April 25, 2016
Why Would Anybody Watch the Braves?
If you were in the Atlanta area on Sunday, you could have seen matinee performances of ‘Dream Girls’ (at the Cobb Civic Center in Marietta) or ‘Ragtime’ (at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center). You could have attended an Italian Film Festival at the Plaza Theatre, or the Sweetwater 420 Festival in Centennial Olympic Park, where the craft beer was flowing and live music played. It was a free entrance day at several National Parks, including nearby Chattahoochee Park. Instead of pursuing any of those opportunities, 32,085 people bought tickets to see the Braves host the Mets, and I’m writing this article just to ask a simple question: Why?
Why, when the Braves started 4-13 in their final season as true residents of Atlanta, rather than white suburbia, keep throwing good money after very, very bad? Why, when this team’s upper management threw a temper tantrum over a bad month and a half in late 2014 and traded away nearly all of what was a tremendous, successful core of exciting young players, place any faith in their current plan to stomach years of losing in the hope of building another such core? Why, when this team is going nowhere this season and benefits far more from losing than from winning, go to the park and implore them to do the latter?
Fredi Gonzalez is still the manager of the Braves. This is a fun fact more fascinating and improbable than Elias Sports Bureau’s best nugget. Gonzalez, who has never figured out how to run a big-league bullpen, who failed to get the most out of the terrific collection of talent he inherited (which GM Frank Wren even built impressively upon, before the 2014 collapse and subsequent ownership knee jerk that ended in his ouster), and who all but gave away the 2013 Division Series even when things were good, would have been fired by every other organization in baseball by now. The Braves, though, are kings of blaming labor for management’s missteps, and the fact that the team jettisoned Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, and Andrelton Simmons instead of looking at the man in charge is only one piece of supporting evidence for that. Remember, John Schuerholz, the Braves’ team president, has long been one of the most ardent proponents of rules that limit the earning potential of star players and amateurs alike, and is known for his insistence upon winning (or losing) within strict budgetary constraints. The former is a moral problem; the latter is a practical one. And having a disinterested corporate owner has only allowed the Braves to hide even more behind fraudulent payroll restrictions.
Speaking of fraudulence and the Braves’ ownership, this team will be playing in Cobb County next season, in a ballpark they forced through the political approval process, a ballpark that will be built with substantial public funding. They’ll leave behind a ballpark barely 20 years old, one in which they could have thrived for years more, but they found a shortcut to a sweet deal, and they took it. They shrugged off any negative publicity that drew, because they have a lot of practice at shrugging off perfectly legitimate criticism. These are still the Braves, after all, and whereas the Indians have at least had the common decency to act quietly ashamed of Chief Wahoo and their offensive caricature of a logo, the Braves not only plan to keep their name, but still feature their tomahawk on their uniforms. They still play the hideous Tomahawk Chop at Braves games, and indeed, it even played as the Braves tried to come back from down 3-1 against the Mets on Sunday. In fact, as the rally built, it was played several times, and the few miserable saps still stuck inside Turner Field got pretty into it.
Yes, the Braves almost came back, although it never felt much like they were about to tie or win the game. This is a team that hasn’t homered since April 10th, has only homered three times all season. With Jeurys Familia on the mound, Kelly Johnson and Jeff Francoeur (which, no, really, the Braves have decided that the late 2000s were secretly their glory days, so they’ve brought two key contributors to those 90-loss teams back to bask) managed opposite-field singles. Then Nick Markakis, the token free-agent signee from the winter of 2014-15, the guy the team brought in because he’s from Georgia and the MLBPA would have been tapping Rob Manfred on the shoulder if the Braves hadn’t boosted their payroll a bit, hit a weak, lousy grounder to shortstop, one hit so slowly that Asdrubal Cabrera had to charge in and try (in vain, as it turned out) to pick it up on the run, barehanded. With two outs and two on, with one run in and the tying tally two bases away, the Braves sent up their no. 2 hitter: Daniel Castro.
If you don’t know who Castro is, don’t worry, it’s not important. The Braves have just stuffed him into their lineup to fill space, to kill the time between the offseason departure of Simmons in trade and the maybe-imminent arrival of either Ozhaino Albies or Dansby Swanson. Castro is young and versatile and can field decently, but has no skills befitting a key part of a big-league lineup. Yet, there he was, sandwiched between Markakis and Freddie Freeman, the Braves’ last hope of a comeback.
He grounded out. Obviously. The Braves fell to 4-14, and even though Aaron Blair debuted and pitched fairly well, even though the Braves are selling themselves as the next Cubs or Astros, even though they have a deep and talented farm system they’ve assembled through earnest tanking and premature disassembly of a solid, contending team, I have to think that nearly all of those 32,000 people walked out wondering why they had bothered. If a team would rather start from scratch than weather a single season of adversity with one of the better collections of young talent in recent memory, would rather cry poor and fight to keep money out of the pockets of teenagers than be glad of their ever-greener pocket lining, would rather move to the suburbs and serve certain fans than stay put and be part of the community of which they were an important part not that long ago, then why bother? Maybe the Braves will be great in 2018, or 2019, or 2020. If and when they are, the moves they have made over the last year and a half will look smart. In isolation, to the credit of John Hart and John Coppolella, most of those moves have been smart. Even if that happens, though, count me among those who won’t forget the cynicism, fraud, greed, and indifference demonstrated by the entire franchise since the end of the 2014 season, and who will certainly remember deflating, depressing games like Sunday’s.