The following is an excerpt from Dayn Perry's new book, Winners: How Good Baseball Teams Become Great Ones (And It's Not the Way You Think).
This particular excerpt is from "Chapter Nine: The Money Player (or, Why This Is No Place for the Faint of Wallet)" and it tells the story of how the Atlanta Braves' dynasty that's still with us came to be and also how they defied history in the process. You see, one of things we learn in Winners is that contending teams tend to be older and more expensive than non-contenders. The Braves back in 1991, when their improbable run began, were neither ...
Ted Turner's decision to purchase the Atlanta Braves in early 1976 was actually a bit of an afterthought. The irrepressible Turner was many things—high school debating champion, student of the classics and naval history, voracious reader, college dropout, inveterate womanizer, heavy drinker, risk-taker—but predictable wasn't one of them. His actions, his manner, and his character all defied the simple taxonomy we use to describe the overbearing figures of history. Ted Turner was Ted Turner and everything that went along with it.
Turner's father, Ed, was an austere, self-made millionaire who made his fortune in the billboard business and seemed forever disapproving of his brilliant yet capricious son. During Ted's childhood, his father would beat him with coat hangers and force him to read a book every two days. He sent young Ted to military school, and after Ted was suspended from Brown for drunkenness, he wrote to his son, "I think you are rapidly becoming a jackass."
Turner was eventually kicked out of Brown for having a coed in his dorm room, and he then went home to Georgia to learn the family business. Not long after, however, his father committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. After the shock and grief subsided, the younger Turner realized he had a business to run. Against the resolute advice of his advisers, Turner, eager to put his own imprimatur on his father's business empire, purchased a failing UHF channel and branded it with the call letters WTCG—Watch This Channel Grow. At the time of the purchase, Channel 17 was the lowest-rated of Atlanta's five stations and was hemorrhaging cash at a rate of about $600,000 per year. But once Turner had an idea that excited him, no amount of gloomy fiscal projections could dissuade him. With WTCG, Turner, who served as his own advertising salesman and programming director, came up with a concept called "counterprogramming," in which he'd show what he considered to be the diametrical opposite of what competing networks were televising during a given time slot. Opposite the news, he'd show Rifleman reruns. Against Sunday worship service broadcasts, he'd show Academy Award Theater, which, naturally, Turner himself hosted. Against prime time lineups, he decided he'd televise sports. And that led him to the Atlanta Braves.
Now relishing his new role as cable television wildcatter, Turner purchased the team's broadcasting rights in 1972 for $3 million. However, by '75 the Braves were backsliding on the field and at the turnstiles. For much of the early part of the decade, the only reason to go see a Braves game was to catch a glimpse of Hank Aaron's advance on history. But once he broke Babe Ruth's career home run record in 1974, the Braves shortly thereafter sold him to the Milwaukee Brewers. In Aaron's absence, the Braves posted their worst record in more than 30 years and barely drew half a million fans for the entire 1975 season. That's about the time the team's owners began entertaining offers for the club, and rumors flourished that the Braves were bound for Denver or Toronto. This put Turner in a panic. Braves telecasts constituted the sum total of his original programming and were his most reliable prime time offerings. If his haphazard cable channel were to make inroads, he'd need the Braves to stick around. So, without ever having much intention of owning a baseball team, Turner made an offer to purchase the Braves and thus keep them in Atlanta and on his beloved cable station. In January of '76 his offer was accepted by the outgoing owners and approved by MLB.
Now that he owned the club and was thus responsible for its fiscal health, Turner promptly resorted to the last refuge of those who own crappy teams: stupid promotions. In Turner's early years as Braves owner, he tried such gimmicks as motorized bathtub races, ostrich races, promotions that allowed contest participants to search for the keys to a new car inside a giant bowl of salad (seriously), wet-T-shirt contests, mattress stacking competitions, and—my personal favorite—"Wedlock and Headlock Night," which entailed a mass wedding on the diamond followed by a wrestling match. In any event, he was on to something. Although the Braves continued to struggle on the field, the team under Turner gained a cult movie-like novelty appeal, and people began showing up.
But Turner, like most "sporting gentleman" owners, wanted to win. This led him to attempt briefly to manage the club himself, but eventually, prior to the 1978 season, he brought in as his new manager one of Billy Martin's coaches for the world champion Yankees. His name was Bobby Cox. Cox was originally signed as a $40,000 "bonus baby" by the Dodgers in 1959, but as a player he failed to live up to the press clippings. Cox did make the majors with the Yankees in 1968, but he would spend only two undistinguished seasons in the bigs. As a manager, Cox's fortunes would be quite different. However, his career in the dugout was not without fits and starts. During Cox's first Atlanta tenure, the Braves made strides but never finished better than fourth over four seasons and change. To hear Turner tell it later, he was pleased with the team's progress under Cox, but his television executives wanted a skipper who was more affable and more at ease with the media. So Turner, in what he'd later call the biggest mistake of his career, fired Cox in favor of former Met manager Joe Torre. The decision paid immediate dividends, as the Braves won the NL West title in '82, but by then Turner had turned over the reins of the team to his baseball people so he could focus his efforts on CNN, his incipient and revolutionary all-news cable network. Those baseball people gradually grew disaffected with Torre and fired him following an 80–82 season in 1984.
Over the next six seasons the Braves would finish in last place every year but one and lose 188 more games than they won. However, beneath the carnage they were quietly assembling the rudiments of a dynasty. The Braves in '86 brought back Cox, as general manager. It was under his watch as GM that they traded for John Smoltz and drafted, among others, Chipper Jones, Kent Mercker, and Mike Stanton. However, before Cox returned to the organization, farm director Paul Snyder was drafting future core contributors such as Ron Gant, Mark Lemke, Tom Glavine, Jeff Blauser, and David Justice. After running through managers such as Eddie Haas, Chuck Tanner, and Russ Nixon, Cox decided to return to the dugout in June of 1990. By October of that same year he had determined that the dual role was too taxing, and he stepped down as GM after five seasons on the job.
As Cox's replacement in the front office, the Braves hired Royals GM John Schuerholz, who over the previous decade had guided Kansas City to four division titles and a World Series victory in 1985. Schuerholz promptly made it clear that he had a different way of doing things. Whereas Cox, when he was GM, had signed only one marquee free agent (the disastrous signing of Nick Esasky, who would play only nine games as a Brave before being forced into retirement by a case of vertigo), Schuerholz had no reservations about dipping into the free-agent market to fill holes. Going into the '91 season, he signed a total of four prominent free agents: first baseman Sid Bream, third baseman Terry Pendleton, shortstop Rafael Belliard, and closer Juan Berenguer. All three position players were of modest offensive potential, but all three had exceptional gloves. The emphasis was on defense. The rotation consisted of Charlie Leibrandt, Smoltz, Steve Avery, Glavine, and occasional spot starts from Pete Smith, Armando Reynoso, and Mercker.
In 1990 the Braves had finished with the worst record in the NL and had placed last in their division in four of the five previous seasons, so aspirations heading into '91 were indeed modest. Bream and Pendleton, two of Schuerholz's free-agent signings, sensed early on in spring training that the struggles in recent seasons had enervated the team to the point of prevailing hopelessness, so they called a closed-door team meeting. In that meeting, Bream and Pendleton, two respected veterans on a team of distinct youth, commanded their new teammates to believe that they could win and to carry themselves accordingly. According to Pendleton, the team's attitude changed almost immediately.
Atlanta played better than expected in the first half of the season, but at the break they were in third place in the West and a hefty 91/2 games behind the division-leading Dodgers. And then the Braves took off. From August 1 onward, the Braves went 41–22 and pulled within two games of the Dodgers on September 26, drew even on October 2, and pulled ahead for good on the next-to-last day of the season. Atlanta had won its final eight games of the season to take the division, which was an essential flourish by the Braves, since the Dodgers were a robust 20–8 in September. What followed was a gripping win over the Pirates in the NLCS and a loss to the Twins in one of the greatest World Series ever.
On the performance side, Glavine led the rotation with the second-highest innings total in the NL and a park-adjusted ERA 53 percent better than the league average. Stanton and Berenguer had excellent seasons out of the bullpen, and Pendleton batted .319, tallied 64 extrabase hits, and won the NL MVP Award (although you can make a compelling case that Barry Bonds, Will Clark, Ryne Sandberg, and Barry Larkin were all more deserving). What's strange about the '91 Braves is their lack of power at certain spots in the lineup. Gant led the team with 32 homers; Pendleton and Justice each broke the 20-homer mark; and Blauser, Lonnie Smith, and Brian Hunter combined for 30 homers in part-time duty. However, two regulars, Belliard and Otis Nixon, failed to hit a single home run on the season. Add catcher Greg Olson's six homers and Mark Lemke's two, and that's half the lineup with a combined eight home runs on the season. Since no Braves pitcher homered in '81, that's five of nine lineup spots with a cumulative total of fewer than 10 bombs.
What's surprising about the '91 Braves is that they increased their win total by 29 games over the previous season and that they did it all despite having the second-lowest payroll in the National League. That was possible because they were young at several key positions. Smoltz, Avery, Glavine, and Mercker combined for 886 innings (or 61.0 percent of the team's season total) and averaged less than two years of service time. Additionally, only one of those pitchers, Glavine, entered the season eligible for salary arbitration. The numbers say it's difficult to win when you're young, and when you're inexpensive. The Braves of '91 are one of the rare teams that pulled it off.
Dayn Perry is a frequent contributor to FOXSports.com and author of the new book, "Winners: How Good Baseball Teams Become Great Ones" (Shipping soon from Amazon.com).