The Braves have been a big part of Brian McCann's life long before he became their starting catcher midway through the 2005 season. McCann grew in the Atlanta area, idolizing players like Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, and Chipper Jones, doing the tomahawk chop and watching his favorite team win one division title after another until the streak of post-season appearances reached a record 14 in a row.
The Braves have now gone four seasons in a row without getting into the postseason. From a historical perspective, that short of a drought is insignificant. However to a guy who grew up thinking that the hometown team playing into October was a birthright, it seems as though it has been forever since the Braves were painfully eliminated from the National League Division Series in his rookie season on an 18th-inning home run by the Astros' Chris Burke.
"It's been a long time since we've been to the playoffs and I think it's time we get back there," McCann said. "When you play for the Braves, you have a lot of pride. You expect to be a contender every year, to get to the playoffs ever year. I really believe we have the team that can do it this year. It's the best team we've had, top to bottom, in the last couple of years."
McCann then paused as he stood in the Braves' spring training clubhouse at ESPN's Wide World of Sports and smiled. He then pointed toward the manager's office, saying, "We've got extra motivation this year. We want to get that man back to the playoffs where he deserves to be. We can't let his career end in a regular-season game. Ideally, his last game would be us winning the World Series."
McCann was referring to Bobby Cox, who will retire at the end of this season following 21 consecutive seasons on the job of skippering the Braves, and 29 overall. Considering that the Braves train on the grounds of Disney World, where dreams are purported to come true and consumers are separated from many of their dollars, perhaps it would be fitting that a journey to the franchise's first World Series title would begin here. As McCann said, it would be a magical way for the fourth-winningest manager and one of the game's most-liked figures to end his career.
"Winning the World Series is the goal every year," Jones, the veteran third baseman, said. "It's not an easy goal to reach as we've found out many times over the years. But it you were allowed to pick one year where you could win it, this would be the one we'd all pick. Obviously, we all want to one for Bobby. He's like your favorite grandfather who slips you a $20 bill when you're a kid. Everyone loves him."
Whether the Braves can win it all is a matter of debate, especially playing in the National League East with the two-time defending league champion Phillies. The Braves, though, feel their starting rotation is the deepest since the heyday of the Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz triumvirate, even after trading Javier Vazquez to the Yankees over the winter for Melky Cabrera, who will play left field.
The lineup has questions, particularly since Troy Glaus is being counted on to not only bounce back after being limited to 32 plate appearances with the Cardinals last season while recovering from shoulder surgery, but to make the transition from third baseman to first baseman. The Braves also have to decide whether to make 20-year-old rookie phenom Jason Heyward their right fielder or send him to the minor leagues to keep his service time down. Look for common sense to win out and Heyward to be in the lineup when the Braves host the Cubs on April 5 in the opener. Heyward has been the talk of Florida all spring with his monstrous batting practice home runs. He also shows great maturity at the plate as he refuses to chase bad pitches, even those that are just borderline balls.
"He's unbelievable," Braves center fielder Nate McLouth said. "You watch him play and see the kind of talent he has, and it's amazing."
Ask Cox about his impending retirement, and he changes the subject to Heyward. "I've had my share of good players, but never a rookie quite like this kid," the skipper said.
It's not that Cox doesn’t understand the question or is being rude. He has never been one to talk about himself and is that isn't going to change in his farewell season.
"If you're going to write a story about us, you should write a story about Heyward or our team," Cox said in his grandfatherly way, giving advice without being pushy or, unfortunately, slipping the reporter a $20. "They're more interesting than me. I'm no big deal. I don't even think about it being last year. Maybe with a week or so to go in the season I'll get a little sentimental. Right now, I'm too excited thinking about our ballclub can do this year."
When Cox's comments are relayed to McCann, he shakes his head in the affirmative. Cox's humbleness and refusal to take credit for the Braves' success is what has made him such an endearing figure in his clubhouse and throughout baseball.
"He'll always tell you the only reason he has won so much is because he's had good players," McCann said. "Nobody should discount the impact he has made on this franchise, though. He's one of the greatest mangers of all-time, the record shows it, and I'm sure, deep down, he knows it. I think when he goes home to his farm after the season ends and it sinks in that he is retired, he's going to think about what he's accomplished and he's going to feeling pretty darned good about it."
The manager who ranks just ahead of Cox on the all-time victories list in third place also might call it a career after this season. The Cardinals' Tony La Russa has been threatening to retire for a few years, and is non-committal about staying beyond 2010.
"All I'm thinking about is this year," La Russa said. "Once this year is over, then we'll see about next year."
Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. was willing to sign La Russa to a multi-year contract during the offseason but was turned down. DeWitt said he would love for La Russa to stay with the Cardinals indefinitely. However, DeWitt also understands La Russa might be tiring of the demands of the job as this is he in his 32nd season as a major-league manager, including his 15th with the Cardinals.
"At this stage of his career, Tony's accomplished so much he doesn't want to think long-term," DeWitt told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Joe Strauss. "He's not going to manage forever. He wants to go when he's ready to not manage. I hope that's not in the near future but you just don't know."
While the Cardinals appear to be the solid favorite in the NL Central, DeWitt isn't counting his playoff money yet. However, he does feel good about the club following an offseason in which he shed the perception of being a frugal owner by giving GM John Mozeliak the go-ahead to re-sign left fielder Matt Holliday to an eight-year, $120-million contract.
"We have that potential to win again but potential is one thing and doing it is another," DeWitt said. "I really don't pay attention to predictions that say we're going to win or finish second or third. The game is too uncertain. I just feel we're well-positioned going into the season with a great chance to win a lot of games. We have a very good club. We should have a great opportunity if things fall into place."
DeWitt said the Cardinals were more willing to spend more over the winter because their season attendance of 3.43 million in 2009 exceeded their projections by more than almost 650,000. The Cardinals budgeted for this season with the idea they will draw 3.2 million fans.
Continuing on the subject of managers, baseball is still buzzing about Ron Washington's admission that past week that he used cocaine last season. Washington claims he only used the drug on one occasion, but informed Rangers management and Major League Baseball once he learned he was scheduled for a yearly random drug test that all managers and coaches are subjected to under MLB rules.
If that story coming out of the blue wasn't enough, making it stranger were reports that a disgruntled former Rangers employee leaked news of Washington's confidential admission to the media as a form of blackmail. Apparently, the ex-employee wanted a strong recommendation for another job in baseball or threatened to go to the media with the information about Washington. The Rangers denied the report.
"To my knowledge there was nothing made in reference to Ron's situation," club president Nolan Ryan said. "I don't know of any kind of threat that was made against him or his situation."
Washington immediately moves to the top of the list of managers on the hot seat to start the season. Ryan is not Washington's biggest fan. Furthermore, the Hall of Fame pitcher had the look of a man with a severe case of indigestion when he met with the media to discuss Washington's situation.
Pittsburgh sports attorney Chuck Greenberg, who is waiting to take over ownership of the club from Tom Hicks, would have the opportunity to bring in his own manager if the Rangers get off to a bad start. One name to remember should that happen is Brewers hitting coach Dale Sveum, who managed the Pirates' Double-A Altoona affiliate when Greenberg owned that Eastern League franchise. Sveum's no-nonsense approach would dovetail quite well with Ryan's old-school ways.
When the Mariners improved their record by 24 wins last season to 85-77, GM Jack Zduriencik and manager Don Wakamatsu, both in their first seasons, deservedly got much of the credit. However, some plaudits also should go to pitching coach Rick Adair as the Mariners' 3.95 runs allowed a game led the American League. Adair seems to have found a home with the Mariners after being fired as the pitching coach by the Indians and Tigers.
"The thing about Rick, and he'll be the first to admit it, he's been through so much," Wakamatsu told the Seattle Times' Larry Stone. "He was a young pitching coach in the majors, two different stints. You talk about maturity of pitchers; I think there's a maturity of coaches, too. Outside of him being an extremely intelligent pitching coach mechanically, I think last year he focused just as much or more on the personality of a pitcher. A case in point would be Felix (Hernandez). There's a great bond there. I think the other word is trust. I think all the pitchers trust him because of his demeanor."
A little-known fact is that Adair is the great nephew of the late Art Fowler, who was Billy Martin's pitching coach and running mate with the Twins, Tigers, Rangers, Yankees, and Athletics. When Fowler would return home to Spartanburg, S.C., in the offseason, he and his nephew would discuss pitching. Adair uses two of the principles he learned during those conversations.
"A lot of things he told me have come to fruition," Adair said. "The first thing he said was you've got to get players to like you. I totally disagreed with that initially. I don't think he meant in terms of being friends. You have to build a relationship. The other thing that really made a lot of sense, he said, 'Don't pitch until you have to.' What he means by that, there's a lot of guys that go out from pitch No. 1 thinking they have to set hitters up and do this and do that. A lot of times, if you're commanding, you don't have to really set guys up. You just get them out."
MLB Rumors and Rumblings: Carlos Monasterios, selected from the Phillies in the Rule 5 draft, has gotten into the running for the Dodgers' fifth starter's job, joining left-hander Eric Stults, knuckleballer Charlie Haeger, and retreads Ramon Ortiz and Russ Ortiz. There is the talk the Dodgers might also trade for Yankees right-hander Sergio Mitre in exchange for New York having the right to send outfielder Jamie Hoffman, another Rule 5 selection, to their own minor leagues. …. The Rockies appear to be the frontrunners to sign free-agent left-handed reliever Joe Beimel, though the Mets are also in pursuit. The Mets also seem the most likely team to trade for Red Sox corner infielder Mike Lowell, with the idea of playing him at first base. The Twins, Brewers, and Marlins also have some degree of interest in Lowell. … The Cubs and Diamondbacks have interest in Boof Bonser, who is unlikely to make the Red Sox pitching staff and is out of minor-league options. … The Mariners plan to keep right-handed reliever Kaneoka Texeira, a Rule 5 pick and cousin of Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino, rather than offer him back to the Yankees. … Angels pitcher Jeff Weaver is trying to learn a two-seam fastball from new rotation mate Joel Pineiro in an effort to induce more ground balls.