• Dodger Stadium

    IT’S GAMEDAY: Embrace This Moment, Braves Country; You’ve Earned It

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The oddsmakers have weighed in, the pundits and talking heads and bloggers and the rest of the world have offered their take on the National League Division Series, how one team is loaded with playoff experience – many of it gleaned from reaching the seventh game of the World Series last season – while the other team has shocked so many by just gracing the October stage.

    But baseball has a funny way of evening even the most lopsided playing fields, especially in the most pivotal month of the marathon season that begins amid the palm trees and desert sands in February and ends around Halloween with the crowning of a champion.

    Brian Snitker, the lifelong Brave who finds himself on the eve of managing his first major-league postseason game, humorously corrected a reporter’s question during a Wednesday evening press conference at Dodger Stadium after the reporter said the Braves might not have as much playoff experience as the Dodgers, Atlanta’s opponent in Game 1 of the NLDS on Thursday.

    “They don’t have as much; not even might about it,” Snitker said with a humble giggle in discussing his team.

    My, how far this franchise has come.

    The Atlanta Braves are going to play a playoff game in less than 24 hours, an honest-to-goodness, real-life, hot-dang-this-really-is-October-baseball playoff game. It will unfold in the same venue where the Braves played their last postseason contest, but even if we don’t want to think about what transpired that Monday night in October 2013, it doesn’t matter at all.

    Because of what’s transpired since.

    Do you remember the Braves trading so much of their controllable talent, the pain you felt when Andrelton Simmons and Jason Heyward and Evan Gattis were shipped away for prospects? What about the evening before the season opener in 2015, when Atlanta found the solution to rid itself of B.J. Upton and his albatross of a contract at the expense of Craig Kimbrel being included in the deal, mere hours before the first pitch of the season?

    How about the awful final two months of 2015 (18-37 before winning three of four to end the season), a stretch in which the Braves gave up 20 runs in a game and employed the lovable Jonny Gomes for an inning of relief in an 11-run defeat that, arguably, may have been the highlight of that season? Those two things happened two days apart! Or, losing the first nine games in 2016 en route to a 9-28 start that sent Fredi Gonzalez, a dead manager walking entering that spring, into unemployment, complete with a Delta flight notification sent to him before he was given the news?

    There are about five zillion other examples that I could cite, but the bottom line is this. When your feet hit the floor Thursday morning, you begin an Atlanta Braves Playoff Gameday. How does that sound, Braves Country? It’s something we took for granted for oh, so long, as the Braves of yesteryear piled up division titles like they were Beanie Babies (remember them?), but a half-decade away wading through the vast underbelly of the National League makes one appreciative when you find the light again.

    The smart money, the experts, those in the know, are going to tell you the Braves have little chance of winning this series. Los Angeles has more talent, more experience, owns the advantage in everything from matchups to home field, and is just better. I’m not going to dispute any of that, because it’s true. The Dodgers are a better team 1-through-25. They can deploy a starting-lineup worthy bench at all times and have a lineup built to face lefties and another one geared toward righties.

    That’s all well and good. It should not diminish your enthusiasm, your hopes, your spirits one iota entering this series. And here’s why.

    Baseball’s postseason history is littered with the burned-out remains of cars destined for ticker tape and champagne, all crashed out by a lesser team that had little-to-no chance at the start of the series, only to trip up the prohibitive favorite. Baseball’s postseason, while not one-and-done after you advance past the wild-card stage, is the closest approximation we have in pro sports to March Madness. Especially in the division series, where with a five-game series the underdog merely has to win once in the opening two road games to have a chance to win the series at home in four games.

    What makes baseball’s postseason so compelling is often, the best team does not win the championship. We haven’t had a repeat world champion since 2000. As mentioned in this space this week, think of all the franchises that have won a World Series since the Dodgers last captured the title in 1988. The drama of October is a stark contrast to the six-month grind that compresses 162 games into 187 days. The finality is sudden and jarring. Success is euphoric and exhilarating. Catching lightning in a bottle isn’t just a trite saying, it’s a true strategy that more than one team has used to fuel a run deep into the year’s 10th month.

    That’s why these Braves aren’t just a nice turn-around story, one where we all should be happy just to be here. Yes, even if Atlanta loses three straight, there is no dulling the shine of what’s transpired in 2018. But don’t be fooled. The Braves are not just happy to be here, and privately there are plenty of people around baseball who will tell you they want no part of this bunch in a series, especially when three wins and not four is the ticket to advance.

    The feeling here is these Braves, with their blend of calming veteran leadership and youthful emotion, will fare just fine in their first foray into the madness of October. They might not win the series, but it won’t be easy for Los Angeles. This will not be a runaway by any stretch of the imagination. Atlanta has the talent and the tools to push the Dodgers to the very brink. If L.A. wins this series, they will have to earn it.

    And there’s no guarantee it won’t be the Braves heading to Milwaukee or Denver for the NL Championship Series. That youthful ignorance, confidence and swagger of a team that defied all the predictions of a 75-to-80 win season to capture 90 victories (20 coming in their final at-bat), win the NL East, earn the NL’s best road record and respond to every stumble or wobble, gives this correspondent every reason to believe we’re about to embark on quite a series.

    It’s a series that has been a long time coming for everybody in Braves Country. Buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

    You deserve this.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    Baby Braves Ready for October Baptism

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Together, they will stand along the first-base line at Dodger Stadium on Thursday evening, adorned in road uniforms and no doubt will feel the full volume of disdain from 56,000 fans in Chavez Ravine to watch what most feel will be the first step in the home team’s return to the World Series.

    One by one, every member of the Atlanta Braves has applied a brushstroke of some sort onto this portrait of stunning arrival, the Braves surging from rebuilding also-ran to division champion in a breathtaking six months. They will grace the postseason stage, amid the increased glare of baseball’s most intense spotlight, as they will face the defending National League pennant winners in Thursday’s opening game of the NL Division Series.

    The talk tracks surrounding this team quickly converge into one irrefutable conclusion: Without the performance of several of Atlanta’s much-ballyhooed younger players, the squadron of young talent Atlanta built while spending four years buried in the standings, it’s unlikely Braves Country would be watching their team play a postseason game for the first time in five years Thursday. And while the headlines have focused on the spell-binding Ronald Acuna, the All-Star Ozzie Albies, the fiery (yet injured and unlikely to play in this series) Dansby Swanson, the emerging Johan Camargo, the ace-in-the-making Mike Foltynewicz and the promising Sean Newcomb, this goes way beyond those marquee names.

    Think about how different the fortunes of this team would have been without four rookies – Mike Soroka, Touki Toussaint, Kolby Allard and Bryse Wilson – winning their big-league debuts. Where would Atlanta be without A.J. Minter grabbing hold of the closer’s gig in mid-summer, or without the 60 appearances from Jesse Biddle?

    This young core is vastly talented, and now has logged time at the highest level. But those names together have exactly zero innings of major-league postseason experience, a daunting fact considering the Dodgers reached Game 7 of the World Series last fall and have won six consecutive NL West titles.

    The Braves have defied the odds all season long, and if this magical run is to continue beyond the next seven days, they will need to continue to buck conventional wisdom. At every turn, be it when Albies stopped hitting homers or Acuna landed on the disabled list or Swanson fell into one of his offensive funks, or Minter and Biddle struggled to find the strike zone, there were other guys who picked up their pace at precisely the right time.

    Consider this: Did anybody four weeks ago think Chad Sobotka (yep, another rookie) would not only make the postseason roster – it will be announced at some point Wednesday or even early Thursday – but that the tall right-hander likely is going to throw very important innings, in close games, in October? This is what has made this Braves journey so special, so improbable. Many felt the talent was there, but how would it react to the pressures of a major-league season, a half-year grind of travel and no days off and late-night flights and competing against 29 other teams comprised of the best players on the planet?

    As the Braves worked out at SunTrust Park on Tuesday afternoon before flying to the west coast, Brian Snitker spoke to the assemblage of reporters about the need to keep things simple, to not try and change the style of play, to keep doing what delivered a 90-win season and the NL East championship. And while the postseason is a different animal altogether, with brighter lights and higher consequences and enhanced pressure, there is validity in Snitker’s words.

    The Braves of ’18 already have made an indelible mark on the hearts of their city and their fanbase. Nothing that happens in this series changes any of that. But these Braves are good. They may not have the postseason pedigree of their opponent. They may have a bunch of playoff newcomers getting their first taste of October baseball. They may not have the odds in their favor.

    But all season, the kids on this team have found a way, a testament backed up by all the one-run wins, the late-inning comebacks, the outstanding road record, the general feeling that yes, it may seem improbable, but sometimes being young enough to not know better is a blessing and not a curse.

    If these Braves are going to reach the NLCS, the kids are going to have to step up yet again. If the past 162 games have shown us anything at all, it’s that they have the ability, the swagger and the confidence to make it happen.

    And now, they get the chance to put it all on display, for all the world to see.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    The “Braves Way” Is Dead. Here’s the Path Forward from Scandal

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Nearly two weeks have elapsed since the house of cards once called the Atlanta Braves front office collapsed, blown away by a chorus of gale-force gusts produced by Major League Baseball’s ongoing investigation into allegations of scandalous behavior.

    We shall not invoke the name of the former general manager who resigned on the opening day of the offseason. I frankly do not care if he ever is heard from again, to be quite honest.

    But at some point, no matter how angry or embarrassed or betrayed or brokenhearted one is, you must look around at the altered landscape and assess the way forward. As the Braves leadership – using that term quite loosely – gathered in Orlando for its annual October organizational meetings, the focus undoubtedly was not so much on the 2018 roster as it was on how to emerge from the worst scandal in franchise history.

    Yes, it’s bad. It quite possibly may get worse once MLB announces its findings and subsequent punishments. No, it won’t set the franchise back a decade. Yes, it may rattle the very foundation that cracked a week ago Monday.

    But keep this in mind: SunTrust Park will be filled to capacity on March 29, 2018, when the Braves open the new season against Philadelphia. Advertisers likely are not leaving. No company with a business in The Battery is going to shut its doors.

    Liberty Media President and CEO Greg Maffei

    Liberty Media President and CEO Greg Maffei

    However, the Braves better be very aware their loyal fanbase – which has gone 22 years since experiencing a World Series title, 18 years without an NL pennant, 16 years with nary a postseason series triumph – looks at its baseball team with a skeptical eye in wake of this mess. Restoring that trust and unwavering support will not happen overnight, but there are a few things whoever is minding the store now and moving forward best keep in mind.

    Accountability

    We see it all the time, whether a public figure commits some sort of transgression or a corporation endures a security breach. Somebody gets behind a microphone, or writes a press release, or posts on social media some canned statement that says little.

    The Braves cannot go down that “blah, blah, blah” road. Somebody, be it John Hart or Terry McGuirk or John Schuerholz, better step up and own this. Pleasant? Nope. Necessary? Absolutely.

    Schuerholz is regarded by some as merely a figurehead driving deals for new stadiums and spring training complexes. Others think the Hall of Famer still is influencing baseball decisions. Hart, as director of the front office who was brought in to mentor the since-deposed GM, reports to McGuirk, the conduit between the faceless Liberty Media conglomerate and the baseball franchise it owns for purposes tax related.

    I have my doubts anybody on Liberty’s board of directors could name more than five players who wore an Atlanta uniform in 2017.

    Regardless, whoever serves as the mouthpiece moving forward better be open and honest. No corporate double-talk. The fans demand (and rightly deserve) to know who knew what, why this happened, what lessons have been learned and what is going to happen moving forward.

    And it better be sincere. If it’s bull, the fanbase will smell it from a mile away.

    Change

    Dumping the brash, somewhat disruptive and downright rude former GM was a no-brainer. Call it a resignation all you want, but the dude had no choice. In essence, he was fired, and he shouldn’t be the first one to pack their office.

    It is inconceivable to me and countless others I have talked to in recent days that this was a back-door, dimly lit, lone-wolf scenario. Those who knew the depth of the alleged transgressions had a moral obligation to speak up, and by not doing so, there must be payment.

    That payment amounts to taking a broom to the executive offices at SunTrust Park. Hart very well may view himself as a bridge to 2018. Schuerholz may fancy himself with a relevant role in the clean-up. McGuirk, who has not uttered a peep since the scandal broke, might feel far enough removed above the fray.

    Atlanta Braves Chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk

    Atlanta Braves Chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk

    Wrong, wrong and wrong. All three must go; if not now, certainly before spring training starts. If there ever was time to cut the cord from two decades ago, now is that time. Yes, that includes Bobby Cox, whose influence (along with Schuerholz) likely has played too much of a role in recent years, resumes and job titles be darned.

    And while we’re at it, once and for all, “The Braves Way” is dead and gone, never to be uttered again. It is worn out and rings hollower today than ever before.

    Contend

    This is easier said than done because, duh, every one of the 30 teams in baseball sets out to compete for a playoff spot each season. But arguably no team on the planet, in any league, at any level of the sport, needs a good 2018 season more than the Braves.

    Forty-eight months ago, Craig Kimbrel stood locked in the bullpen at Dodger Stadium as Los Angeles rallied for a victory that eliminated Atlanta from the NL Division Series. The great tear-down began a few months later, with the late years of this decade the target to return to the limelight with a team bolstered by young starts and a farm system plentiful in top prospects.

    There is no doubt the spotlight shines brightly on this franchise today, but for all the wrong reasons. Within that white-hot glow of scrutiny and skepticism, it may be easy to forget the Braves do have the best farm system in the majors, with several young players either already having ascended to the big leagues or sitting a year or two away.

    The right moves this offseason could accelerate the timeline to contention. That would not be a bad thing given how the Braves have screwed up the one thing that figured never to be shaken – its relationship with an adoring, loyal, generational fanbase that has waited patiently and trusted the process.

    That trust, that patience, is in scant supply these days. Even a run at a wildcard berth that carries beyond Labor Day would be a needed salve on the festering wound this scandal has left.

    The path forward may not be easy, but spare me the tears. The Braves deserve whatever punishment comes from this. The real question in my mind is how does the organization move forward.

    And you better believe we are watching. Closely.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.