run lead, which was promptly squandered by Bruce Sutter, pitching in his first game since May 1986.

Chicago won in 13, 10-9. The Braves would lose nine more before notching the first of 54 wins.

More memories of the worst season that ever was to come.

Next year’s silver anniversary

In 2012 we celebrated the 20th anniversary of Sid’s slide, and the 30th anniversary of the ’82 NL West champs.

Next year marks the 25th anniversary of the worst team Atlanta has ever seen, regardless of sport. Despite having 5 present, future or borderline Hall of Famers (Bruce Sutter, Glavine, Smoltz, Murph, Ted Simmons), the ’88 Braves lost 106 and should have lost more. They ranked next-to-last or last in the NL in:

  • Hits
  • Runs
  • BA
  • Slugging
  • OBP
  • ERA
  • CG
  • Saves
  • Hits Allowed
  • Fielding Percentage
  • Attendance

Four players batted under .200 (min. 50 AB): Jim Morrison, Jerry Royster, Simmons, Damaso Garcia

No Braves pitcher reached double digits in wins. Reliever Paul Assenmacher’s 8 wins were second only to Rick Mahler’s 9.

The ’88 Braves did lead the NL in one category: Errors. Their DP combo, Andres Thomas and Ron Gant, combined for 60.