2017 Braves: Time to move


Bobby Bragan

Bobby Bragan was the Braves manager when they moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta for the 1966 season, but not for very long thereafter. After managing the Braves to 84-, 88- and 86-win seasons from 1963-65 in Milwaukee, Bragan was fired when the Braves got off to a 52-59 start in 1966 in Atlanta. It was Bragan’s third and final managing stop: Bragan lasted not quite two years with the Pirates (1956-57) and 67 games the next year in Cleveland. Bragan was fired by Trader Frank Lane in Cleveland, who told Bragan, according to his bio at sabr.org from Bragan’s autobiography You Can’t Hit the Ball With the Bat on Your Shoulder, “I don’t know how we’ll get along without you, Bobby, but starting tomorrow we’re going to try.” Bragan became president of the Class AA Texas League and then the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, which rules over the minor leagues. As a player, Bragan was a starting shortstop on some awful Phillies teams — they won 50 games in 1940, and then were 43-111 in 1941. Bragan hit .251 in ’41, but with a .603 OPS, which was better than his career average. Traded to the Dodgers, Bragan became a utility player and well-known for two things: his opposition to Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier, and his lone World Series at-bat. According sabr.org, Bragan, a native of Alabama, was one of five players called into Branch Rickey’s office for his stance against Robinson integrating the Dodgers. From sabr.org: ” ‘If it’s all the same to you, Mr. Rickey,’ replied Bragan, ‘I’d prefer to be traded to another team.’ Rickey then asked if Bragan would play differently if Robinson was his teammate, to which Bragan answered in the negative. ‘No, sir,’ he said, ‘I’d still play my best.’ This answer seemed to satisfy Rickey, and when the 1947 season began, both Bragan and Robinson were Dodgers.” Bragan soon recanted and became one of Robinson’s biggest fans. From an ESPN story on Robinson’s friendship with Ralph Branca, who died last year: “Bragan … started a youth foundation that awarded college scholarships to students, including some African-American applicants who wrote essays about Robinson. ‘Look at me,’ Bragan once said. ‘Look at what Jackie did to my life.’ (Bobby) Valentine worked with Bragan in Texas and said the former Dodger credited Branca ‘for turning on the light for him and his teammates.’ ” In the 1947 World Series, Bragan pinch-hit for Branca in the sixth inning and doubled in the go-ahead run in the Dodgers’ 8-6 Game 6 win. That tied the Series, but the Yankees won Game 7. Bragan died at 92 in 2010. Career totals: .240 average, 15 home runs, 456 hits, 597 games, .282 on-base percentage, .309 slugging, .591 OPS, 12 steals, 70 OPS+, 0.9 WAR.

Up next: Where to begin? The Braves have the top farm system in baseball, according to ESPN.com’s Keith Law, thanks in part to the largesse of the Diamondbacks and Padres. Four of the Braves’ top 11 prospects were acquired by trade from them, which cost Dave Stewart his job as D’backs GM and hasn’t helped secure A.J. Preller’s as Padres GM. When the inevitable happens to Preller, there will be multiple reasons (trading Drew Pomeranz to the Red Sox and obscuring his medical records as if the doctor had ties to Russia should have already cost him his job, not a 30-day leave). Here’s another: Preller sent four minor-leaguers to the Braves for one season of Justin Upton, who hit .251 and 26 homers before he left for Detroit (who leaves San Diego for Detroit?). One of the four was Max Fried, a left-handed pitcher who couldn’t pitch in 2015 because of a bad elbow. He can now and is expected to advance quickly after fanning 112 batters in 103 innings in Low A last year. Fried attended the same California high school as the White Sox’s Lucas Giolito and the Cardinals’ Jack Flaherty. It’s still a question which will be the best major leaguer.

What he said: “It’s not lost on us we have to deliver two things at once. We have to make sure the baseball environment at this new ballpark has everything to offer, and I believe will satisfy even the most discerning baseball fans. Then we also have to deliver a very good baseball team,” Braves president of business Derek Schiller on moving into a new stadium. What he meant: “One out of two isn’t bad.”

Outlook: The Braves have a long history of moving to get what they want, from Boston to Milwaukee to Atlanta. This was the shortest travel of all, from downtown Atlanta to the suburbs, but it might have the most important message of all.

The Braves said Turner Field, built for the 1996 Olympics, needed repairs and didn’t have adequate parking, and presented a less than satisfactory experience for fans.

You could say the same about the Braves, who have won 67 and 68 games in the last two seasons when their aversion to winning was transparent: they traded almost any veteran of value but for Freddie Freeman, acquired any prospect who would evoke a positive reaction from Baseball America and fired their manager because it’s what fans expect losing teams to do.

The Braves wrote off 2015 and 2016 as if they were writing off business losses on a tax return; they didn’t plan to open Sun Trust Park in 2017 with a stadium worth millions and a team worth loose change.

Braves fans have a reputation — deserved or not — of fickleness, and team officials didn’t want to bring one tradition into the new stadium: apathy.

The new stadium itself wasn’t without controversy — it’s not accessible by public transportation, weeknight start times were pushed back half an hour to mitigate potential traffic problems and the vote to approve paying for the stadium was either rushed or rigged, depending on your point of view. Guess who’s paying for it?

The Braves have been almost as resolute in building a new team as they have a new stadium, though it may not be obvious for another year or so.

This year’s Braves will be better, and they’ve added a layer of experience to Freeman and young shortstop Dansby Swanson, if only for appearances. The patchwork of Bartolo Colon, Jaime Garcia and R.J. Dickey to the rotation is unlikely to hold, but Brandon Phillips, Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis give a veteran feel to a lineup that needs it, if not for long. The offense, which hasn’t scored more than 700 runs in a season since 2010 and was 29th in MLB last season, needs all the credibility it can get.

The Braves know winning — thanks to the strike of 1994, they won 14 division titles in a row, and even without it, 11 straight isn’t bad. But that began more than a generation ago, and they’ve won the division just once and made the playoffs only three times in the 11 seasons since, though they weren’t trying to in the last two.

They’ll be back in the playoffs soon — 2017 seems too soon — and very few of their fans will hold a grudge over the last two when they are. Rebuilding an image is always easiest when a team is winning.

Team song: Jan Garbarek: In Praise of Dreams

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