The view from the loge level this week has us seated in Atlanta. We’re not in Turner Field, though the Braves will grow roots there over the next month, with 21 of their next 29 on the corner of Georgia Avenue and Hank Aaron Drive. Instead our view is from Fulton County Stadium, aka the Launching Pad or the ‘Original’ Chop Shop. Your usher is one of my mentors and a man who taught the South and a nation about baseball, Braves Hall of Famer Pete Van Wieren. I was fortunate enough to be on the ‘listening-end’ of many great tales the legendary broadcaster shared with his much younger colleague, and a few times these stories managed to be documented. Most of you know at least a few of the details of these occurrences, but here are a handful of Braves’ memories through Pete’s eyes.
In our advanced media consumption world of ESPN, Fox Sports, Fox Sports 1, MLB Network, mlb.tv, etc., imagine the thoughts of a broadcaster in the mid-1970s when he realized that he would be calling games not in Atlanta, nor Georgia, but nationwide as his boss Ted Turner turned a local UHF channel into Superstation TBS and beamed it coast-to-coast into everyone’s home. The network’s most dependable daily program: the Atlanta Braves.
“We really didn’t have any expectation at all. A lot of people thought he was crazy doing that. Who was going to watch an Atlanta station around the country? As more and more cable systems signed up, we started seeing more and more Braves fans showing up at road games,” Van Wieren remembers. “We started getting letters from more and more people outside of the Southeast that were watching these games. We began to realize that there aren’t any other games on. ESPN wasn’t doing baseball yet. The only national broadcast was the Game of the Week (on NBC) on Saturday. The Cubs were on WGN, but almost all of their games were day games. So in the evening, the only games that were on were Braves games, and people that wanted to watch baseball kinda got hooked. It was just something that started growing very slowly and really mushroomed in the early 90’s when the team turned it around. Then it became really a big deal. It was a lot of fun to see the influence that station had on baseball fans all around the country.”
That’s not where Turner’s influence reached its unique and most intrusive peak. The innovative, powerful and creative man took his turn filling out the lineup card and actually managing the team he owned on May 11, 1977. The Braves were 8-20 and on that night in Pittsburgh, his team nearly won. But the very next day, NL President Feeney and Commissioner Kuhn sent the media mogul back upstairs.
“Back in those days, everybody had three or four jobs and one of the secondary jobs that Ted had given me the year before was to combine my broadcasting with being the traveling secretary, which means you handle all of the buses, the hotel rooms, the plane flights and all of that,” Van Wieren says. “One of my favorite memories about the day that Ted managed was (then-manager) Dave Bristol being sent home on a leave of absence. He really wasn’t being let go totally. But he was very embarrassed and humiliated by it all and he wanted to leave the hotel without being seen by the players. So I was put in charge of putting his luggage down in the loading dock area at the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh, where there was a ramp up to the sidewalk. Well he didn’t want to walk up and get in a cab to go to the airport, where a player might come by and see him. So I was the lookout. I was running up and down that ramp from the sidewalk down to the loading dock, letting him know that it was all clear. Just as he was starting to walk up the ramp (infielder) Rod Gilbreath turned the corner and was walking down the street and I had to motion Dave to go back. He hid behind a trash bin and I’m thinking, ‘What in the world am I doing? This is like a keystone cops movie.’ Eventually we got Dave out of town and Ted became the manager for one day only…but it was quite an adventurous day.”
Bristol was back 48 hours later and the Braves wrapped up 1977 with a 61-101 record. To the losers go the spoils in MLB’s amateur draft, and Atlanta snapped up Arizona State slugger Bob Horner with the number one pick. The ASU junior played in the College World Series final on June 8th and eight days later was in the big leagues, without playing one minor-league game.
“Hit a homer in his very first game off of Bert Blyleven. He was very comfortable at the major-league level. A lot of times you’ll see a kid like that kind of be just in awe of where he is and what he’s doing, but he wasn’t,” Pete recalls. “He acted like he belonged here right from day one. It was really the first indication that this team might turn things around just a little bit, which they did in 1982. They won the division that year with Horner being a part of it. He was just a natural player. He did cause a few headaches to the front office because he had an agent, Bucky Woy, who was kind of the Scott Boras of his day. There were a lot of, shall we say, interesting sessions that were held between Bucky and Braves management at the time. But it was great, not many players do that, go straight from college to the big leagues and are immediately successful. But he was.”
And you can’t properly document Braves history without spending a great deal of time on the decade of the ’90s, the 10-year span that saw Atlanta win 925 regular season games, more than any team in the game (Yankees were no. 2 and won 851). Perhaps the most intriguing season was 1991’s worst-to-first squad that lost to the Twins in an epic World Series. But what about 1990? Before there was ‘first’ there had to be ‘worst.’
“You know Bobby Cox became the general manager when Chuck Tanner became the manager in 1986. He said that it’s going to take five years to get this thing turned around. He had a very distinct plan on how to do it. It was going to be developing more minor-league players. It was going to be expanding the scouting. It was going to be concentrating on getting pitching. It was going to be, in the meantime, plugging in however we could to get by. One by one these guys began arriving and they didn’t have immediate success, but not many players do when they first come up to the major leagues. But in 90, you could see a little bit that maybe there was something there that in the future might work. One of the other parts of that was a guy named David Justice that came along and immediately showed that he had potential and promise. They had to find a way to get him in the lineup. Well there was only one way to do it and the only way to do it was to move Dale Murphy. As difficult as that was for Braves fans, and many of them were in tears the day they found out he was traded as he was such a popular player, it did give Justice a chance to become an everyday player and that was all part of getting ready for what happened in ’91. It did take five years, it took exactly five years, just as Bobby predicted it would. It was a little bit difficult for the fans in years three, four and five waiting for this to happen. It was all part of a master plan and eventually it all paid off.”
It’s not an update on the team’s pursuit of James Russell for the bullpen, or a clue in the unsolved mystery of Dan Uggla, or a promise that Evan Gattis will return to form when he wraps up his rehab assignment. But on a quiet night in the loge level, it’s pure joy to remember a time when “Channel” was the surname sewn above Andy Messersmith’s number 17. Thanks Ted. Thanks Pete.