Members of the Atlanta Braves Caravan talk with fans during a stop on their tour at Wild Wing Cafe Feb. 11, 2010, in downtown Spartanburg, S.C. Photo by: Tom Priddy/Four Seam Images

Dead at 29

Tommy Hanson, pronounced dead Monday of catastrophic organ failure,  had 10 wins and a 2.44 ERA through 17 starts in the 2011 season, his third with the Braves. If you had asked me then where Hanson would be today I would’ve probably guessed New York or Los Angeles or some other big-market team that could afford his special talent. Certainly not Atlanta.

But a bum shoulder derailed those expectations. Hanson was traded to Anaheim, where he struggled mightily in 2013. That year was made tougher by the sudden death of his stepbrother. Hanson pitched in the White Sox and Giants organizations the last two years but was unable to make it back to the majors.

He was supposed to be in his prime, having just turned 29 years old.

Just a sad, sad story.

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The ‘Latin Jackie Robinson’ among Cooperstown’s biggest oversights

Orestes “Minnie” Minoso was the player Roberto Clemente wanted to be, said Hall of Famer, and former Brave, Orlando Cepeda.

“(He) was the Jackie Robinson for all Latinos; the first star who opened doors for all Latin American players,” said Puerto Rican native and future Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda. “He was everybody’s hero.”

Minoso died Saturday at age 90 (though many believe he was two years older). I remember him as the 54-year-old who received two at bats in 1980, one of Bill Veeck’s publicity stunts that some say hurt Minoso’s chances at getting in the Hall of Fame.

That would be a foolish reason to exclude a player as deserving as the Cuban-born Minoso, who fashioned a career .848 OPS, one that would’ve likely been higher had he not been excluded from the major leagues in his early 20s. Bill James ranked Minoso as the 10th best left fielder of all time, and there wasn’t a tool he didn’t possess, winning three Gold Gloves, stealing 20 or more bases four times and posting an OBP above .400 six times.

His best season, in 1954, was sublime: 29 doubles, 18 triples, 19 HR, 116 RBI, 18 SB, .320 BA, .411 OBP, .535 slugging. And he was consistent, finishing in the Top 5 in MVP voting four times.

The numbers should be enough to place Minoso in the HOF. His cultural significance, both as a Latin pioneer and the first black player for either Chicago team, should guarantee it.

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RIP Jose Martinez, baseball lifer and helluva guy

I met Jose Martinez while on a freelance assignment at the Braves Dominican Academy in San Francisco de Marcoris. We rendezvoused at the airport in Santo Domingo, with our first stop coming a few miles down the road at a convenience “shack” to get a Presidente beer, the Budweiser of the Dominican. Before long Jose was regaling me with stories of a life in baseball, from his time as a reserve infielder with the Pirates in the late 1960s to stints as a coach with the Royals and Cubs.

Before finishing that first Presidente he was telling me about a night out on the town with Dock Ellis during Spring Training in Bradenton. Jose was hazy on the details but remembered waking up on the beach, in Ellis’ car. He was exactly what I had hoped he’d be: Funny, profane and eager to share.

Jose played with Clemente and Stargell, tried to restrain George Brett during the Pine Tar game and coached under Don Zimmer. For the last 20 years he worked for the Braves as a special assistant to the GM. You probably never heard of him but his importance to the franchise shouldn’t be underestimated.

Jose had an eye for talent — he was excited for me to watch 17-year-old Neftali Feliz throw. “Look at his hands — those are Pedro (Martinez) hands,” he said.

But as Mark Bowman wrote today, “Martinez’s greatest value came via his ability to relate and communicate with the Minor League players as they adjusted to life in professional baseball.” Jose’s job was to help acclimate the team’s Latin prospects to Major League Baseball and life in the U.S., and he was perfectly suited for it. We attended a Winter League game and visited both clubhouses. Jose seemed to know every player in there, from Pedro Feliz to Edwin Encarnacion. It was obvious they all liked, and respected, Jose.

Lucky for me, as I somehow got separated from Jose at the end of the game and had no ride back to the motel, a good 10 miles away. I hitched a ride with Tony Pena Jr. and Willy Mo Pena (talk about big hands). Luis Polonia’s daughter, a knockout, by the way, was there too. They didn’t know me, of course, but I knew Jose and that was good enough for them.

You couldn’t help but like the guy. I laughed a lot that week and learned a good deal about baseball. Jose loved the sport and those who played it — with a few notable exceptions. Discussing a certain relief pitcher who came to the Braves at the trading deadline the season before, only to cough up a huge lead in the deciding game of the NLDS against Houston, Jose said, “I knew that el cono would blow it.” I’ll let you look up el cono.

Jose, a native Cuban, was 72. I was lucky to spend a few days with him.

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RIP Gerbil

Don Zimmer, who spent 65 years in professional baseball, never had a job outside of the game. If that’s not living a dream I don’t know what is.

Here’s one of Zim’s more animated moments, as third base coach for the Little Bears, arguing a home run call (just past 2 min. mark). He gets so agitated he has to stop and catch his breath. Bonus: A cogent Harry Caray narrates.

 

R.I.P. Rick Camp

Dead of natural causes. Here’s a story I wrote for the local organ remembering Rick Camp’s most iconic moment as a Brave:

“I thought it was the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse,” she said — a sight no less likely than a Rick Camp home run.

No one was much surprised that the Braves lost — a common occurrence in the 1980s.

“If we have to rely on me to hit a home run to win a game, we’re in bad shape,” Camp said afterward.

RIP Earl Williams

Earl Williams, who at 22 was named 1971 NL Rookie of the  Year, died today after a bout with acute leukemia. He was 64.

Williams was one of five Atlanta Braves — along with Kimbrel, Fukey, Justice and Horner — to win ROY. Although Justice and Horner had better overall seasons, and fewer AB’s, Williams’ 33 HR and 87 are tops among Atlanta Braves rookies.

Remarkably, Williams’ rookie season also marked his debut as a catcher. The former corner infielder started 71 games behind the plate, and though he had 15 passed balls he threw out 27 percent of runners trying to steal.

The Society for American Baseball Research has an interesting overview of Williams’s career.

Productivity at catcher was a huge problem for the 1971 Braves. Both Bob Didier and Hal King were exceptionally weak hitters, and on June 20, Manager Lum Harris came to Williams and stunningly announced, “You’re my catcher.” Earl had no preparation for becoming a full time catcher in the Major Leagues, his May 23 appearance being his lone time behind the plate. His attitude toward catching would be a subject of controversy over his career. At the time of the move, Williams was ambivalent: “It’s okay… but I play where they put me.”

Williams told Sport Magazine in 1972, “My favorite position is batter,” and he played it well in 1971. On April 16 against the Phillies, Earl hit a two-run single for an 8-7 Braves victory, and the next day had the first of his five two-home run games of the season. On June 13, Williams had two three-run homers against the Astros, and on July 7 Earl pounded the Phillies again, this time with two home runs off of Barry Lersch. He won August player of the month honors in a media poll. For the year Earl had 33 homers and 87 RBI (fifth best in the NL), along with a respectable .260 average.

His fielding as a novice catcher was seen as remarkable at the time. Phil Niekro marveled at Earl’s ability to catch his knuckler, saying he caught as if he’d been “playing it for ten years.” Honey Russell said that Earl “isn’t far behind Johnny Bench as a catcher defensively.” In the Braves report in The Sporting News on July 24, Braves pitchers were quoted as saying Earl is “smart and calls a good game.” Also, his strong arm from his schoolboy pitching days served Williams well behind the plate. Earl himself would only offer that he had “plenty of room for improvement.”

He followed up his rookie season with 28 HR and 87 RBI but was traded, along with the Braves’ first round draft pick in  ’71, Taylor Duncan, for Pat Dobson, Davey Johnson, Johnny Oates and Roric Harrison.

He was traded back to the Braves in ’75 but wasn’t the same. Williams’ big league career was over at age 29.

Earl Williams, 1971 NL Rookie of the Year, had a life and career of dramatic swings. His power numbers for his first three years were first rate, but his pugnacious nature and willingness to speak out were constant trouble during his career. After 1980 he never played professional ball again. As he said in a Braves publication in 1976, “unusual things happen to me.”

NPR’s “All Things Considered” also has an interesting feature on Williams, from 2011.

R.I.P. Dan Roundfield

Dan Roundfield, arguably the best pure power forward in Atlanta Hawks history, drowned Monday off the coast of Aruba. He made three All-Star teams as a Hawk and was a regular on the NBA’s All-Defensive squad. Roundfield averaged 10 rebounds or better in each of his seasons in Atlanta and was a decent scorer, as well, averaging better than 17 points a game.

Munson the Brave

Before he became a Bulldog, Larry Munson was, briefly, a voice of the Braves. If only he had stayed and Milo Hamilton left.

Wouldn’t you have loved to hear Larry call Hank’s 715th?

Munson, who said baseball was his favorite sport, reminded me of Jack Buck, and I love Jack Buck. I can easily imagine Larry telling listeners to “go crazy, folks, go crazy” or say “I don’t believe what I just saw” and mean it.

Munson, Ernie, Skip and Pete would’ve been a helluva foursome. Now I’m being greedy.

The first year the Braves were in Atlanta, the television broadcasts were on WSB-TV. An occasional guest color commentator was former major leaguer Dizzy Dean. One memorable Friday night that first year during a rain delay, Dean warbled several verses of the Wabash Cannonball and purchased peanuts from a vendor in the stands, much to Munson’s on-air amusement.


A phenom’s plight

Old school Braves fans probably remember Hank Small, an Atlanta native and University of South Carolina legend once primed for stardom.

The big first baseman hit 25 homers, drove in 101 runs and hit .289 for the Richmond Braves in 1978. With Murph alternating between first and catcher, showing little aptitude for both, there seemed to be an opening for Small in Atlanta. The Braves opted for a retread instead (via The State):

Atlanta’s decision to go with free-agent first baseman Mike Lum at the expense of Small weighed on Small for years. Some say Small never sorted out all the questions and never found answers to why Atlanta ultimately shunned a hometown hero.

After a disappointing year back in Richmond, Small asked the Braves for his release. His baseball career was over at 25, with only four major league AB’s to show for it. He’d later find work as a groundskeeper at the same field, Chastain Park, where he was once a star.

He recently became engaged to Jennifer Strauss. A week ago Sunday the couple moved into what Strauss described as Small’s “dream house.” Two days later, Small fell on the front steps to the house, and he never regained consciousness.

Small was 56 when he died last March. I just discovered it tonight, hence the post.