Greatest Brave of Them All Turning 80

Henry Louis Aaron turns 80 on Wednesday. Steve Hummer wrote a nice piece on ajc.com to mark the occasion.

It’s not the definitive Aaron story, but it includes some good nuggets, including these:

Note to the generations of fans who never witnessed Aaron in a uniform: He did more than hit a baseball into the seats. He ranks third all-time in number of hits. First in RBIs, extra-base hits and total bases. Fourth in runs. Had three Gold Gloves.

…..Aaron hit more home runs off Drysdale (17) than any other pitcher. He hit .362 vs. Koufax, with a .647 slugging percentage. Had eight home runs and hit .288 lifetime against Marichal. He nicked Gibson for eight homers despite hitting just .215 off him. Hall of Famers all.

Happy Birthday, Hammer. You are and always will be The Greatest Brave of Them All.

‘We gonna fight tonight’

From the Office vault: 

I have to pass along this hilarious story I heard from a friend yesterday. I believe it to be on good authority.

A lot of you probably remember the June 16, 1984 brawl ignited when Mario Soto repeatedly brushed back Claudell. Claudell tossed his bat toward the mound, went to pick it up, and then turned toward Soto with malice in mind, and rightfully so. I didn’t remember this part, but according to Wikipedia , Claudell tossed umpire Lanny Harris to the ground to reach the Reds’ combustible hurler.

We still trust

I recall that Soto threw the ball at Claudell while he was being restrained, but hit Braves coach Joe Pignato instead.

All that’s pretty funny, but here’s the funnier part I just heard. That night was Ken Oberkfell’s first game as  a Brave. He’d been traded from St. Louis the day before. Rick Camp greeted Oberkfell when he arrived in the clubhouse. After pleasantries, Camp told him, in his Trion, Ga. accent, “We gonna fight tonight.”

Thinking he meant the two of them, Oberkfell asked why, as they had just met. Camp said no, there’ll be a brawl on the field because Mario Soto was pitching and “Claudell Washington hates Mario Soto.” Apparently, Camp, and presumably everyone on the Braves team, knew Soto would throw at Claudell at some point. He did, and they did fight.

The Bob Watson game, 30 years ago tonight

I was not among the 48,556 fans at Fulco on August 13, 1983, but I should’ve been. While my parents and a cousin enjoyed the best game of that season from field level seats behind first, I was participating in pious sing-a-longs. “God said, to No-ah, there’s gonna be a flood-y, flood-y …”

I had no idea what happened in Atlanta until returning home the next day. I was pissed I missed it but ecstatic with the win.

The Dodgers beat Pascual Perez to open the series, closing to within 5-1/2 games of the first-place Braves. Saturday night’s match-up favored the Bums, with a young Alejandro Pena facing journeyman Pete Falcone.

You forget how good a starter Pena was. In his first two complete MLB seasons, Big Al posted ERAs of 2.75 and 2.48, with 24 wins and seven shutouts.

On this night he coasted through the first five, allowing only one hit and one unearned run. Falcone struggled, failing to make it out of the fourth.

The Braves came to bat in the sixth trailing 6-1. Singles by Brett Butler and Rafael Ramirez stirred hope. Next up: In Claudell We Trust. Boom! Braves within two.

Enter Dave “Lucille” Stewart. After retiring Horner and Murphy, rookie Gerald Perry drilled a single to left. Glenn Hubbard followed with his 7th home run. 6-6. It stayed that way until the 9th.

Steve Bedrosian had struck out six of 10 hitters faced, allowing only a single and intentional walk. Up stepped rookie Greg Brock and his .220 BA. Bedrock grooved one, and Brock numbed the Fulco faithful.

The Dodgers took a  7-6 lead into the bottom of the 9th, with southpaw *Steve Howe on for the save. Following a duck snort by Raffy, #8 strode to the plate.

There wasn’t a better pinch hitter that year. Watson, acquired from the Yankees in 1982 for pitcher-turned-actor Scott Patterson (see, John Mullen wasn’t all bad), hit .407 off the bench, with two homers and 13 RBI.

One of those homers came 30 years ago tonight. Braves 8, Dodgers 7. The lead was 6.5 games.

Watson’s blast proved to be the highlight of the ’83 season. The local nine fell to Fernando Valenzuela in the rubber game of the Dodgers series, en route to a devastating 5-14 stretch. They’d end up losing the division (#*@! R.J. Reynolds!), though for one night they looked to be the best team in baseball.

Or so I was told.

*Howe’s career ended in 1996 when he was released by Yankees GM Bob Watson.

The golden anniversary of the greatest game ever pitched

Thanks to Chris Jaffe at Hardball Times for reminding me today is the 50th anniversary of the epic mound duel between Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal.

(excerpted from a 2011 Office remembrance) 

262. That’s how many pitches were thrown by 42-year-old Warren Spahn 48 years ago today. On the 262nd, Willie Mays homered to break a scoreless tie. In the bottom of the 16th.

“He ought to will his body to medical science,” said Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell, who was in attendance at Candlestick Park for the epic duel won by Juan Marichal, who hurled 16 shutout innings.

There were seven Hall of Famers on the field that day: Sphan, Marichal, Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Mays, Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda. Those five hitters were a combined 4-for-26 against the starting pitchers.

That may all sound impressive but, in Spahn’s case, it really wasn’t. The Buffalo-born southpaw recorded only two strikeouts, and, according to advanced metrics, he should’ve given up 6 runs and 18 hits.

What a joke. If Spahn, who averaged 4.4 K’s/9 innings in his career, pitched today he’d get zero respect from the statistically inclined.

Postscript: Five days later, Spahn shut out the Houston Colts. And yes, he went the distance.

The streakiest Braves team

The 2013 Braves are a much more talented version of the ’80 squad, the streakiest Braves team of them all.

Despite coming off yet another last-place finish, there was reason for optimism entering the season, Bobby’s third as Braves manager. Oft-maligned GM John Mullen had pulled off two shrewd deals, acquiring Doyle Alexander from Texas and Chris Chambliss from Toronto. I was thrilled by the Chambliss acquisition — a  guy with World Series rings was actually going to play for the Braves.

The offseason’s best move was switching Murph to the outfield from 1B, where he had committed 35 errors in 206 games. He was even worse as a catcher. Murph’s comfort in the OF translated to a breakout season at the plate, hitting 33 homers with an .858 OPS.

Teammate Bob Horner led the team with 35 homers, giving him 91 before his 23rd birthday. Glenn Hubbard and Bruce Benedict also showed promise, with Gary Matthews and Jeff Burroughs providing veteran ballast.

So, for the first time in nearly a decade, the Braves entered a season with hope. That lasted about a week.

The Braves didn’t score their first run in 1980 until the 7th inning of the third game. That’s a 25-inning streak of futility. The Braves had their first lead of the season, 4-1, heading to the bottom of the 7th in Cincy. The Reds scored 2 off Gene Garber but the good guys still led by 1 entering the bottom of the 9th.

Al Hrabosky, signed to a huge contract in the offseason despite struggling the previous year with the Royals, promptly blew his first save opportunity, thanks to a Dave Concepcion two-run, walk-off  homer. The next day, the Braves were shut out for the third time in four games.

Two losses in Houston followed. The Braves returned to Atlanta 0-6, having been outscored 36-10 on the road trip. Only 15,742 attended the home opener, a 4-1 loss to Cincy. Rick Matula’s only career shutout gave the Braves their first win in 8 tries, but they would lose the next two games to the Reds, dropping 8.5 games behind the division leaders after 10  games.

Bobby’s boys maintained an uninspiring pace over the next three months. A 5-3 loss to the Dodgers on Aug. 4 dropped them to a season-worst 12 games below .500. But what appeared to be another lost year took a most unexpected turn.

Over the next three weeks the Braves would score 7 or more runs 9 times, and on Aug. 27 they reached the .500 mark for the first time. Shortly thereafter they rolled off a season-best 7-game win streak, followed by a three-game sweep at the hands of the Reds, who would go 16-2 vs. the Braves that year.

The local nine rebounded to win four in a row, and a 2-1 victory over the Dodgers on Sept. 16 — their 30th win in 40 games — moved the Braves to within 6 of the division lead, at 76-68.

Alas, the faint whiff of a pennant race soon dissipated, as the Braves lost 11 of their last 15. The season would end as it started,  with  the Reds shutting out the local nine at Riverfront, leaving the Braves 81-80.

Meep meep!

Last night John Mayberry Jr. became only the fifth big leaguer t o hit 2 homers in extra innings.

Ralph Garr did it for the Braves on May 17, 1971, with the first homer coming in the 10th off Tom Seaver with 2 outs and the   good guys trailing 3-2. Two innings later, with the game still tied at 3, Garr won the game with another 2-out shot, this one off reliever Ron Taylor. He finished play with a .404 BA.

The Roadrunner was in his first season as a starter for the Braves. He’d go on to hit .343 with a .813 OPS, 30 SB and 15 assists. Garr played 800 games for Atlanta, hitting .317, before being traded following the ’75 season, with Sugar Bear Blanks, to the Pale Hose for Ken Henderson, Dick Ruthven and some guy named Ozzie Osborn.

39 years ago tonight

A 10-cent mistake at the Mistake by the Lake:  June 4, 1974

Aided by a poorly-considered purchase limit of six cups of beer at a time, many fans were already inebriated prior to first pitch, and a circus-like atmosphere prevailed. In the second inning, a woman jumped into the Indians’ on-deck circle and lifted her shirt. In the fourth, a completely naked man slid into second base while the Rangers’ Tom Grieve circled the bases after homering, and in the fifth, a father-son pair mooned the crowd after jumping over an outfield wall. Late in the game, fans climbed onto the field and pestered Rangers rightfielder Jeff Burroughs, some even shaking his hand.

Amid that chaos, Texas took a 5-3 lead into the bottom of the ninth, but Cleveland rallied for two runs via four consecutive hits off reliever Steve Foucault and a sacrifice fly. With two outs and two men still on base, Indians’ slugger Leron Lee (uncle of recent major leaguer Derrek Lee) never had a chance to drive in the winning run, because Cleveland fans pelted the field with golf balls, rocks and batteries, and some fan swiped Burroughs’ glove. When the rightfielder chased him back to the stands, people began swarming into the outfield, surrounding the Rangers’ star outfielder and ending any hope for the completion of the game.

Dodging several flying chairs, Texas manager Billy Martin grabbed a bat and led his team on a rescue mission to rightfield. “The bat showed up later and it was broken,” recalled Rangers player Mike Hargrove. Umpire Nestor Chylak, hit by both a chair and a rock, ruled that the game should be forfeited in favor of the Rangers. “They were just uncontrollable beasts,” said Chylak later of the crowd. “I’ve never seen anything like it except in a zoo.”

Raffy goes deep

Ten years after his first major league homer, Rafael Belliard went deep against the Mets’ Brian Bohannon for his only HR as a Brave after more than 1,200 AB’s. It came a month shy of his 35th birthday in what would be his next to last season with the local nine.

Too bad he didn’t hit it on May 7, 1991, when he fell just a HR shy of the cycle. Raffy drove in 5 that night vs. the Cardinals and followed that up with 2 doubles and 3 RBI in the finale of a two-game set at Fulco.

20 years ago, the Bravos signed the best pitcher we’ll ever see

“This one hurts,” said Gene Michael, the general manager of the Yankees, who did manage to trade for Jim Abbott on Sunday. “He’s the best one out there. I never thought I could say this. But he’s a steal at $28 million. He’s a steal.”

Needless to say, Stick was right.

I remember where I was when Mad Dog signed: Atkins Park on Highland Ave., with CD. We were stunned, because, as you recall, JS liked to operate under the radar, and Barry Bonds was his supposed target.

Instead, the premier rotation in baseball got better, and for $6 million less than the Yankees offered. Maddux wanted to win, and in December 1992 the Braves afforded him the best opportunity.

How times have changed.

Paul Assenmacher w/ a bad attitude

Actually, that’s not fair to Assenmacher, who was better than Al Hrabosky, at least as a Brave. And he was more affordable than the Mad Hungarian, signed to a ridiculous (at its time) 5-year, $2.2 million contract prior to the 1980 season.

Geno flopped as the Braves closer in ’79, but Hrabosky wasn’t much better for the Royals. He had a 1.662 WHIP and saw his strikeouts drop from 60 to 39. But Ted liked personalities and was willing to overspend to get one.

Unfortunately, jerks don’t sell tickets, and neither do middling set-up men. Three Braves had more saves than Hrabosky in 1980, including the late Larry Bradford. Hrabosky was released halfway through his contract and never pitched in the majors again.

His two most memorable moments as a Brave say it all:

Nicknames couldn’t save the ’76 Braves

Leave it to Ted Turner to attempt to profit from nicknames. The erstwhile tycoon probably needed the dough, having just purchased the laughingstock of the NL, fresh off a 67-win season. The ’75 Braves weren’t just bad, they were boring, drawing only 534, 672 fans .

Ted made a big splash in 1976, signing baseball’s first free agent, Andy Messersmith, to a $1.4 million contract (including a signing bonus). As you know, Ted also owned Channel 17. Not coincidentally, Messersmith was assigned #17 and a new nickname: Channel, which was sewn onto the back of his uniform.

For the sake of legitimacy, all Braves had monikers affixed to those fantastic red pinstriped unis, though Commissioner Bowie Kuhn eventually forced the team to ditch the sobriquets. Fortunately  someone took photos.

(pictured: Messersmith, Jim “Cannon” Wynn — who led the ’76 Braves with 17 HR and 66 RBI — and Jerry “J.Bird” Royster)

The 2 best games by an Atlanta Brave

They belong to one player — not Hank, Chipper or Mad Dog, but a good ole’ boy with a  career 4.07 ERA.

They occurred during the Braves’ inaugural season in Atlanta, one in which Tony Cloninger would lead all NL pitchers with 116 BB. Overall, a forgettable year, save for those two games that are the envy of every Brave. Hell, Babe Ruth would be jealous.

The Braves tallied 17 runs in each. Of the 34 runs scored, 14 were driven in by Cloninger.

You’ve probably read about the second of those contests. Cloninger set three records that afternoon in San Fran, becoming the first National League player to hit two grand slams in a game and the only pitcher ever to do so. And no pitcher has ever driven in 9 RBI in a game, as Cloninger did that day.

The first game, roughly three weeks earlier, previewed what was to come. Cloninger, who started the night with a .121 BA, collected three hits, including two homers, driving in 5. He didn’t pitch badly, either, going the distance, just as he would on July 3.

To sum up:

10 AB, 4 homers, 6 hits, 14 RBI

18 IP, 12 HA, 4 ER, 2 wins

The 10 best Atlanta Braves trades (revised)

10. Bobby/Gerald Perry and Jim LeMasters to Kansas City for Charlie Leibrandt and Rick Luecken. Charlie was the steadying veteran influence the Braves’ young rotation needed in the early 90s, especially in ’91, when he won 15 games and pitched 229 innings. In three years as a Brave Leibrandt won 39 with a 3.35 ERA. Perry batted .255 over the rest of his career and topped 50 RBI in a season just once.

9. Frank Wren/Jordan Schafer, Brett Oberholtzer, Paul Clemens and Juan Abreu for Michael Bourn. What was the difference between the Braves offense in the first half of the season compared to the second? Michael Bourn. As he went so went the Braves, and, assuming he signs elsewhere, his speed and defense will be sorely missed. Each of the prospects shipped to Houston regressed in 2012.

8. JS/Jimmy Kremers and Keith Morrison to Montreal for Otis Nixon and Boi Rodriguez. A 31-year-old career fourth outfielder before coming to the Braves, Otis emerged as an Atlanta folk hero, stealing 72 bases in ’91 with a career-best .371 OBP. Kremers never played a game for the Expos.

7. JS/Joe Roa and Tony Castillo to the Mets for Alejandro Pena. Without Big Al the ’91 miracle doesn’t happen.

6. John Mullen/Barry Bonnell, Joey McLaughlin and Pat Rockett to Toronto for Chris Chambliss and Luis Gomez. Chambliss was to the batting order in the early 80s what Leibrandt would be to the pitching staff a decade later. See, John Mullen wasn’t all bad.

5. JS/FW (tie) Andy Marte to Boston for Edgar Renteria; Edgar to Detroit for Jair Jurrjens and Gorkys Hernandez. In two seasons with the Braves Edgar hit .310. Then he turned into Neifi Perez. Though he’s about to be non-tendered, JJ’s contributions (50 wins, 3.58 ERA) should not be overlooked.

4. JS/Roberto Kelly, Tony Tarasco and Esteban Yan to Montreal for Marquis Grissom. For two part-time OF’s and a future “Simpsons” punch line the Braves received a two-time Gold Glove winner, clutch hitter and clubhouse leader.

3. JS/Donnie Elliott, Vince Moore and Melvin Nieves for Fred McGriff. If I need to elaborate you’re reading the wrong blog.

2. JS/Juan Cruz, Dan Meyer and Charles Thomas to Oakland for Tim Hudson. I place this deal ahead of the heralded McGriff trade because Huddy has spent 8 mostly productive seasons in Atlanta; the Crime Dog was a Brave for just five seasons.

The Cardinals gave up Dan Haren to acquire Mark Mulder, who, like Huddy, was dealt by the A’s following the ’04 season. Haren has won 113 games since the trade; Mulder, 12. Huddy has 105 wins with the Braves despite missing the equivalent of a full season. Cruz can be found in Webster’s under journeyman reliever while Meyer, with 3 wins and a 5.46 ERA to his credit, last pitched in the majors in 2010. Meanwhile, Charlie’s post-Atlanta BA was .100.

1. Bobby/Doyle Alexander for John Smoltz. One of the 10 best trades in baseball history, IMHO.

Honorable mention:

JS/Horacio Ramirez to Seattle for Rafael Soriano. BMF was a decent closer and a helluva set-up man, while Horacio devolved into the worst pitcher in baseball post-Atlanta — 9-13, 6.32 ERA, 1.728 WHIP.

JS/John Rocker and Troy Cameron to the Indians for Steve(s) Karsay and Reed. The two relievers were merely adequate with the Braves but this deal stands out because it rid the team of its biggest asshole, a clubhouse cancer with a dying arm.

John Mullen/Larry McWilliams to the Pirates for Pascual Perez and Carlos Rios. Despite his atrocious ’85 campaign (1-13, 6.14 ERA), Pascual finished his Braves career with a winning record and sub-4.00 ERA. After missing the ’86 season, I-285 returned to post a 2.80 ERA and 1.025 ERA over his next three years with Montreal.

FW/Casey Kotchman for Adam LaRoche. Rochey spearheaded a spirited run to the playoffs in ’09, hitting .325 with a .957 OPS in 57 games. Hope Casey speaks Japanese.

FW/Jose Ascanio to the Cubs for Omar Infante and Will Ohman. Two useful pieces for the poor man’s Manny Acosta.

FW/Jon Gilmore, Santos Rodriguez, Tyler Flowers and Brent Lillibridge to the White Sox for Boone Logan and Javier Vazquez (238 K’s and 44 BB in 219 IP).

JS/Damian Moss and Merkin Valdez to San Francisco for Russ Ortiz. The Braves squeezed every last bit of ability from Ortiz, who won 36 during his two-year stint in A-town. Moss would win only 10 more games with an ERA above five after leaving the Braves while Valdez has spent as much time on the DL as he has on the field.

JS/Ricardo Rodriguez to Kansas City for Matty D, who hit .299 as a Brave.

FW/Todd Redmond to Cincy for Paul Janish. Offensively, he’s another Paul Zuvella. But without Janish’s steady glove the Braves would’ve struggled to make the playoffs this year.

JS/Brian Jordan, Odalis Perez and Andrew Brown to LA for Gary Sheffield. Shef was a beast — in the regular season — compiling a .974 OPS in two years. But I’ll never forgive him for the 2002 NLDS:

Last fall, Sheffield became so emotionally involved with Barry Bonds trying to end his October blues that he turned himself into a pumpkin in the playoffs. …

“I still went out there playing hard, but I kept focusing on him, ” said Sheffield, who had spent the offseason working out with Bonds. “It didn’t help that he was at my house during the playoffs. So, I knew the persona he was putting out was wrong. He kept saying he didn’t care [about his October demons], but it killed him. He never thought in a million years he’d get by the Braves.”

Shef had one hit — a single — in that 5-game series against the Giants. He batted .100 with no extra base hits in 10 playoffs games as a Brave.