“Let’s see if the Braves are on. … I’d like to find out how the Braves are doin’ after all this time. Probably still finding ways to lose.” — Sonny Clemonds, 20th century country music star cryogenically awoken in the 24th century (Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The Neutral Zone“)
In 1988, the conventional wisdom was that the Atlanta Braves were the worst team in baseball, that they had been for quite some time and that they would probably remain so for quite a while longer. It’s why the writers of a show like Star Trek: The Next Generation felt so comfortable making a “400-years-of-crappiness” joke at the Braves’ expense. And it’s why Street and Smith’s allowed Maury Allen to pen such nasty previews of the club year-after-year. To wit:
1987: “The Braves are a heavy-footed, dull baseball team seemingly stuck in quicksand. They never get much better or much worse. They move up and down only because some other clubs do or do not falter. The Braves were last in 1986, 23.5 games out. This year they will probably be about the same margin out but may move up a notch if the Padres are as weak they appear to be.”
1988: “One of these days Ted Turner will just get sick of the whole thing, go back to his boats and his basketball, his radio and his television properties, his ranches and his real estate, and let the Braves slip into the Georgia wilderness. They yawned through another ho-hum season in Atlanta with a 69-92 mark, finished 20.5 games out, had the league’s worst pitching with a 4.63 ERA (a burden even in easy home-run parks like Atlanta), and did nothing significant to improve over the winter. Chuck Tanner and Bobby Cox took over with high hopes three years back, but both are now always rumored to be moving on. The Atlanta situation is not an inviting prospect for any serious baseball man.”
1989: “Sometimes you have to wonder why the Atlanta Braves start the season. They hardly ever finish in any place but last. Only 848,089 fans bothered to come out of their homes and hotels last year to sit in sweltering Atlanta Stadium to be bothered and bored. The Braves were up to their old tricks, winning 54 games, losing 106, and finishing 39.5 games behind the Dodgers, showing no signs of recovering, and not even being funny anymore. They fired Chuck Tanner for all those accumulated sins, hired Russ Nixon and almost lost him when he demanded more than a year to rebuild the team. Asking a man to rebuild the Braves in 12 months is like asking the Italians to rebuild Rome after its fall.”
I’m not exactly old enough to remember those years clearly, but I do remember the sentiment from the time: the Braves were a terrible team and a terrible franchise. And then they weren’t. They drafted and traded for young pitchers Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, they nearly won the World Series in 1991, and then they splurged on free agent Cy Young winner Greg Maddux and never looked back. By 1994, when the Star Trek character above supposedly “died”, the Braves were one of the best teams in baseball. The transformation did not take all that long to make.
At the same time that the Braves were gearing up for their decade-and-a-half of dominance, the Cleveland Indians were sinking to their lowest point. There’s a reason they were the star of the 1989 film Major League. The opening sequence of the movie sums it up nicely:
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INT. THE INJUN DINER – DAY
Three men in Cleveland Indian baseball caps sit at the counter. BOBBY JAMES, 22-year-old grad student, VIC BOLITO, 30-year-old telephone worker, and JOHNNY WYNN, 45-year-old house painter. THELMA GORDON, 65-year-old waitress, delivers their breakfast.
THELMA: Spring training starts the twelfth. How do you think the Indians will do this year?
VIC: They don’t look too good.
The other two shake their heads in contemplation of this sorry fact.
INT. MEN’S CLUB – DAY
A 45-year-old BUSINESS EXECUTIVE is talking to a fellow club member over lunch.
BUSINESS EXECUTIVE: They don’t look particularly good, do they?
EXT. CLEVELAND DOCKS – DAY
Two LONGSHOREMEN are talking while they unload a freighter.
LONGSHOREMEN: I’ll tell ya. They don’t look very fuckin’ good.
EXT. CLEVELAND MUNICIPAL STADIUM – DAY
Down on the field, two KOREAN GROUNDSKEEPERS speak Korean as they resod the outfield.
GROUNDSKEEPER (in subtitles): They’re shitty.
That was 1989. In 1991, the Indians would go on to lose 105 games, the most in the franchise’s long history. And while there was no one quite as incendiary as Maury Allen to call them out in the pages of the various Street and Smith’s and Sporting News preview guides at the time, they were pretty clearly thought of as the worst team in baseball. The clear rebuilding plan, smart front office, and allure of a new stadium probably helped keep the dogs at bay at the time, but that certainly didn’t matter when Paramount Pictures showed the club signing penal league standouts and Voodoo worshippers.
But the Indians stuck to their rebuilding plan and, by the time of the ’94 players’ strike, had emerged as a quality team. They even made it to the World Series twice in three years, losing to the Braves and Marlins. Like Atlanta, the transformation from “worst team in baseball” to best happened pretty quickly once the ball got rolling.
So what does that mean for today’s cellar-dwellers? Is this good news for the Nationals (or Pirates or Royals…)? Not in and of itself. There are many, many examples like the Braves and Indians of terrible teams turning it around (the current Rays are just the latest), but the common theme among them all is a smart front office finally making the right decisions. Maybe it only takes a few good moves (trading for Smoltz, drafting Manny and Thome, drafting Longoria, etc.), but something has to happen to spur a change. Until it does, the franchise is stuck in the limbo of the late-80s Braves or Indians.
Once those moves are made, though, things can turn around quickly. And that’s where the hope lies. Is Washington’s signing of Stephen Strasburg the move Nats’ fans have been waiting for? Did getting rid of Jim Bowden start the ball rolling? We won’t know for a few more years but, if it did, then all the jokes we’ve been hearing about the Nationals these last few years will sound as odd to everyone 10 or 15 years from now as the Star Trek and Major League jokes sound to us today. Nats’ fans (or Pirates’ fans or Royals’ fans) can only hope for as much…