WOW’s Book of the Month Club: Tomahawked (1/3)

WOW’s Book of the Month Club: Tomahawked (1/3)

This is a new series I’ve been kicking around where I read and review a book related to the franchise. If you guys want to follow along and provide your observations, that would be awesome. I’m thinking of one book a month and splitting it up into four or so parts, which will fall each Sunday. Since we missed a Sunday this month, I picked a bit of a quick read for a three-part review. Our book for March will be “Built to Win” by John Schuerholz and I’ll likely go with “Ballplayer” by Chipper Jones for April.

Tomahawked: The Inside Story of the Atlanta Braves’ Tumultuous Season by Bill Zack
Part 1 of 3

There have been many retrospective books that looked at the beginning of The Streak. If this series runs long enough, we’ll likely cover some of them. What makes “Tomahawked” different is that covered the era as it was beginning. As the 1992 season neared, Morris News Service beat writer Bill Zack sought to capture the follow-up season to the magical worst-to-first campaign. He nearly gave up the project as the Braves started slow in 1992, but stuck around long enough to write what quite possibly is the only book Zack ever wrote.

Zack began to follow the Braves for the Morris News Service in 1987. The service operates several papers in the midwest and southeast, including four papers in Georgia alone. As a beat writer, Zack’s job was to give as much of an inside look as possible into the Braves. While there are reports that Zack may have upset some players, at least one player counted Zack as a friend that he could trust – Chipper Jones. It was Zack who was chosen to break the story about Chipper’s infidelity, according to Chipper’s autobiography “Ballplayer.”

But before Chipper, Zack was one of the beat writers who saw a laughingstock turn into a near-World Champion in 1991. Zack’s book starts there, by the way, focusing on something that is almost unheard of in today’s world. After losing to the Twins in heart-breaking fashion, the Braves returned to Atlanta and received a hero’s welcome. Second basemen Mark Lemke was left wondering “what the celebration would have been like if the team had won the World Series.”

Just three days after losing the Series, the Braves had their own parade down Peachtree Street. Again, imagine that for a second. You just lost the World Series. In baseball, there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever play in another. And despite your sadness, you are being celebrated for what you did accomplish. Barricades kept the fans – an estimated 750,000 of them – at bay as the players passed and waved while being driven down Peachtree in convertibles. Zack tells stories of how a pitifully-prepared police force struggled with the crowds, which often swarmed the cars seeking autographs and handshakes. A fan even climbed into Mike Stanton‘s car before being removed. Tommy Gregg quipped, after losing a button on his jacket, that “they were climbing over me to get to Brian Hunter. That made me feel real good.”

It’s an amazing scene and I’m glad Zack starts here. It shows what 1991 meant for the Braves and the city of Atlanta. The team wasn’t just a team, but a movement. For a city that often felt like the butt of a national joke, Atlanta felt on top of the world. It wasn’t just watching one of their sports teams surprise the world, but also the fact that the Braves made so many media types eat their words after predicting yet another season of losing.

After the glamor of the celebration, Zack abruptly moves to March. He’ll flashback to the winter here-and-there, but he wants to move the story to the 1992 season. Zack makes note of the changing narrative. The Braves were no longer going to surprise anyone. He also points out how the Braves went from a baseball laughingstock to a contender. He touches on the Ted Turner circus – including “Headlock and Wedlock Night.” This experiment, which amazingly didn’t catch on, included 50 couples being married with pro wrestling also on the agenda for the evening. Someone should seriously see if any of those couples are still together.

Turner may be a showman, but he also wanted to win. Moving back into a more traditional ownership role, he handed the baseball team over to Stan Kasten and general manager Bobby Cox. Build a winner, he asked. And they delivered.

Cox was gifted Tom Glavine, David Justice, Jeff Blauser, Ron Gant, and Lemke before he returned to the Braves. He added Steve Avery, Kent Mercker, Mark Wohlers, and Stanton to the mix through the draft. He also traded for John Smoltz. As Braves fans of today’s club painfully understand, it takes time for all of the young talents to come together. More losing seasons followed. Perhaps the franchise would have turned the corner quicker if moves hadn’t failed like Steve Bedrosian and Nick Esasky, or had the team traded Dale Murphy before his skills had completely eroded. But alas, that wasn’t to be.

In 1990, Cox moved back to the dugout and John Schuerholz was hired away from the Royals by Kasten. Schuerholz promised to make the Braves the “Royals of the South.” That’s ironic because when the Royals hired Dayton Moore away, he was tasked with making the Royals the “Braves of the Midwest.” Schuerholz’s moves worked out perfectly but giving Terry Pendleton $10 million and Sid Bream $5.6 million seems like quite a bit of cash for that time and their level of play before Atlanta. All told, Schuerholz would invest $25 million of Turner’s money into free agents in his first winter with the Braves.

Like I said, it worked out perfectly. After the 1991 season, the Schuerholz continued to spend Turner’s cash through arbitration raises to Glavine, Gant, and Alejandro Pena. He also brought back Otis Nixon with a $2 million raise. The payroll nearly doubled from 1991 to 1992.

Not all players felt taken care of. Justice was offered a measly $300K raise and Avery was offered just $300K total. The two players handled it quite differently, though. Never one to avoid a microphone, Justice complained about his salary and felt he deserved to be the highest paid player on the team because “none of the others carry the responsibility like I do.” Avery, on the other hand, was shy and far more reserved. He had supplemented his income with television appearances on home shopping network shows over the winter.

Justice would continue to try to force the Braves to up their offer – even after Cox pushed Pendleton to have a sit-down with the young player. Ultimately, Justice signed for $550,000 – a significant raise over his $100K salary the previous year. Avery received $355,000. Both players wondered why the team hadn’t simply given them more money before the distractions had set in. Zack doesn’t really mention that the team could have auto-renewed their contracts for the minimum with no raise.

By no means was Justice finished. He attacked the media and racism in baseball, using a racial slur to describe him and his other black teammates. “When you’re on the field, they love you. I can’t tell you how many times people have looked at me when I’m off the field and because I wear a nice watch and wear good clothes, they think I’m a drug dealer.” Justice’s time in Atlanta would be filled with many highs – most notably his home run in Game 6 of the 1995 World Series. It would also be full of anger. And, most definitely, controversy.

Zack also touches on the big moment of the 1992 spring: how close the Braves would get to acquiring Barry Bonds. Schuerholz was all-in, though he had two potential issues – the price Bonds would cost in players and the price Bonds would cost in a multiple-year contract. Pittsburgh couldn’t afford a $25-$30 million commitment. The Pirates also didn’t have Ted Turner. Ted Simmons, who now works for the Braves and was the Pirates GM for just three months when the negotiations started, settled on an offer he felt was sufficient enough for Bonds. The Pirates would get Pena and the promising young outfielder Keith Mitchell as the centerpieces of a deal.

Meanwhile, Schuerholz was also setting up a trade with the Angels. The Braves had brought back Otis Nixon, who had felt great shame the previous year after being suspended for drugs in September. He entered rehab and later signed a contract to return to the Braves. As news came out that the Braves were considering trading Nixon, he openly wondered why Schuerholz would sign him only to later want to trade him.

But that question was easy to answer. It’s Barry Friggin’ Bonds. Sure, he’s public enemy #1 now and he was never all that likable, but in 1992, he was the game’s best player and he was available for a pretty light investment for that season. Sure, signing him long-term may have kept the Braves from signing Greg Maddux the next winter. Either way, Bonds’ potential teammates weren’t excited. Zack quoted an unnamed player who was looking at Justice across the room – “Can you imagine having the two biggest assholes in baseball on the same team?”

Ultimately, Jim Leyland nixed the whole thing.

Zack covers Jeff Treadway next. He, too, was involved in a number of trade rumors. Mark Lemke had taken over at second base and was nearly the World Series MVP. Treadway was the better bat, but Lemke was much better defensively. The Braves had also signed Steve Lyons for added depth. Plus, the Braves were getting a little weary of Treadway. They wanted to trade him but couldn’t find an attractive offer because of his limited range. Further, Treadway was ailing and the team thought it was a little convenient that his hand injury, which he had rested over the winter, suddenly was hurting just as trade rumors were circulating. He would have surgery finally on the hand after refusing to do it over the winter and would miss the first half of 1992.

At the same time that the Braves lost Treadway, they also were hoping to lose Lyons. The Braves thought they were getting a good utility player. What Bobby Cox thought was that the Braves had an outfielder who couldn’t play the infield. That made the signing of Lyons even more questionable since the Braves were pretty full in the outfield even without Bonds. They had Gant, Justice, and Nixon – plus Deion Sanders and Lonnie Smith. Lyons would make the opening day roster but would be cut in April. Schuerholz defended the signing, but it just didn’t work out.

Zack also touches on Jeff Blauser, who saw his role increase due to Treadway and Lyons disappearing from the picture. At the time, the Braves felt very confident with Rafael Belliard at shortstop, which left Blauser playing behind Lemke and Belliard. Blauser hated the role and also had been used in trade rumors, including a move years before where the Yankees considered trading Roberto Kelly for Blauser but ultimately passed.

The March chapter of the book continues like this with story-after-story of discontent with contracts or team roles or trade rumors. It’s a great look back at where the Braves were when 1992 began. Yes, they were coming off a “us-against-them” mentality that bonded the team together in pursuit of something most people felt was impossible – a world title. The next spring, they were the “them” in question. They were the NL Champs. They were no longer hunting, but the hunted.

When spring training ended, Zack looked at some of the cuts and some of the surprises, including Jerry Willard and Lonnie Smith. For Smith, it was a surprise simply because of how the previous season ended. It was his baserunning mistake that took away what should have been a run – one that could have handed the Braves the title had they kept the Twins scoreless for nine innings like they did when it was tied at zero. Smith, who was faked out by Chuck Knoblauch at second on a Pendleton drive, considered retirement. Unlike many Braves, Smith had already had a fine career. Three times, he had played on World Series-winning teams. He was a lifetime .291 hitter. Not a Hall of Famer, but a good player. However, walking away from $1.75 million was a bit too much.

Zack moves onto the regular season with a bunch of random tidbits. Did you know Pat Corrales was Johnny Bench‘s backup? There was also the worries. Justice’s lower back was bothering him and Nixon would miss the first couple of weeks completing his suspension. With Pendleton and Gant notorious slow starters, Cox benched Lemke to try to get Blauser’s offense in the lineup. For Lemke, it was a slap in the face. He had never been in an opening day lineup. That would change in 1993, but that was of little solace to Lemke.

Deion Sanders | By Jim Accordino [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
We get a big look at Deion Sanders. Nixon’s suspension and then Justice’s ailing back allowed Sanders the opportunity to play regularly – really for the first time. We all remember the flashy Neon Deion high-stepping into the end zone as first a Falcon, but with the Braves, Sanders toned down a lot of his cocky demeanor. He badly wanted to fit in and was actually well-liked in the Braves’ dugout – even as he left them for his primary job each fall.

Sanders worked extremely hard to become a better ballplayer. Yeah, Deion was brash. Certainly, the guy had a massive ego. But he also worked his butt off to learn to take unreal gifts and turn them into baseball skills. He learned to hit on the fly in a way that seems almost impossible to replicate – no matter how much Tim Tebow tries. He also became an expert bunter. Defensively, his reads were never excellent, but the same speed that made him a Hall of Fame cornerback helped Sanders erase many mistakes. The message in the book is clear – if Deion Sanders wanted to, he could have become an All-Star-caliber ballplayer. But…he would never give up the sport he was an all-time great at.

Zack sprinkles in these profiles of players with the early season results and they aren’t pretty. After opening the year with a pair of wins at the Astrodome, Atlanta would win just four of their next 15 games. That included a 4-2 loss to the Astros to open a nine-game homestand that more than doubled the number of home games they had during their first 16 games. The team was getting reinforcements, though, in the form of Nixon and Justice. With Sanders mixing in regularly and Gant playing left field, that left very little time for Lonnie Smith.

We go back to a story about Smith. Back in 1986, as collusion spread across baseball, Lonnie Smith hit free agency after his .287/.357/.411 Age-30 season. In seven full seasons in the majors, Smith had hit .292 for the Phillies, Cardinals, and Royals. The latter connected him with John Schuerholz and he won a World Series ring with the Royals in 1985, hitting .333 in 30 PA in their seven-game classic with the Cards. He turned 31 in December of 1986. He also was surprised, as many other ballplayers were, to receive no offers. Well, that’s not true. The Royals offered him a contract to return. A minor league contract.

Smith struggled in his brief time with the Royals the following season, steaming from the disrespect he felt from Schuerholz, the Royals, and baseball. Things were so bad the after 1987 that the only team willing to offer him a deal was the worst team in baseball – Atlanta. A year later, he rebounded to become the 1989 Comeback Player of the Year. It was also a shiny middle finger to Schuerholz, who Smith called “The Little General.” Smith was the only player sad to see Schuerholz join the Braves after the 1990 season. While Cox loved having Smith around, Smith hated being entrenched on the bench and wanted out. Neither Cox nor Schuerholz was willing to do that for Smith.

The May chapter begins with a somber note – the LA Riots after the Rodney King verdict. Three Braves – Pendleton, Hunter, and Smith – all grew up in the LA area and were concerned about family and friends. A story involving Pendleton avoiding the first gunfire of the Watts Riots when he was 5 is also relayed. Zack compares Pendleton and Bream, who were both brought in to stabilize a pair of positions that had been a revolving door for years. Bream loved to make speeches, Hunter pointed out. Pendleton was an on-the-field leader who was more apt to take a player to the side and try to reason with him rather than rally the troops in the clubhouse.

Back to the riots, the Braves’ scheduling was impacted as a series in LA was canceled while games up north in San Francisco were rescheduled. Even in Atlanta, there was some violence. The most notable event at home was a bomb threat at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Stan Kasten didn’t even inform the team’s player representative, Glavine, of the threat as it was investigated. In the end, no games in Atlanta were impacted by the riots despite downtown violence and an 11 PM curfew.

Zack provides a comical story I probably knew, but don’t recall. Back in the mid-1970’s, Leo Mazzone was in the midst of a ten-year career in the minors. He also tested his skills down in the Mexican League, where he was asked to pretend to actually be Mexican under the alias Leonardo David Massoni. Why, you might ask? Because Mexican teams were only allowed a certain amount of American players and they wanted to add another. Mazzone questioned if this was okay, but they told him that they did it all the time. That may have been true, but he was caught and banished from the league.

John Smoltz is also covered. He famously went to a sports psychologist in 1991 and finished the season very strong. Renowned for stuff that his more accomplished teammate, Glavine, did not have, Smoltz was also a bit of a headcase. Like many Braves in 1992, Smoltz had an uneven start to open the season. Things hit a new low on the 9th. After setting the first nine Cardinals down and being handed a 9-0 lead, Smoltz began to come apart. He’d pitch into the seventh as Cox tried to avoid counting on his suspect bullpen, but he was charged with seven runs, six earned, in the process. Juan Berenguer and Marvin Freeman would blow the lead completely from there and despite having a 9-0 lead, the Braves lost 12-11.

Smoltz continued to struggle over his next couple of starts, including giving up another half-dozen runs to the Cardinals. The Braves entered May 24, a getaway game in Montreal, with a 19-25 record. They had lost the first two games of the series and the beleaguered Braves’ bullpen needed a day off. Smoltz promised Mazzone he would deliver a nine-inning game. Greg Olson gave Smoltz a 2-0 lead in the first with a base hit that scored Pendleton and Justice. Smoltz went to work.

He struck out one batter in the first, three in the second, K’d the side in the third, and in the fourth, he added two more strikeouts of Moises Alou and Larry Walker. Smoltz picked up his tenth strikeout in the fifth, though he allowed a run. He failed to get one strikeout in the sixth so he opened the seventh with strikeouts of Tim Wallach and Gary Carter. In the 8th, he got Delino DeShields and Alou both swinging. Finally, in the ninth, he struck out Carter again on a 1-2 pitch to end the 2-1 complete game. All told, he struck out 15 Expos. It would set an Atlanta-era record. Only Warren Spahn had struck out more batters in a game in franchise history, but that happened in Boston. Smoltz would again reach 15 K’s 13 years later, matching his record that still stands as an Atlanta-era mark.

The Braves dropped their next two games but won three straight by at least four runs to close the month. Yet, they were four games under .500 and five games behind the Giants. Players were questioning Bobby Cox’s lineup usage as Justice, who couldn’t buy a hit over the first couple of months, was playing over Sanders or Nixon, two of the hottest bats in the lineup. Nixon openly wondering if the team was even trying to win and if he should be traded to a team that would play him every day. The bullpen was a dumpster fire. Alejandro Pena couldn’t find his fastball, Mike Stanton had no out pitch, and Marvin Freeman’s shoulder was hurting him. Things were so bad, Berenguer was handed the closer job. He wouldn’t hold it long. Atlanta briefly used Mark Wohlers in the role and Wohlers was starting to find it.

Even the team trainers were upset as three players hired a physical therapist. It’s kind of amazing to read all of this while knowing that the season would end with another division title. The name Francisco Cabrera became a thing for Braves’ fans. Oh, and a second consecutive trip to the World Series finished the season.

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A few things that stood out – this was very long. I’ll try to be much more concise and provide fewer observations moving forward. Also, my goal, later on, is to actually have sort of a book club where, if you want, you can read along. Who knows if that will happen, but worth a shot.

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