I was fortunate enough to begin my Braves’ fandom under some of the best circumstances imaginable. The first baseball game I have a true recollection of watching was Jack Morris taking on a very young John Smoltz in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. It would turn out to be an iconic pitchers’ duel that would later become considered to be one of the best Game 7s in baseball history. It was an absolute treat of a game to watch and I was hooked.
While I do have a soft spot for the Twins, I was enamored with the Braves despite the fact that they did not win that game. Over the next few years, I would move south which allowed me experience more Braves immersion and I did all the things kids do when they are into baseball. I played as a kid, I collected baseball cards, I got shirts/hats… basically whatever I could get my hands on. If it was baseball-related and especially if it had anything to do with the Braves (or Ken Griffey Jr… he was my non-Braves guy), I was in. The TV in my room was fixed on TBS. Skip Caray, Don Sutton, and the rest of the broadcast crew were the soundtrack of my childhood.
And then the 1994 baseball strike happened.
I was too young back then to know all the intricacies of the labor environment in baseball that was poisoned by Bud Selig and the players’ union absolute distrust of him or the impact of collective bargaining or what a salary cap REALLY meant to all parties involved. I was a baseball fan. I was mostly a BRAVES fan... and I didn’t get to watch baseball anymore. The Braves were a team that was competing for World Series titles every year back then and were getting better and better and instead, I got no Braves games nor did I get updates on Matt Williams’ historic home run tear that year or how the Expos were going to end the Braves’ division reign or about Tony Gwynn, Frank Thomas, Juan Gonzalez… there was just nothing beyond “when will the strike end?”
I felt cheated. I just wanted to watch baseball and I wanted to see the Braves do well and it took a long time (in kid time at the very least) to see that happen again.
Obviously the situation today with the punishment handed down from Major League Baseball is very different from the 1994 strike, but the feeling is strangely similar. While the rebuild has certainly been painful in a lot of respects, there was/is a genuine feeling that good things are coming for the Braves. Getting to potentially see guys like Mike Soroka, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Ender Inciarte, and Ronald Acuna on the field at the same time is more than enough to get the blood pumping. The Braves have a new ballpark that is a great fan experience and should, in theory, give the team plenty of additional revenue that will allow the Braves to compete for the best players so that they can be competitive on multiple fronts for years to come. If organizational momentum is actually a thing, the Braves had a lot of it and it was exciting.
Instead, in early October, the rug was at least partially pulled out from that feeling as not only was the architect of a big chunk of that rebuild, John Coppolella, shoved out of town... it was largely due to the fact that Major League Baseball was investigating the team for rules violations that could cost the team international signing periods, draft picks, money due to fines, and even some of the very prospects that were fueling this excitement. It was a gut punch to be sure... but the way for the second swing was arguably worse because we all knew it was coming, we just didn’t know when or how hard it was coming in.
Well now we know... and it is brutal. The Braves lost 13 players including guys that we all thought would be a part of our minor league recaps and the Braves rebuild for years to come. Kevin Maitan was a potential generational talent and other players like Yunior Severino, Livan Soto, Yefri del Rosario, and Juan Contreras all impressed us when we saw them in rookie ball. They, along with others, are now gone. In addition, the Braves lose a third round pick and will basically not be able to sign any of the top international free agents until 2022. It isn’t a death blow to the franchise (there is too much young talent for that), but it will make the upcoming years a whole lot harder especially in regards making the minor leagues a sustainable flow of talent.
I feel cheated again and I think many of us here feel the same way. We invested time, money, and effort into learning about these guys, scouting them, and so on and so on. More importantly, there is an emotional investment that will now likely yield no returns. We are not alone in feeling that...Braves fans everywhere were the real recipients of Rob Manfred’s hammer. Many have invested themselves in the team’s prospects and their future. For them, this is like being hit with a brick that they knew was coming for two months. What is arguably worse now is that these penalties feel spiteful....as if the league is making an example of the Braves despite the fact that it is generally agreed that they are hardly the only transgressors.
Today is a dark day for the Braves organization. Some will call this the end of the rebuild while others will use terms like “Black Tuesday” to artfully describe the situation at hand. For many of us, it is very similar to that feeling I felt all those years ago… we feel cheated out of all of the best, most optimistic aspects of the game and the Braves’ trajectory. Some will worry that these punishments will cripple the Braves for years to come (there is some valid concern here) while others will wonder what might have been when any of the players the Braves lost today perform well for other organizations. During a time that was supposed to filled primarily with excitement and even optimism, we are now left feeling unease and anxiety about the state of the Braves EVEN IF we still love the players still on the Braves’ roster and in their farm system.
All of that said, a note of encouragement for those of you that feel the same way: this feeling does eventually go away. There are still reasons to believe wins are on the way for the Braves. Alex Anthopoulos seems like a great hire. There are still a lot of great prospects in the minor leagues. We still get to see Freddie Freeman and Ender Inciarte play baseball. Right after the strike, I thought that I would never like baseball as much as I did... that is until the Braves won the whole damn thing the year baseball resumed. Over 20 years later, Braves baseball remains one of my greater joys even though I remember the pain all too well.
Will things be the same this go around? I cannot say so for certain, but I still think the smart money is betting on the fact that the Braves will be competitive soon despite the sanctions levied by Major League Baseball and winning, in my experience anyways, is the easiest way to get past the worst things that sports can offer. Only time will tell if that proves out, but for now let us ease the pain knowing that so much has gone wrong today. I wish I had something more comforting to say to all of you Braves fans that are sad and angry today, I truly do. What the Braves are going through right now is not fair to you or to me... but it is the reality we have been dealt. All I know is that this feeling is familiar and, with some good fortune, it did eventually go away.