I guess Adam Wainwright shouldn’t have celebrated so soon …
Sorry. I’m a bitter Atlanta Braves fan and couldn’t resist the chance for one little dig on a guy from a team that, in my opinion, didn’t deserve to be in the playoffs. Now, I could go on about the new playoff system. I could write for days about “the call” and yet the result would stay the same. I could also go on about the disappointing series that finished the baseball season this year, but there’s plenty about that, probably by people more qualified than me to talk about it.
No, instead I’m going to bring a new idea to the table following this season. The Atlanta Braves are still going head-to-head against their own past.
I’ll start by saying I don’t think the new one-game playoff is a good system. There is no one-game series in baseball, unless it’s a tiebreaker, and the playoffs should be no different. But, unfortunately, one has to play by the rules set before them and arguing the rules doesn’t count as playing. So, after playing a solid season and finishing with the (tied for) fourth-best record in baseball, the Braves faced the one-game playoff against the (tied for) eighth-place Cardinals.
I mention the season total because, as a Braves fan, the up and down of the season often made it feel like the Braves had a tough stretch, but finishing with 94 wins is nothing to scoff at. Rather, it’s something to be very proud of. It just so happens the Nationals had a magical year, and because of that, the Braves were always playing from behind.
Anyway, enter the one-game showdown, where everything that could go wrong did.
This team led the National League in fielding percentage and managed to commit three very costly errors during the game, two by seasoned vets. Of course, the follow-up question is why? How is it possible for a team that performed so well during the regular season to fail so spectacularly when that season is on the line?
One response is the standard “$%&! Happens,” which could very well be the case. Sometimes your team shows up and sometimes they don’t. I think it runs deeper than that.
As all Braves fans know, they had a lamentable run for quite some time, but in 1991, all that changed. What followed was a historic run of victories and overcoming adversity, with the help of a huge number of people headed to the Hall of Fame. At times, it seemed like there was a turnstyle in the clubhouse that led straight to Cooperstown.
During that time, a dynasty was built, whether intentional or not. I don’t use that term the same way the Yankees use it, but since that turning point, Braves fans expect their team to contend. Many of them expect failure at the most critical points, but they do feel that the Braves will be a player come September. And for the most part, they’re right.
The problem with this attitude is it can weigh heavy on the shoulders of those who try to fill the shoes of teams past. Fredi Gonzalez is trying to put his own stamp on this team, following Cooperstown-bound Bobby Cox — and that ain’t an easy act to follow. Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann are vying to inherit the “face of the team” mantle that belonged to Chipper Jones until the end of this season. Again, that’s a big jersey to wear. And remember when I said trying to send Chipper out on a high note would be an extra incentive? Yeah, that might have backfired. The same thing happened for Cox’s last year.
I think it may have been too much.
This is not an excuse, nor a justification. Every team faces some kind of hump they have to get over, whether it’s having a winning record, trying to repeat the success of a previous year or justify the cost of a new stadium. Just ask the Yankees. But it may shed some light on why it feels like the Braves tend to fail when the heat is on. This year it’s easy to blame the errors, or the bad call, but it may be more about a team trying to continue a trend of winning and feeling the weight of teams past. It may be about placing pressure on a situation that’s already fit to burst.
I think it may be time to reinvent. Chipper’s gone, Cox is gone and both without the second ring they deserved. And with them should go the pressure to be the same team from 1991 or 1995. It’s time to put new faces on this team and let them decide the future for themselves. They’ve learned from some of the greatest names in the game, and it’s time to put that knowledge to use.
The Braves are a different team with different faces. They have similar strengths — pitching, pitching, pitching — and they have similar weaknesses — offense — but this is a team that has been adapting for years and playing strong baseball.
Next season is a chance to change it all. It’s a new season to set new standards, to play a new game and make future Hall of Famers out of some of these kids. But they’re going to have to make some hard decisions in the offseason, which we’ll discuss next time.
If there’s a positive to take away from the grisly end of 2012, it’s that necessary push to make the Atlanta Braves a new team, to start a new run and become the winning machine I know they can be.