“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.”
A. Bartlett Giamatti wrote those words in 1977, years before he would become the Commissioner of baseball. They were true then, and they are certainly true now. And Atlanta Braves fans know that better than most. Yes, the last few seasons have left something to be desired, and with the tumultuous offseason GM John Hart has just masterminded, many fans think this season is already over.
And I, for one, am glad.
I’ve said before how wishy-washy Braves fans can be, and covered many of the reasons why. But I truly believe many of us were spoiled in the ’90s and with 14 straight division wins, even if there was only one World Series victory to come of it. It created an expectation that the Braves just win. No matter what, they’ll always contend and they’ll always be in the conversation (despite ESPN’s attempts to bury them in the news). It’s a double-edged sword, of course, since it’s fun to root for a team that will most likely be in the playoff picture, but crappy when they don’t go all the way.
This year, though, I’m glad the season is beginning with expectations being so low. Maybe it’ll be good for all of us to just enjoy live baseball and simply watch what happens with this new team that is going to go out and try to win every day. Maybe we can generate some real excitement when things go well. Maybe it’s time to remember what it was like in 1991, when no one thought the Braves would do anything, much less take first place in the NL West (yeah, remember that?!).
Spoiler alert: I don’t actually think this team is going to suck! Ha-ha! Clickbait!
Have you been watching this spring training? This team already is exciting to me. I was never really on board with the whole power-bat-masher approach to offense. Sure, chicks dig the long ball, but do they also dig 8.5 strikeouts per game? I didn’t think so. For a team that ranked so highly in pitching (third-best ERA in the NL, to be exact), they sure had a sucky record. But that’s what happens when an offense is ranked 29th in the majors.
No, Braves fans, pitching was never the problem. Even after losing Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy before the season even started, the Braves’ pitching staff put together an excellent season. They just never had any run support.
The other day, the Braves played the Astros and put 14 runs on the board. Sure, it’s the Astros, but here’s the kicker – they had 19 hits and not one of them was a home run. Oh, and they had one strikeout. One! In 43 at-bats, they produced 19 hits, one strikeout and 14 runs. That’s the kind of game I’ve wanted to see from this team for a long time. Of course, I like home runs and games where everyone is part of the hit parade. But those longball games come so few and far between, and the ones in the meantime are so underwhelming.
This year is going to be different.
This year, there’s a lot of good to look forward to. This team, ragtag as it is, is going to put the bat on the ball. It’s going to steal bases, pressure the defense and manufacture runs. Believe me when I say this is going to be a better year than the last one. Frankly, it would be difficult to get worse — 29th in total runs, fourth in strikeouts, and 26th in average is a pretty low threshold.
Nick Markakis looked good in his first game back from neck surgery, and he could very well regain some bat speed and power as a result. Eric Young Jr. has been making contact, and if he can put the ball in play, his chances of getting on first base are pretty high, which is exciting, considering his 30 steals last year. Jace Peterson is mashing right now, and plays a mean second base. Andrelton Simmons has stopped swinging out of his shoes and is 13-for-28 in nine games.
I don’t know if hitting coach Kevin Seitzer has a bag of fairy dust or if his contact-heavy approach is just clicking with everyone, but this team looks completely different from last year. Maybe we’ll see how much magic he really has when Melvin Upton Jr. makes his debut.
In addition, Hart also added some pieces that will bring experience and leadership to the clubhouse. You may be one of those folks who isn’t impressed by “clubhouse guys” or doesn’t really believe in intangibles. For you, bringing in Jonny Gomes and A.J. Pierzynski probably looks like stupid moves. For me, the team that took the field in 2014 looked lackadaisical, sluggish, uninspired and beaten down. Even Huggy Bear, aka Freddie Freeman, wasn’t as enthused as he usually is. Both Gomes and Pierzynski are fiery players with a lot of heart, and they’ve already helped change the dynamic in the dugout. Hart also has tried to loosen up the team with concerts and karaoke. Have you seen Fredi Gonzalez having a cinder block broken on his chest? It may sound silly, but keeping the players loose has been a big part of the approaches to coaching by Joe Maddon and Terry Francona, and their resumes speak for themselves.
If we’re being honest, my biggest concern at the moment is the bullpen. There are a bunch of options Fredi Gonzalez can choose from, but so far, I haven’t been very impressed with many of them. That isn’t to say there’s no talent there or that they’ll be terrible all year, it’s just a concern for the start of the season.
Let’s not forget, this team didn’t win 14 straight divisions and make playoff appearances by being lucky. This whole organization has been focused on winning for a long time, and the disappointing years are only that way because fans have come to expect so much. For those who feel like the Atlanta Braves are throwing away a season or two in order to prepare for their stadium move, I’m going to respectfully disagree. I don’t think this team is going to be “pretty” this year, but I do think they’re going to impress. The Nationals are the team to beat in the NL East, and I wouldn’t bet on the Braves taking first place. But if you think they’re going to drag into last place, you’re going to be very pleasantly surprised.