• Liberty Media

    The (Off)season of Discontent: Braves Fans Upset by Lack of Action

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – You lived it. I lived it. We all lived it. The Triple-A lineups. The retread pitchers. The mismatches. The hopelessness. The trades of so many players we loved for guys we’d never heard of – some of whom we would fall in love with as time unfolded. The 95 losses followed by the 93 losses followed by the 90 losses. The move to a new, beautiful home, tinged by public outrage of a deal perhaps done outside the scope of public scrutiny despite plenty of public dollars being involved.

    The iconic country music group Alabama once upon a time sang, “We had to break it all down to build it back up,” a key lyric in their song “Here We Are” that, ironically, was part of the TBS 1991 highlight film. And it is true. The Atlanta Braves indeed broke it all down, stripped to the nubs, to build it back up to a point where the tomahawk represented something far beyond a reminder of yesteryear glories. All of this pain, all of this embarrassment, would pay off in a big way, a way we hadn’t seen in these parts in two decades.

    But a couple of funny things happened during the well-thought out rebuild plan, both of which fell out of the sky with equal parts suddenness and breathlessness. The strategic architect ran afoul of Major League Baseball rules regarding international signings and earned a lifetime ban. The season after, with his banished fingerprints remaining all over the team, the Braves won 90 games and captured the National League East championship.

    Cue Alex Anthopoulos, who entered the fray as general manager weeks after former GM John Coppolella was banned, and the engaging, impressive general manager helped bolster Atlanta’s crashing of the 2018 postseason party. Everything broke right. The Braves took advantage, flipping a city upside down and rekindling a fire within the fanbase that had sat dormant for five years. All of this set up an offseason during which many thought Atlanta would advance from breakthrough to behemoth, from playoff qualifier to World Series championship contender.

    Welcome to the second week of March, and Braves Country is in flames.

    And I don’t blame it one dang bit.

    Atlanta struck quickly in the offseason, signing Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann in the blink of an eye on Cyber Monday. The Braves brought back Nick Markakis to man right field at a sizable discount, a move I would not have made, but after not being able to lure Michael Brantley off the open market or pry Mitch Haniger from Seattle, probably made sense (my fear of regression notwithstanding).

    Atlanta did try and get Bryce Harper, but the Scott Boras effect won out in the end and Harper was rewarded with a 13-year deal. No, the Braves should not have committed to any player through 2031. But while we won’t know how creative Atlanta got in the negotiations, acquiring a player of Harper’s ilk instantly would’ve vaulted last season’s feel-good story into the championship conversation.

    And that’s part of where the angst begin. No, you’re not giving Andrew McCutchen the money Philly gave him. You’re not giving Harper the years Philly gave him. You’re not signing Patrick Corbin to six years, like Washington did. The problem is, both of those teams reside in the same division as Atlanta. Same with the Mets, who bolstered their bullpen and augmented their starting lineup with diversity that, if health abides, should make a team that went 38-30 over the second half even better.

    Boys, you only get the potentially epically bad Marlins 19 times over 162 games. Oh, and did we mention the one lone game-changing asset Miami had, J.T. Realmuto, also landed in Philadelphia?

    There is a method to the madness. Braves fans have had that narrative shoved down their throats at every turn since the start of November. To a certain extent, it’s valid. But only to a certain extend. And the cockiness of late displayed by the powers that be, to be frank, is becoming a bit much.

    The next time we hear from Braves chairman Terry McGuirk will be too soon. McGuirk is on record numerous times during the losing years about working to be in position to strike when the team turned a corner. Corner turned. The result? Mostly crickets.

    Enough, already. This insulting stance of stating over and over (and over) again that you’re able to do anything payroll-wise without signoff from faceless, non-local, uncaring Liberty Media corporate is a joke, and McGuirk would be best served by not trotting out that line as if the fanbase is full of gullible sheep. We all see right through it.

    Seriously, Terry? You want us to believe a public corporation that finished with $8.04 billion in revenue in 2018 actually would allow any of its business units to spend eight, nine figures in a vacuum without corporate oversight. Guess what? Not only do fans read the stats and know Tyler Flowers can’t hit right-handers, we also can (and do) read the 10-K and 10-Q reports.

    It puts Anthopoulos in a tough spot, to be honest. Engaging and open, a very likable part of this organization, we all understand AA’s past aggressiveness always didn’t pan out (he did trade Noah Syndergaard as the young centerpiece for R.A. Dickey, after all). To his credit, Anthopoulos has recalled several moves he made in Toronto that were geared toward building buzz and momentum in the offseason as transactions that didn’t pan out.

    But what if AA had been the original architect of the great Braves rebuild of the 2010s? What if he was here for the butt-whippings at Turner Field in 2015 and 2016, when such luminaries as Daniel Castro and Eury Perez manned the starting eight? Would have he been more inclined to lean into this offseason had he been here and suffered like the rest of us? And what in the heck is he supposed to say when his boss, McGuirk, continues spewing the corporate lines?

    I understand being strategic and pragmatic and measured, I do. It’s the right course to take most of the time. But not always. Circumstances at times dictate a deviation, a seizing of the moment. Those times when you dance in front of everybody like no one is watching, when you tell the interviewer why they are fools if they don’t hire you, when you kiss your secret crush regardless of who’s around.

    Those times when you go for it, color a bit outside the lines in order to accelerate the path forward. When the window opens earlier than expected, it’s OK to jump a bit higher than otherwise, especially when you still have one of the best and deepest farm systems in the game.

    For better or worse, this organization has decided not to do that. And if it doesn’t result in a step deeper into October, that will rest solely at the feet of the powers that be … and if it happens, the next offseason won’t be pretty.

    —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.

    Should Liberty Media sell the Braves? Careful what you wish for.

    By Kent Covington

    Commissioner, Bud Selig and Braves CEO, Terry McGuirk

    I hear it every day in the Twitterverse… “Liberty Media sucks! I wish they’d sell the Braves to someone who gives a @#$>*&# about the team!”

    But be careful what you wish for.  You see, Liberty Media doesn’t suck as an owner quite as much as you think. In fact, they don’t suck at all.

    If you’re among those pining for new ownership, I understand why you feel the way you do. We all saw the division rival Philadelphia Phillies outspend the Braves nearly twofold last season. And we hold fondly the memories of Ted Turner opening wide his checkbook throughout the 90’s, when the Braves were among baseball’s biggest spenders. We understand that the team’s last corporate owner, the callous and miserly AOL-Time Warner, slashed payroll while referring to the Braves as a “non-core asset”.

    Then we watched as AOL-TW unloaded the team to its present owner, fellow mega-media conglomerate, Liberty Media, in a stock swap. The amply reported details of that exchange revealed Liberty Media’s primary motivation for consummating the deal… tax savings. And all the while, an actual flesh-and-blood suitor, Home Depot Co-founder and owner of the Atlanta Falcons, Author Blank, was left standing curbside like a girl stood up by her prom date.

    All of this is true.

    Now, I have both good news and bad news for you. Since most people prefer to get the bad news out of the way first, we’ll start there.

    The bad news: It’s unlikely that the Braves ownership picture will ever get much better.

    The good news: The bad news isn’t that bad.

    Step back in time with me for a moment. It’s the roaring 90’s in Atlanta. The Braves are clanking turnstiles at the gate with the best of them, and “America’s Team” is drawing solid national TV ratings on TBS. Attendance is up, media revenue is high, and Braves owner, Ted Turner, isn’t shy about reinvesting all of that income into attracting/keeping talented players.

    Sadly, all of this would soon begin to change.

    Around the turn of the new century, Braves ratings on TBS began to slip. Each year, ratings were lower than the last. TBS gradually reduced the number of Braves games it carried before removing Braves broadcasts from the network all together in 2007. It wasn’t that the team wasn’t winning. When ratings began to weaken, they were still years away from the end of their mind-bending 14-year division pennant streak.  Burgeoning media competition was likely responsible for the decline. More ways to watch baseball, nationally, and more media competition in general.

    Almost simultaneously, Braves home attendance also began to fall off. Again, the team was still winning, so lack of a quality product certainly wasn’t the problem. Why the decline in attendance? I believe there was a combination of several factors that artificially inflated attendance throughout the 90’s and that those factors dissipated as the decade drew to a close. But that’s a topic for another day.

    And of course, somewhere in the middle of all of that, Turner Enterprises was gobbled up by Time Warner, which was gobbled up by AOL, and… well, you know the rest.

    Fast forward to 2012. The Braves no longer benefit from national broadcasting revenue, and mediocre attendance is the new norm at Turner Field. The team’s revenue ranks somewhere near the middle-of-the-pack. Therefore, their payroll is also middle-of-the-pack.

    Here’s the thing: The truth is that revenue, not the frugality or generosity of a team’s owner, is by far the greatest determining factor in that team’s payroll. While some owners demand their teams earn a yearly profit, rare indeed is the owner who is both willing and able to eat giant annual losses. Even Ted Turner didn’t absorb huge deficits.

    When revenue was up, spending was up. Now that revenue is down, spending is down. You’ll find a close relationship between income and spending totals throughout baseball.

    So what about Liberty Media?  Does it allow the Braves to reinvest most of its income?

    Atlanta Braves President, John Schuerholz

    Yes. According to a recent report, the Braves have operated within a few percent of break-even level since Liberty acquired the team, and they even lost money last season.

    Liberty Media has made clear the fact that they view the Braves as an appreciating asset. One day, they will sell the Braves. When they do, they want the franchise to be worth substantially more than it’s worth today. For this reason, Liberty’s not concerned with annual profits, and the team is free to reinvest everything it makes to keep the franchise strong and its value growing.

    But it’s not all about spending. When you evaluate the quality of a MLB owner, you should also pay attention to what I call “the Angelos factor”.

    I happen to know a few Baltimore Orioles fans, and to a one, they all share the same gripe.  “Peter Angelos (team owner) is willing to spend, but he keeps screwing things up!”  Angelos has a reputation for meddling in the affairs of team management; of dictating personnel moves from the owner’s box.  Angelos is not a faceless corporation, but a human being who is passionate about his ballclub and is willing to open his wallet. In short, he’s all the things Braves fans long for. Yet, he is not beloved by the Orioles faithful.

    There is something to be said for dispassionate corporate ownership. Such owners are more likely to stay out of the way and allow team management to do its job. Liberty Media, for example, has zero involvement team operations.

    Could the Braves’ ownership situation be better? Possibly. Perhaps Author Blank, for example, would be willing to swallow an even bigger loss than the deficit the Braves posted last year. Maybe he would even be willing to do the same every year.

    Maybe not.

    Again, it’s hard to find an owner willing to take a bath every year on the balance sheet. Revenue largely dictates spending throughout Major League Baseball.

    Maybe a private owner would abstain from meddling in team operations.

    Maybe not.

    Liberty Media allows the Braves to spend everything it makes, and they stay out of management’s way. Not bad. Not bad at all. In fact, that’s pretty good. Things could be a little better, but they could also be a lot worse.

    Whenever Liberty decides to sell the team, new ownership may or may not be an improvement. Either way, contrary to popular belief, it ain’t all that bad right now.

    By the way, the Spring Preview Fried Baseball podcast up now. You can hear it here.

    Also, before you go, check out the Lineup Card on the BravesWire homepage with headlines from over a dozen Braves news/opinion sources.